“Cooperatives from a Socialist Perspective” the title of the book read. It had been a long time since I had seen anything being discussed from a ‘socialist perspective‘. I was peeking over the waist-low railing separating our balcony from that of our neighbours in Hotel La Ermita in Viñales.
The ‘Rooie Rat’ Bookshop was (and is) located on the Oude Gracht in Utrecht and I occasionally walked in and leafed through the books, where the same subject matter I was studying at the Institute for Social Psychology (ISP) for my specialisation in Organisational Theory and Behaviour, would be discussed from a Marxist-Leninist or Anarchist point of view (this is 1972 the Cold War is in full swing). At the ISP, we would occupy ourselves with Systems and Game Theory and experiments on how people act in organisational settings, not so much with class struggle and overcoming capitalist society. ‘You have sold out to the capitalists’ was the accusation of an old student buddy of mine who as many students then wore a Che t-shirt and went on to study the labour union movement.
Olive and I had made our way from Havana over the No-Traffic-Sunday-empty Nacional 4 motorway to the western part of Cuba and arrived a few hours earlier in the village, made a tour through the valley, before we settled on our part of the balcony for an afternoon drink.
Judith and Larry, we later learn, arrived a bit later. Mid-fifties, from New Brunswick, Canada, they had been attending a seminar in Havana, to which they had been invited to present papers on how to improve the productivity of Cuban businesses. In no time, we were in an engaging debate over the low railing.
‘I love Chavez’, Judith declares soon enough, but even her love for the man, or rather his ideology, has not prevented her from being abhorred by the social conditions she has encountered in Venezuela on a recent trip. She seems to be the more ideologically driven of the two (admittedly her being a trade union official and wearing a ‘Capitalism isn’t Working for Workers’ t-shirt did help). Both lecture in Industrial Relations, Judith on ‘smokestack’ industries and Larry on cooperatives. While he is the more moderate one, both are very firmly on the "Che'-end of the political spectrum.
I have little to comment on how things are in Venezuela, my only experience of the place being a ten-hour stopover at Caracas International en route to Cuba, but after three days in Havana, there is plenty to discuss about the state of Cuba. “How do you guys explain the complete dereliction and dilapidation of Havana?”. It was a question that had been increasingly on my mind as Olive and I explored Havana. Just a few buildings in the city centre, on the Plaza Vieja and around, are restored and testify to the potential beauty of the Spanish Colonial heritage, but for the rest Havana is just gutted buildings, broken pavements and utterly grimy and dilapidated tenements.
‘They are investing in the countryside’, ’paint and building materials are very expensive’, are some of the explanations Judith and Larry try, but obviously that does not come anywhere close to explaining the state of the city and the country. We do not go into it too deeply, but even to the casual observer it is clear that the same failings that plagued the USSR and Eastern Europe during the communist years, are plaguing Cuba: low productivity, low quality and a continuous mismatch between supply and demand.
The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of economic support and the collapse of the Cuban economy in the 90s, euphemistically called the ‘Special Period‘. Controls on the economy were relaxed a little bit and some private activities such as restaurants (paladares) and B&Bs (casas particulares) were allowed, but these have since been tightened again, and even though the situation has improved somewhat, living conditions are still worse than before.
‘They are desperate’, Judith and Larry tell us about the communist party officials, when we touch upon the seminar they have attended. ‘They don’t want to go the China route, but they need to do something drastic to improve the situation’.
For my final thesis I conducted a six-month study on worker participation at the Fokker Aircraft production plant (in the 'Lijmafdeling' where an 'autoclaaf' under huge heat and pressure glues together wing sections) at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam (it went bankrupt in 1996). They were experimenting on how to involve the factory workers' ideas more into the production process. ‘Werkoverleg’ it was called and I was there to introduce and evaluate it. Now every time I step into a Fokker aircraft (there are still a few around) I wonder if this is one built when I worked there and if my contribution made a difference.
Even though we have only been on the island a few days, we can certainly agree on that note, but something else has also become clear to us: the Cubans live in a virtual prison. I sum up my findings for Judith and Larry’s benefit: there is no free press (Granma is the only newspaper; cute, but only as a curiosity from the past and, difficult to believe, only books from or about Che and Fidel are on sale), no free television and radio (only state-controlled propaganda), no freely available internet (one hour costs €5, the monthly wage of a doctor being € 12, and many sites are blocked), no freedom of association or elections. How can they hope to enlist support for anything under those conditions? This analysis goes a bit too far for Judith and Larry however, who contend that freedom of the press in Canada is fake, an iron fist in a velvet glove. They cite a case where a critical article in the Globe and Mail was suppressed because it would hurt business interests. They say criticism is allowed in Cuba but only if you do not want to change the system (as with the ‘socialist perspective‘, it has been a while since I heard this kind of apologist‘s talk. But then again maybe I did sell out to the capitalists).
“The grilled fish and a glass of white wine”, Larry is the last to order and orders the same as we all have. Night has fallen and we have moved to the restaurant a little further on the hotel grounds from where earlier, over lunch, Olive and I had a beautiful view over the valley and the characteristic ‘mogotes‘, dome-like karst outcrops, for which Viñales Valley is famous.
“So, Olive what court do you work for?”, Judith asks, when Olive tells her about her job as court language services person. “The Lebanon court in The Hague”. “That is the one for the Hariri murder, isn’t it?”, as just as he did when he mentioned Geert Wilders (the Dutch jingoist shame), Larry demonstrates how news-savvy he is. “It is”, Olive agrees, “and for a number of related killings”. “Have they already arrested the Israelis then?”, Judith interjects. “There are no Israelis indicted, but a number of members of Hezbollah”, I correct Judith, and though I might have been right in the narrow sense, I probably missed Judith’s wider point: the fact that the Israelis have been responsible for many attacks and murders and no court has as yet been set up to try those cases.
“Why do you think there has been so little criticism in Jewish circles about the Israeli intransigence towards the Palestinians over the last few decades?”, I ask, after they tell us they are both Jews and trying to set up a group of critical Jews in Canada. “It is because of the older generation”, Larry explains, “they will accuse you of betrayal of your own people as soon as you speak up“. In the typically close-knit Jewish families that does carry a lot of weight, he counters, after I tell him that in the Dutch case what the older generation think would make little difference. Now that that generation is disappearing, more people are ready to take an open stand, and that is why they hope to get some 800 people or so together.
‘The Israelis are a ‘nightmare to deal with’, ‘always seem to overreach’ and to get them to ‘actually make good on their promises’, was a ‘continuous frustration‘. This is not from me or from an accidentally overheard conversation between Sarkozy and Obama, I tell them, but quotes from Condoleezza Rice’s book ‘No Higher Honour; A Memoir of my Years in Washington’, that I happened to be reading about in the New York Review of Books just before they arrived. But even this harsh judgement from an insider of the Bush White House, probably the most Israeli-friendly administration there has ever been, is not enough to mollify Judith to abandon her refusal to enter the USA in protest for their after 9/11 policies. As with their Cuba-friendly views, that is a bit too strong for me, but on Israel I feel the same; the Israelis are their own worst enemies and have managed to squander the vast political capital they once had.
“Oh, but we are very closely controlled by the government”, Maylin answers when Olive inquires how it is to run a casa particular (most are like B&Bs, but in this case it is closer to a family-run hotel). Maylin, a petite and engaging woman, is the female half of ‘Maylin & Tony’, who own La Gaviotta, the Lizard, a casa particular with a beautiful view over the bay of Cienfuegos. She goes on to describe the frequent checks carried out on the quality of what they provide to their customers (nothing against that, but slightly ironic in the light of the poor service the government itself provides) and the level of taxes they have to pay (CUC 100 to CUC 200 [CUC and CUP see below], per room per month, regardless of the occupancy rate). But Maylin and Tony are doing well, the rooms are cute, dinner and breakfast are excellent and elegantly served by a tuxedo-ed and bow-tied waiter and the free welcome mojitos we enjoy when we take in the view over the bay, show that they understand the hospitality trade.
We had left Viñales a day earlier than planned. I had fallen ill from the fish we had eaten for dinner and when in the morning we also had to shower with bottled water because a broken water main had left the whole of Viñales Valley dry, it seemed wise to cut our losses and go. (Other reports said it was a broken down pump station that would take a few days to repair; whatever it was, I was lucky it did not happen during the night.)
’Do you think we can make it on time’, Olive had asked, a little bit worried because it is close to 800 kilometres to Cienfuegos and almost midday before we hit the road. ‘On those empty roads we can make a good average and if we don‘t stop too long for breaks, I think we can be there in daylight by 6 p.m. or so‘, had been my estimate (OK, OK, I put in the ‘breaks’ thing only because I like to keep moving when we drive).
I had been right about the good average and we didn’t stop at all for breaks, but in the Havana area the Nacional 4 abruptly dumped us in a maze of gutted streets and even our best Spanish, asking directions 4 or 5 times, could not save us from losing over an hour before we finally found our way onto the Nacional 1. So night was falling when we left the Nacional 1 again for the last 60 kilometres to Cienfuegos. It was then that we noted something else (or rather not at all): carts, bicycles, tractors, animals and what have you travel in the pitch black without lights, making it rather hazardous to drive at any speed above 30 or 40 km/h (that would be a nice job for Maylin's government inspectors to get on to next, and while they are at it, perhaps they could also do something about the choking black soot and burned oil that comes belching out of those ancient American cars. Cute and collectible as they may be, they are an acute health hazard when you are stuck behind them.
“Is the 575 on the electrical cooker’s price tag in Moneda Nacional or Convertibles?”, I ask the shop assistant. Here on the main street of Cienfuegos it is busy and it is the first time we have had an opportunity to check out shops with Cuban products. Olive and I are trying to get a handle on what things cost and if it is paid for in Cuban Pesos (CUP, also called Moneda Nacional), the currency in which Cubans are paid by the state, or Pesos Convertibles (CUC), the pesos you and I have to buy for a rate set by the Cuban government.
“Convertibles”, he says. Then it is about €450 and quite expensive considering the poor quality. Ordinary Cubans earn some 260 to 300 CUP per month. That translates roughly into about €8 to €10 a month. While that is enough to buy the very cheap basic necessities, and education, healthcare and housing are virtually free, it is not enough to buy more expensive items which are only available for sale for CUCs.
At first I felt that having this double money system was not such a dumb idea. It permit’s the Cuban state to earn quite a bit of money from foreign tourists who through the high exchange rate pay a much higher price for products and services than ordinary Cubans do. That was when I still thought that I paid the same amount in CUCs that the Cubans would pay in CUPs for. But I had it wrong, there is a rate between the two and I can get CUPs and live as cheaply as the Cubans do. What then remains is that certain products are only available if you pay in CUCs, and now the Cubans are loosing out, because if they want a quality TV or mobile phone (allowed since 2008) they need to get their hands on CUCs. (see some of our experiences in the next entry Cuba 2)
“The accomplishments of socialist Cuba which are an example for so many peoples in the world will always and foremost be linked to your name”, this congratulations letter for Fidel’s 85th birthday was sent on August 13th last by Die Linke, a left wing party in Germany. I came across it in an old copy of Der Spiegel I found in Maylin’s Casa Particular because I had still not been able to find something to read (a very interesting copy by the way with lots of analysis of the financial crisis and its causes; note: should read more Der Spiegels).
The magazine already pointedly observes that, in their adulation, Die Linke conveniently forgets to mention the violation of human rights and the suppression of the opposition. Subjects Die Linke would immediately chastise any other government for, as they would chastise the German government for creating a two-class society and any measures to limit entitlements in order to limit government spending. Rather ironic, to say the least, since a clear example of a two-class society is now developing in Cuba, between the CUCs and the CUPs. (By the way, I finally did manage to buy a second-hand Lee Child book in Trinidad, but sneakily from under the table [Persuader, a kind of action crime novel that you wish you had left under the table as soon as you have finished it].)
“Are you university teachers?”, Olive and I have just finished dinner in the Italian restaurant of the Melia Las Americas beach resort in Varadero, Cuba’s answer to Cancun, when the guy who has been having dinner at the table next to us comes over. “No, we aren’t, why do you ask?” “Well because of what you were discussing“. Apparently we were louder than we should have been. “And I saw you reading the New York Book Review“. (Luckily I had already finished Lee Child).
Actually Olive is reading Simon Schama‘s ‘The Embarrassment of Riches’, about the cultural habits during the Dutch 16th century ‘Golden Age’. The time when the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) was at the root of a period of exceptional economic expansion. The fun part is that so much of what he describes of Dutch customs and peculiarities is still valid today: the forthright if not rude behaviour, eating raw salted herring and fricadelle (now frikandel; a spiced kind of meat in sausage shape), of which I was surprised to learn the custom was that old, and other engaging subjects that we covered over our excellent Italian specialties dinner.
They are Gene and Rachel, again Canadians and Jews (is this a coincidence or are we being monitored; and if so by whom?) and post secondary level teachers and living in Vancouver. Rachel teaches English literature and Gene politics and history, which was why he was so interested in what we were talking about. Over coffees on the veranda, we talk quite a bit about American and Canadian politics, they are a bit more middle of the road than Judith and Larry, and over their travel to Europe, in particular their last trip to Estonia where they explored the Jewish roots of their ancestors. ‘Are you planning to travel over the island or just staying in the resort?’, we probe. This time they are staying in the resort, but they have been here before and then, like we did, travelled Cuba. This time they simply came back to escape the Canadian winter. They know these resorts are considered as ‘tourism apartheid’ by many Cubans, but are at least happy that profits made here will benefit social projects.
Two days later it is John and David, Canadian gay couple that run an upholstery business in Toronto. We are at the dinner in the Japanese restaurant of the resort and there is living proof that 40% of Cuban tourist come from Canada, 10 of the 14 around the cooking/dinner island are Canadians. They also prove interesting guys with some good stories about how their ancestors immigrated, but this entry is already way too long, so I will leave you with just one last thought:
Cuba is probably the only place where they seriously mourned the death of North Korean leader Kim Ill Sung. In Granma, I read that 3,000 prisoners will be released to commemorate his passing. The only thing I am not yet clear about is whether they will be freed from the prisons or from the island?