Cuba at a Crossroads: Human Rights or Economics?

Cuba Colectiva

After the surge in media attention following Fidel Castro’s death in November 2017, Cuba has fallen from the headlines once more. But Cuba remains ever captivating, enthralled by 1950s aesthetics – an island blessed by rum and cigars, underground Jazz bars and Vintage cars. Under the leadership of Fidel’s brother, the softly spoken yet revered ‘doer’ Raúl Castro, the country is in political and economic doubt, weary not to return to exploitative relations of the past while understanding the current system is unsustainable. As Raúl is due to give up power in 2018, the doubt for the future is further exacerbated. While Western media focuses on political freedom, the problem for Cuba’s future is economic.

There is seemingly a form of social contract that denies political freedom in Cuba. The Revolution provides free education, healthcare and food subsidies while bringing a sense of Cuban autonomy and self-determination. The importance of this autonomy in Cuba cannot be overlooked – with a history as the last nation to remove slavery, only then to become exploited by a system of upper-class elites and Western partygoers. In exchange for these liberations, however, Cuban politics paradoxically became a one-party system without dissent. It is not that people cannot criticise the government. On the contrary, most people I spoke to were openly critical of the state of their nation and the government’s ability to run it. Cubans, however, cannot stage a political protest, organise on mass nor create an alternative political party for risk of being arrested and reprimanded, historically with severe brutality. Of course, this is a violation of human rights and recognised by even the most ardent supporters of the regime as something that must be reformed. While these aspects are often the focus of the Western media, it is rarely analysed beyond conceptions of autocracy.

There is an interesting rationale used justify this reality of Cuban political life. In a country clouded by controlling external forces, political sentiment conceptualised dissent as providing arguments for the enemy. Dissent was further ostracised by the idea that in times of strife, people must remain united. Political turmoil was and continues to be a constant in the Cuban political scene, and therefore leaders rationalised to an accepting people that matters will be dealt with only at a government level. Following the success of the revolutionary forces, the new government was confronted with the implementation of the US embargo, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War was just brewing, and Cuba was in the middle of it. As the years went by, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the embargo continued, this rhetoric was continually pushed and became the norm. Some commentators say that the embargo gave ammunition to the Party, counterproductively serving to maintain and entrench this rhetoric and resulting autocracy. It will be interesting to see how this sentiment holds up in future. As the situation stands, with US travel laws and the embargo being lifted, the rhetoric may lose its strength. However, with the election of Trump and the rising tide of instability, there may be no better time for the rhetoric to return in full force, to the detriment of Cuban’s political freedom.

Yet, Cuba conceptualises human rights beyond political freedom. My focus, as a Westerner with a certain lens, was aimed at confirming or challenging my idea of Cuba as a country of tyranny and autocracy. My questions were often met with frustration or contempt. People responded that Cuba upholds human rights, even beyond those in the West. While there is poverty in Cuba, no mother dies in childbirth, or no child works in the streets. The development indicators in Cuba are amongst the best in the region, being a nation of highly educated people. It poses the question: What really are human rights? Why is political dissent a human right, while free education and health care are not? Our Western conception of human rights places importance on free speech and democracy. But how much of that do we even respect and uphold? A system which places only two options for American President – Clinton and Trump – begs the question of the quality of our democracy. And we must remember that the US nor the West cannot preach political freedom in Cuba, considering the illegal sentencing and brutal treatment of political prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

The concern for the people isn’t human rights – it’s economics. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, which heavily subsidised the Cuban state, Cuba entered a ‘dark’ economic period of which they are still experiencing. Raúl Castro introduced housing and private business reforms in 2014, aiming to incorporate market-based mechanisms into the socialist economy. It is true that the opportunities in Cuba are slim, and the salaries received from state jobs are impossibly low. For example, while health care is free, a doctor working for the State receives $40US a month. As such, Cubans must be resourceful and seek income in different ways. Of the people we met, a genetics specialist supplemented her income by working as a part-time chef in a private restaurant, earning as much in a night in a kitchen as a month as a doctor. Or, we were told that in state-run restaurants, workers steal the good produce to sell in the black market. The black market makes up for nearly 80 per cent of the economy, with many Cubans receiving repatriations from relatives or friends in Miami or overseas. The economy itself is weak and unsustainable.

The only industry with money is tourism. As Westerners spend over a Cuban’s monthly earnings on a night’s sleep, it is the one industry with economic viability. ‘Casa particulares’ or ‘private houses’ for tourists are popping up everywhere. In a small village near the Bay of Pigs, where once there were only two rooms to stay, now there are over 200. One tour guide of ours was once a college professor, while a waitress at night, still failing to pay the bills. In tour guiding, she makes more money than she could have imagined. As such, the ability to penetrate the tourism industry in Cuba is creating a divide between ‘have and have nots’, fundamentally challenging notions of equality that underpinned the Cuban revolution. Cuba is in danger once again of becoming neocolony, a party island for Westerners or travellers with money. Is a country truly independent if its sole income is reliant on the will and desires of travellers from other countries?

While the future of Cuba is not grim, it is at a crossroads. It is not impossible for Cuba to recognise the achievements of its socialist state and uphold them, while allowing for economic reforms that increase the standards of living and uplift their falling economy. It is not that the state-based system is inherently bad – it just doesn’t pay nearly enough to survive. If it is really possible to achieve pure socialist systems while engaging in global capitalism markets, time will only tell.