Mike in hand, our guide stands at the front of the bus. “This will be my last tour,” she announces. “I’m not the same person I was six years ago. Then I had hope. There was so much work that I didn’t have time to take a break. Now it’s different. My generation, we feel betrayed. Ten years ago, they promised reforms. But nothing changes. ” She and her boyfriend will obtain Mexican visas to go to Cancun under the pretext of vacation. There they will meet a “coyote” who will take them to the US border, where they will apply for asylum and after one year they will be eligible for residency in the US.
I’m with a very postponed national magazine group trip to Havana. Conditions here are indeed bleak compared to my last visit in 2016. Afterwards, President Obama had restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and removed many barriers to visits and trade. (He couldn’t lift the U.S. embargo, imposed by Congress under the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.)
Cuba has since suffered a triple whammy: the Covid-19 has scared away tourists, who are only beginning to return. The Trump administration has imposed tougher restrictions than before Obama. And the Cuban government mismanaged the crisis. People are hungry, as they were in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union cut off support. On July 11, 2021, riots broke out in a Havana suburb over food shortages and power outages. The government responded by imprisoning protesters and bystanders indiscriminately and shutting down the internet for a period of time. No wonder young people are leaving!
Led by Cuban guru Peter Kornbluh and Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel, we are here for a week at the end of March 2022 to learn what we can and enjoy the scenery, the arts and the food. Under Trump’s rules, American visitors cannot have any contact with Cuban government institutions or officials, which prohibits hotels, museums and the beach. Luckily, Cuba Educational Travel arranged a spectacular program for us that meets the rules of the Orwellian-sounding OFAC, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Our group is spread over five private “casas” in the Vedado district of Havana, elegant bed-and-breakfasts in what were once the homes of wealthy Cubans. We stroll through Old Havana to admire the magnificent architecture, some restored and some in ruins, still home to dozens of poor families. We enjoy private performances from world-class music and dance companies: the Youth Symphony Orchestra, Lizt Alfonso Academy, Habana Compás Dance and a female hip hop duo. We visit the Cuban artist Edel Bordon’s house-studio, where I buy a mysterious photo-montage. It is a tribute to Cuba’s educational system that such a small country (11 million) can produce such a level of culture.
On politics and economics, we hear the lectures of an urban planner, a diplomat and a management consultant. We meet a group of struggling young entrepreneurs facing baffling regulations and punitive taxes. However, the consultant announces good news: after more than ten years of blockage, the government is finally implementing the promised reform of the licensing of a wide range of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Throughout, we hear Peter Kornbluh. Co-author of the award-winning bookReturn channel to Cuba: The hidden history of the negotiations between Washington and Havana, (2015) he has been “in the room” of Cuban history since 1992. He calls himself our Jewish grandmother. He is devastated by the decision of our guide, with whom he has worked for ten years.
Cuba has fascinated me since I wrote my thesis on inequality many years ago. I argued that regardless of morality, wealth inequality makes an economy less productive. Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government dismantled large plantations and gave land to small farmers. It should have had the same effect as land reform in Taiwan in the 1950s: an extraordinary boost in productivity and growth. But not in Cuba. Cuban agriculture remains woefully backward, forcing Cuba to import around 80% of its food, at a cost of up to $1 billion a year, mostly wheat, corn, rice, milk and chicken parts. While the US embargo makes matters worse, one of the main culprits is the rigid, top-down Cuban policy.
Our trip includes an overnight visit to the World Heritage Site of Viñales. This valley is famous for its straight karst hills, or mogotes, which rise like giant fists. It is also famous for the fine tobacco that goes into Cuban cigars, a major export. As we watch, a tobacco farmer rolls a cigar and lights it for our guide. She blows with pleasure – ordinary Cubans cannot afford such a luxury. I ask him questions about taxes. “Ay,” he growls, “The government takes 90% of my crop and I get 20%.” I’m not sure what to make of his calculations, but the consequence is obvious: farmers have neither the resources nor the motivation to improve their land and techniques. But they have a strong incentive to sell on the black market. In response, the government banned the private transportation of crops. Yet government trucks seem to “lose” much of their load along the way. (In contrast, Taiwan imposes a flat rate on the value of a farmer’s land, leaving farmers with 100% on top of that payment, and no incentive to cheat.)
On the morning of our second day in Viñales, the most enduring of us set off with a local guide to a traditional farmer. It’s nice, sunny, with a light breeze as we walk in single file along a rutted red dirt road. Mockingbirds sing from the top of fruit trees – mango, guava, mamey, coconut, banana. Hummingbirds, locally known as zumzum, weave their way around the flowers. A tethered ox tries to charge us; for hundreds of years, farmers plowed with ox teams. Fuel is too expensive for tractors. We pass fields of tobacco in bloom, with the lower leaves already leafless and drying in barns. Fresh green tendrils of roots like yams, cassava and yucca grow through the orange soil. I had wondered why farmers don’t mulch their fields; smoke from roadside fires suggests the reason: without fuel or equipment to mow and chop crop residues and weeds, farmers clean up by burning.
The farmer and his wife live in a typical countryside Bohemia, a two-room thatched-roof hut with concrete floor. Their two children stay with their grandparents during the week to go to school. No electricity; the water comes from an outside tank; nearby there are toilets: a small shed with a hole in the ground. The farmer, a gay and tanned thirtysomething, wearing a straw hat, tells us that he wouldn’t want to live any other way. He proudly shows off his coffee trees and shows us how tiny raw beans expand when roasted. Next to the coffee, he shows a row of pineapple plants, with miniature pineapples emerging, one per plant. In the hill above, he keeps beehives; bees make honey from its coffee and mango trees. He cuts a ten foot piece of sugar cane and runs it through a hand roller press, aided by his wife and our guide. Once through, then again, then fold and twist and fold and twist again, back and forth, until all the juice is out. We each sip a small glass, with the option of a splash of rum.
Our local guide, call him Yosi, also owns a small farm of 11 hectares or 27 acres. He’s not that cheerful. “Yesterday I cried when I went to the bodega and there was no cereal for my grandson.” He had been a local English teacher, a job he loved. Having a family to support, he became a tourist guide. “The government tells us ‘Produce, produce, produce.’ My cousin didn’t let his field rest between crops. He planted cabbages. When he brought him to town, there were no trucks to take him to Havana. The government has fuel for the army to arrest people. He has no fuel to take the food to market. We watch a little lamb licking up the sweet juice that has dripped from the sugarcane press, happily wagging its tail. “The Cuban people are sheep,” says Yosi. “When you cut their throat, they don’t scream.” Yosi also plans to flee to the United States as soon as he saves up enough to pay for a coyote.
Cuba has state-of-the-art organic farms, which could help fill Cuba’s food deficit. I visited one in 2015. The Cuban government tried to lease land for such farms, but found few takers given the difficulties and bureaucracy. In Viñales we visit two small private organic farms, one for dinner the first night and another the next day for a leisurely lunch. The second was founded a few years ago by a middle-aged Cuban-American couple. As I gulp down a third helping of freshly picked, lightly salted greens, I sure think this couple can afford the commercial risk. They can always parachute back to Miami. Maybe after our guides get residency in the United States, they too can come back. Maybe if and when the United States lifts the embargo, Miami will rush in and redeem Cuba. As our planner warned, this is a risk for which the Cuban government is ill-prepared.
A closing lecture by a medical school professor reminds us that despite a dismal economy, Cuba has had extraordinary success in health care as well as education. Infant mortality is lower and longevity is higher than in the United States. Cuba has developed its own Covid-19 vaccination and more than 90% of the population is vaccinated.
Candidate Joe Biden has promised to roll back restrictions imposed by President Trump on Cuba. This does not happen; President Biden needs the support of Cuban-American Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. I ask Peter, how can we help? He says visit Cuba now. Just email Cuba Educational Travel and tell them what you would like to do.
Meanwhile, read a beautifully written and informative new book, Cuba, An American History. The author, Ada Ferrer, is a Cuban-born professor of Latin American history at New York University. I brought two copies in my luggage for Cuban friends.