In this provocative article, Daniel Serwer (Johns Hopkins University) writes about the dangers of a Cuban collapse, but rather than performing the common harangue on poverty, violations of human rights, or difficulties with communications and transport, he focuses instead on the Cuban citizens’ relative prosperity, apparent physical well-being, and—more dangerous of all, he implies—the seemingly wide-ranging political apathy. This, along with the looming possibility of a sharp decrease in subsidies from Venezuela, he says, would pose a threat to the US because it raises the specter of economic collapse and a massive outflow of people from the island.
Cuba’s 1950s cars and Havana’s crumbling facades have long been its iconic symbols in the American imagination. They don’t disappoint, as I discovered on a trip to Cuba last week. But I didn’t expect zippy Hyundais with Miami FM on their radios or a private collection of contemporary Cuban art, installed floor to 20-foot ceiling in a fabulous apartment with a terrace overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Both the apartment and the art would put many wealthy New Yorkers to shame.
Cubans remain poor. It would be no fun to live on the $15-35 per month that is paid to most government employees. Even with subsidized (and rationed) staples as well as free rent, health care and education, many neighborhoods of Havana are decrepit. Balconies fall off apartment buildings. Whole buildings collapse into the street. People wait in long lines to collect remittances at Western Union, whose window has a faded poster of Fidel and Raul Castro declaring, “The Revolution, thriving and victorious, is moving ahead.” The woman in line wearing American flag tights—stripes on one leg, stars on the other—is no doubt in the revolutionary vanguard. Cuba depends for hard currency on remittances from the United States and Europe, as well as payments and subsidies estimated at $9.4 billion per year from Venezuela. Caracas is not in a position to continue that much longer, raising the specter of economic collapse and a massive outflow of people that could present the United States with an unexpected foreign policy crisis on its own doorstep.
But for now, no one is starving and few are homeless. Life expectancy is over 79 years, higher than Puerto Rico’s. Everyone can read. In an all too apparent display of wellbeing, men and women dress in tight-fitting clothes that display ample belly fat. Tourists walk safely, even at night. Restaurant hawkers and pedicab drivers tug at their elbows but shake off easily. The Havana Historian’s Office has tastefully restored three or four of the oldest squares in the city to something like their former glory, as well as most of the surrounding cobble-stoned streets. There is music everywhere: American for young Cubans, Cuban for the Americans and Europeans.
This relative prosperity is a sharp contrast to the Cuba of 25 years ago. Already decimated by three decades of revolution and embargo, the economy collapsed when the Soviet Union broke up and its subsidies ended. Cuba entered its “special period” in the early 1990s, when food and fuel were scarce. For a while, the dollar was in circulation, because no one had confidence in the peso. Now Cuba has two currencies: the convertible peso (known as the CUC) and the peso, worth far less and nonconvertible. Eighty percent of transactions are now said to be conducted in CUCs.
The eternally youthful revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, both long dead, grace many more walls in Havana than the Castro brothers, who are rarely seen or heard in public but cast long shadows from their wooded estates in upper-crust Miramar. Their political control is still unchallenged, but they don’t need to demonstrate it often.
Cubans, who complain a lot about the system, rarely organize against it or even have clear ideas of how they would want it to change. A painting in that fabulous apartment expressed the feeling well: It showed a massive demonstration surrounded by high walls. The demonstrators held signs with nothing written on them. Like Mario Comte, the detective anti-hero of novelist Leonardo Padura’s masterful Havana series, ordinary Cubans see the seamier side of things and want to hold miscreants responsible, but they offer no viable proposition for systemic political change. Asked whether they would want more direct elections or political parties, Cubans shrug.
Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at its Center for Transatlantic Relations. He blogs at www.peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer. He is the author of Righting the Balance: How You Can Help Protect America.