|This translate as Homeland or Death but had a more popular meaning of “We Shall Overcome”
Today, official communism remains in only five of the 46 original countries – China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and Cuba. Communism still dominates Cuba but capitalism is gradually cracking open the door to greater economic and political freedom and Cubans are responding.
|Billboard supporting the Cuban Revolution
Billboards preached Fidel Castro’s political teachings. “Patria o Muerte” translates as “Homeland or Death” but means “We shall Overcome”, a leftover phrase from the revolution in 1959. “Gracias Che’ Por Tu Ejemplo” or “Thank you Che’ (Gueverra) for your Example”. Or even a dig at the embargo placed by the United States to prevent most commercial activities between the two countries – “El Bloqueo- El Genocide Mas Grande “ – “The Blockade – The Biggest Genocide.” Most of the other vestiges of communism were more subtle and required conversations with Cubans.
|A Cuban Food Booklet – all Cubans are entitled to this
Much is provided to Cubans by the government but with a catch. All have free medical care but few prescription and non-prescription drugs are available. We were asked to bring anti-acids for an employee at the Episcopal cathedral since no pharmacy has these. All receive monthly food coupons but shelves are often empty. Powdered milk is reserved for babies and mothers, making café con leche a luxury for many Cubans. Yet, we didn’t see the grinding poverty that burdens so many Latin American countries. Several Cubans confirmed it doesn’t exist there but neither does the very wealthy class.
|An owner offers both a restaurant and a bed and breakfast
Signs of capitalism creeping in were everywhere. Fidel’s brother, President Raul Castro, has allowed individuals to open up their homes as a bed and breakfast (casa particular) or as a small restaurant (paladare). The latter were originally just Ma and Pa places with a limit of six tables allowed. Today, options have expanded and restaurants were varied and everywhere. In Old Havana, we walked down an alleyway and into a very small paladar with daily specials. We watched through a window as the family freshly cooked each order on a four burner stove. In contrast, across the street from our hotel, a luxurious paladar filled a penthouse apartment. During a stormy evening, we dined on white table cloth enjoying a view of the Vedado section of Havana.
Cubans are now allowed to work two jobs. The first may only pay $20 to $50 per month. The dream second job is in the tourist industry where tips greatly enhance a family’s standard of living. One of our tour guides was a photographer by day and a guide on his days off. A taxi driver supplemented his meager retirement income with fares. At our hotel, there were so many doormen, we could hardly keep track of their names. This allows full employment but most of them were also working elsewhere.
After Russia pulled out its heavy subsidy of the Cuban government in 1995, Cuba had to reach out to foreign investments. Because of the embargo, the United States could not participate. But companies from 60 other countries invested in Cuba even though the Cuban government had to own 50% of the Joint Venture. Their headquarters fill the lovely Miramar section of Havana. Cuba also exports an interesting array of goods and services – minerals, natural medical drugs, cigars, rum, coffee, fish and professionals such as physicians. Eleven thousand Cuban physicians work in Brazil and send money home.
|A bakery paladar with an English name
Cubans are not dower as many people are in communist countries. They laugh easily and often tell jokes about their government but always in a conspiratorial whisper. Why did the Pope come to Cuba? Answer: To see the devil (code for Fidel Castro), to see hell on earth and to see how Cubans live on miracles. The government still has neighborhood watch groups whose job is to report on neighbors. After a driver told us the Pope joke, he looked hard at me and asked “You’re not a communist, are you?” And then we laughed together at the idea that I could report on him.
|Cuban flag is everywhere
A good question was asked by a European to a tour guide. “Are you better off with communism than you would have been under America’s influence?” I thought the guide had a diplomatic answer. She said, “It depends,” explaining that her grandmother had been a talented artist from a very poor family. They could not afford for her to go to college. Yet, under communism, her granddaughter got a free university degree and is now a tour guide, making her very proud and grateful. Our guide went on to say that if you had a business that was nationalized when Castro took over power, you would not think so highly of communism. In fact, you probably fled to America.
Today, it’s not a question of whether Cuba will become more open and capitalistic but when. The government is trying to balance the benefits it has provided all these years with the need for more commercial activity. It’s an experiment worth watching.