Cuba: the Most Important Country in the World!


Early in my just-ended three-week visit to Cuba, my wife and I were strolling along Havana’s stunning Malecon walkway which stretches for miles along Havana’s northern coast. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday. We couldn’t help noticing how the seafront was more gorgeous than ever.

Both Peggy and I had been to Cuba many times, but it had been seven years since our last visit. In the meantime, buildings along the Malecon had taken on new coats of paint. Greens and whites, reds, golds, oranges, and blues sparkled in the sunlight alongside as yet unpainted decrepit apartment buildings. As ever, clotheslines of bed sheets, shirts, blouses and underwear flapped from balconies in the sea breeze.

Yes, we couldn’t help noticing, things had changed drastically since our last visit. And it wasn’t only the paint and scaffolding outside the buildings under reconstruction.

Tourists were everywhere. Even those “Hop-on, Hop-off” double-deck tour busses which we had seen in Europe passed at regular intervals. Havana’s atmosphere wordlessly conveyed an optimism we had not witnessed since we began visiting Cuba in 1997.

Sharing observations like that, we suddenly heard someone call out to us.

“Hey, where are you from?” The young man addressing us was Cuban, tall, black and smartly dressed in jeans, Nike T-shirt and sneakers. His wife was lighter skinned and similarly dressed. Both were friendly and smiling. Seeing the couple reminded us that Cuba has a largely Afro-descendent population.

“We’re from the United States,” I replied.

“Oh, the U.S.!” The young man smiled broadly. “We love the United States; the U.S. is the greatest country in the world!” His wife shook her head In agreement.

“No,” I contradicted, “Cuba is the greatest country in the world.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, my friend,” the young man said still smiling. “Cuba is the greatest country in Latin America. The United States is the greatest country in the world!”

The encounter spoke volumes about the new Cuba that impressed us so as we walked the Malecon. The exchange offered a snapshot of an economy that is rebounding from a deep depression, of a people who are friendly, proud and patriotic, and of Cuban aspirations to U.S. levels of consumption. That aspiration contains both promise and threat.

But before I get to that, let me tell you more about our visit. . . .

This time we were in Cuba as part of a Berea College summer school course. We called the course “Cuba: Resilience and Renovation.” Ours was a fact-finding study. What has Cuba been? What will it become? Those were our questions. Thirteen students engaged the conversation along with my daughter and her husband, and several friends. It was great fun.

Our course took us from Havana eastward to Varadero, Santa Clara, Matazanas, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba. We filled our days with conferences involving academics and government officials including a representative of the U.S. Interests Section (the U.S. quasi-embassy in Havana).

We found ourselves chatting with people on the street; some of us went into their homes. We met students, social activists, feminists, representatives of the LGBT community, farmers, co-op representatives, merchants, Santeria practitioners, Baptist ministers, medical personnel, hospital patients, children and the elderly in a day-care centers, and members of a Committee in Defense of the Revolution.

On a couple of occasions, I spoke with a fellow OpEdNews contributor – “Guillermo Tell,” a Russian ex-pat who has lived in Havana for 27 years. He reminded me of Cuba’s on-going problems with bureaucracy and of the dangers of “reforms” that could end up selling-out the hard won gains of the Revolution. (More on that later.)

Then there were those casual conversations with Cubans on the street, in night clubs and along the Malecon where Habaneros crowd each evening and especially on weekends for music, dance, love, conversation and arguments about baseball and politics.

We even found our way to a ringside table at the Tropicana nightclub, to a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club, and a children’s theater presentation on the Cuban Five that rivaled anything we’ve seen on Broadway.

Usually however our focus was the Revolution, socialism, and Cuba’s prospects for the future.

And what did we find out? Simply this: Cuba is the most important country in the world. Ernesto Cardenal said that of Nicaragua in the 1980s. And he was right. Nicaragua was then the most prominent center of resistance to U.S. imperialism. Today (and for the past 55 years) Cuba fills that role like none other. Alone in the world, it is demonstrating that Third World Countries can accomplish so much with so little even in the face of pitiless opposition from the most powerful country in the world. Cuba is showing the world a way into a future that accommodates itself to the new globalization – but on its own terms. In doing so, it has already surpassed Latin American darlings of development such as Costa Rica. It has already surpassed the United States in quality of life.

Are you surprised by that? Let me tell you what I mean – and here I address Cuban patriotism and the revolutionary gains evoked by our sidewalk encounter. Those elements are what make Cuba so important even in the face of the seduction by “the greatest country in the world.”

First think about Costa Rica. Peggy and I have lived there on and off for the last 25 years. To begin with, Havana is much more beautiful than Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. Havana’s seafront, colonial structures, its comparative cleanliness and hospitality far exceed what we’ve found in San Jose which is dirty and bleak by comparison. The latter has nothing like Havana Vieja – the old city whose restorations, museums and newly proliferated restaurants have created a tourist center that rivals anything we have seen in Europe.

Cuba’s Varadero seacoast is cleaner, more orderly, more extensive and luxurious than Costa Rica’s famed Manuel Antonio or Guanacaste’s Flamingo Beach resorts. Cuba’s highways are better than Costa Rica’s pot-holed thruways.

Yet, on the basis of independent surveys and assessments, Costa Rica bills itself as the “happiest country in the world.” I suspect Cubans are happier still.

And that brings me to the reasons why and to my claim about the U.S. and comparative qualities of life. Am I really saying that Cuba has surpassed not only Costa Rica but the U.S. in those terms? Yes – despite the impressions of that young man accosting us on the street.

Or let me put it this way: what do we value most in life? Few, I think, would respond: money, competition, meaningless work with increasing hours with fast-diminishing rewards. Few would list fast food, shopping malls, movies, luxury cars and vast homes at the head of our must-have lists.

Even abstractions like U.S. “freedom” (in our system that imprisons and executes more than any other country in the industrialized world), “democracy” (where voter-suppression is the order of the day), “free speech” (where the mainstream media ignores issues important to the poor and middle class), and “rule of law” (where universal surveillance, torture, police-impunity and extrajudicial killings are common) have become increasingly meaningless.

Instead most of us would say: “What I care most about are my children and grandchildren. I care about my health and that of my family. I care about the well-being of the planet we’ll leave to our descendants. Education is important. And I want safety in the streets. I’d even like to have some years of retirement toward the end of my life.”

In all of those terms – addressing what most humans truly care about – Cuba far outstrips the United States. Consider the following:

 * Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.
 * Health care and medicine are free.
 * Cuban agriculture is largely organic.
 * 80% of Cubans are home-owners.
 * Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba – at all levels. Please see my last blog entry.)
 * Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
 * Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
 * Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
 * Streets are generally safe in Cuba
 * Gun violence is non-existent.

But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.

There’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.

And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20 monthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as

 * Health insurance
 * Medicines
 * Home mortgages or rent
 * Electricity and water
 * School supplies and uniforms
 * College tuition and debt
 * Credit card interest
 * Insurances: home, auto, life
 * Taxes: federal, state, sales
 * Unsubsidized food costs

The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics – far above, I would say, most Third World countries.

None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.

To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba seems to be embracing:

 * A reduction of the government bureaucracy that my friend Guillermo Tell so despises.
 * Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
 * Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy.
 * Connecting wages with productivity.
 * Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
 * Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
 * Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
 * Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation – itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
 * Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax” a la Thomas Picketty (whom, I’ve been assured, the Economic Planning Body is studying).
 * Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.

Those are the general directions. Actual decisions will be “transcendent” more than one person at the heart of the process told me. They will be made according to a world vision that is “entirely new.”

Breathlessly, we await the results. They will determine whether Cuba continues to be the change which our deepest concerns indicate most would like to see in the world.

What I’m saying is that Cuba’s resistance to imperialism, its willingness to address real problems (like climate change and income inequalities) rather than ignore or deny them – all of these are what make Cuba “most important.”

They are the reason Cuba might well be poised to become “the greatest country in the world.”

Off to Cuba: Won’t Be Blogging till End of May


All of us are stoked. Peggy and I and 14 Berea College students are leaving for three weeks in Cuba beginning on Monday (May 5th). We’ll return on the 25th. So I probably won’t be writing here till then.

Last Wednesday night, Thursday evening, as well as Friday morning and afternoon, Dr. Cliff Durand — the co-founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — helped us all understand what we’re getting into. Cliff has been leading delegations to Cuba for the last 25 years. He’s an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Havana.

Here are some of the salient ideas he shared:

1. One cannot understand Cuba’s revolution without understanding neo-colonialism. Neo-colonialism refers to the dynamics of control whereby “former” colonies continue to be governed by their colonial masters even after “independence.” The control remains because the now-liberated colony continues its economic relationships with its “mother country.” Of necessity, these relationships foster a dependency similar to that which characterized the original colonial relationship.

2. In other words, former colonies find it impossible to break free from domination by their colonial masters unless they also break free from the capitalist system which of necessity has local governors placing the interests of their international partners ahead of their own citizens. Put otherwise, there is an indissoluble link between revolution, independence, and capitalism’s alternative, socialism.

3. Cuba is the first country in the world to engage in a revolution as a neo-colonial state. Although after 1902 it had freed itself from the domination of Spain, it did so only to become an economic appendage of the United States. Dependency and control by the United States was the form neo-colonialism took in Cuba.

4. The Cuban Revolution of 1959, led by a trained lawyer (Fidel Castro) and a medical doctor (Che Guevara) opened the way to a new experiment in human dignity and social justice. The experiment’s adoption of socialism promised to free Cuba from the dependency international capitalism uniformly imposed on former colonies.

5. Cuba has proven resilient in the face of a 50 year economic embargo imposed by its former neo-colonial “mother country”–the United States. The economic support of the former Soviet Union made it possible for Cubans to enjoy a “middle class” way of life that made Cuba the envy of the Third World.

6. Though characterized in the U.S. as “subsidies,” the Soviet contributions to the Cuban economy were seen in Cuba as “fair trade.” Economic relationships indexed the prices of Cuban raw materials (sugar, tobacco, nickel . . .) to those of the finished products (tractors, refrigerators, spare parts . . .). In fact, this represented an implementation of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) petitioned in 1973 by the entire former colonial world in reparation for the exploitation experienced under colonialism. (Nations of the Global South also demanded transfer of capital and technology — also provided by the USSR to Cuba.)

7. Cuban Democracy: Cuba has a parliamentary system with no political parties, which are seen as divisive. The Communist party is not an electoral organization; it sponsors no candidates. Rather it is the depository of the ideals of the Cuban revolution. In the Cuban form of democracy, elections are held at the municipal, provincial and national levels. At the national level, “Mass Organizations” (five federations of (1) workers, (2) women, (3) small farmers, (4) students, and (5) Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) nominate candidates. (Mass organizations are like 5 political parties sharing commitment to cooperation rather than competition.) All the organizations enjoy equal representation in the Cuban parliament. Forty-seven percent of the delegates there are women. The National Assembly (parliament) elects a Council of State, which then elects a president and vice-president. According to frequent independent polls, well over 80% of the Cuban population supports this system.

8. The Cuban Revolution has passed through five identifiable stages:

o 1960s Revolutionary Fervor: Here the revolutionary government implemented land reform, nationalization of industries and virtually the entire Cuban economy. The U.S. economic embargo (specifically intended to produce hunger, sickness, and social chaos) necessitated alliance with the Soviet Union. During this early period moral incentives worked to unite the people in a common social project. Che and Fidel enjoyed great trust on the part of Cubans.

o 1970s Adoption of Soviet-Style Central Planning: Here Cuba followed the example of the Soviet Union, the only model of socialism available. More specifically, it adopted the agricultural methods of the Green Revolution with its heavy dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The entire agricultural system was organized into state farms. (This was later admitted to have been a major mistake).

o 1985 Rectification: In the face of excessive bureaucracy and inefficiencies, the entire Cuban population participated in a national dialog to suggest remedies. The process was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Overnight Cuba lost 80% of its trading partners. A decade-long period mirroring the experiences of the world’s “Great Depression” (1929-’45) set in for Cuba.

o 1990s “Special Period”: Contrary to the experience following the collapse of socialism throughout Eastern Europe, and despite the extreme hardships of its Great Depression, Cuba did not experience an uprising aimed at regime change. Neither did the government eliminate social programs to deal with the crisis. Instead it strengthened its social safety net and set a goal of “equal distribution of scarcity. “ In the face of extreme impoverishment, the government introduced reforms including:

§ First moving to a dollarization of the Cuban economy and then to the establishment of a convertible currency (CUC)

§ Opening the country to foreign investment

§ Opening itself to trade on the world market


§ Meanwhile ordinary Cubans coped by increasingly living off remittances from relatives the United States.

§ Stealing from government sources and selling the stolen goods on the black market.

§ Engaging in jineterismo (prostitution) – which had been eliminated by the Revolution.


§ U.S. response to the Cuban crisis was its attempt to intensify its catastrophe by aggravating scarcities to induce desperation on the part of ordinary people. The Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts sought to punish U.S. trading partners for any commerce with Cuba. These responses transformed the Trade Embargo of 1961 into a virtual blockade of Cuba.

o 2007- 2022 Renovation of Socialism: In this process of nation-wide and on-going consultation, more than 163,000 meetings involving 9 million participants (in a population of 11 million) have produced millions of proposals which have been reduced to 313 policy guidelines aimed at reduction of state payrolls, increasing opportunities for self-employment, and rooting out corruption.

o The most important reform is the establishment of urban co-operatives in 2012. With this new economic structure, the emphasis in decision making changed from a “top down” model to one of local participation. Co-operatives get their start-up money from Cuban banks, contributions of members, and remittances. The co-ops must:

o Have at least 3 members with each member having one vote

o Be self-governing independent of the state

o Respond to market dynamics

o Do business with state and private entities

In summary, Dr. Durand observed that socialism is not as good as capitalism at producing consumer goods that inflate gross national product statistics. However, socialism is far better at producing social goods shared by all (not primarily by the wealthy). These social benefits include extended life spans, low infant mortality, universal health care, free education from pre-school through the university, and happiness in general (as measured in identical polls taken in Cuba and the United States).

As you can see, Dr. Durand’s presentations were informative, stimulating and challenging. We’re all looking forward to finding out more during our coming three week trip to Cuba.

I’ll report back at the end of May.