February 13, 2007

Cuba's Classless Society

The London Telegraph takes a look at the reality behind the rhetoric that surrounds Fidel Castro's Cuba and sees a simmering tension between the haves and the have-nots on the island. Far from being a worker's paradise free from class distinctions, the Cuban currency games have created an underclass that breeds resentment:

In the hushed tones that all Cubans adopt when they talk about their ailing leader Fidel Castro, who six months ago was forced to hand over the reins of power to his younger brother Raul after undergoing emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding, Carlos explained the continuing frustration of a nation still firmly under Communist rule.

"Fidel has starved us," he whispered. "Yes, there is a lack of food but it is more than that. We are starving for information, for opportunity, for freedom. We want to enjoy the same things as those people over there," he said as a fresh batch of tourists spilled out of the doors of a tour bus.

Cubans struggle to survive on an average wage of less than £10 a month to supplement the state rations which provide them with basics such as rice and beans and either one small bar of soap or tube of toothpaste a month.

Visiting foreigners can spend almost double that on a taxi ride to the airport or a meal in one of Old Havana's state-run restaurants.

Fidel is not the only dying principal in Cuba. Those unlucky enough to have no access to the convertible currency that Cuba launched after the end of the Cold War to boost tourism have sunk further into poverty. Workers at tourist traps get paid in the CUC rather than the peso, which gives them exponentially more buying power, creating an inequality that grates on Cuban nerves.

As one dissident told the Telegraph, Cuba has created a system where taxi drivers and bellhops get more compensation than professionals such as doctors and teachers. With pesos next to worthless, engineers have to starve as waiters become relatively wealthy. In such a system, no one has any incentive to work in the professions, and the brain drain threatens Cuba with a professional collapse.

Castro has even indulged in gentrification to build the tourist business. He has displaced families from run-down tenements in order to renovate them into high-priced hotels and restaurants. The poor can no longer afford to even eat where they once lived, instead dependent on their weekly ration of rice and beans.

Who funds this deterioration? Tourists do, and they come from everywhere but the United States, which still enforces a decades-old economic embargo. The US comes in for plenty of criticism for its refusal to engage with the Cubans on trade, and perhaps for good reason -- but this demonstrates that Castro is most responsible for the sad state of the Cuban economy. He has done what he once castigated Fulgencio Batista for doing: prostituting Cubans for the sake of rich touristas that exploit their misery, wittingly or unwittingly.

The Telegraph quotes Cubans as hoping that Raul Castro will bring in some economic reforms. They'd be better off praying that both Castros end their days soon, and that they can create a democratic government that allows Cubans to direct their own destinies. Perhaps they can also pray that tourists find someplace else to spend their money, rather than fueling Castro's ego and filling his pockets.


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