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My Trip to Cuba

by Jim Schneider

On January 24, 2004 I joined a group of Marxist/Socialist Americans on a humanitarian trip to Cuba. This was my first trip to a country which is still considered communist. It was an excellent opportunity for me to study how such a system works. One of the first things I noticed is that many people on the plane applauded when we landed in Havana. Airline passengers stopped doing this at other destinations many years ago, probably the early 1980s. Also security people checked my baggage receipt twice to ensure that nobody steals bags.

Government Food Store, Havana

Even in New York they don't do this. The only billboards I saw were political propaganda, but no giant pictures of Fidel. The CIA web site gives the ethnic makeup of Cuba as follows: mulatto 51%, white 37%, black 11%, Chinese 1%. However, most of the whites would count as Hispanics in the United States.

We stayed at a hotel where Cuban workers stay. The linen in the dining room was usually not changed during our stay and had numerous stains after a few days. The hot water was generated using solar power but only a few people were lucky enough to get hot water. I, and most other guests, only got cold water and a some people had no water on a few occasions.

During the day many people (mostly mulattos) approached me and wanted to talk. They asked me where I was from and seemed interested in conversation but they really were pursuing capitalist goals. After about 10 to 20 minutes their true motive became apparent; they either wanted to sell me cigars or wanted to work for me as an unofficial tour guide or they just wanted a hand out. It is against the law for an unlicensed Cuban to talk to tourists but it did not stop them. I spent some time with one of these street tour guides, Dario. He told me that if the police stopped us I should say he is my Amigo. He told me that many jobs in Havana pay less than $20 per month, which is why so many people prefer to work the streets in one way or another. They either sell stolen or low quality cigars, practice pimping and prostitution, or hook up with tourists. He said that drugs are not very common. While riding in a bicycle taxi the driver suddenly jumped off and walked the bike after seeing a police car. Dario explained that bicycle taxis are not allowed to give rides to tourists, but if they are caught walking instead of riding, the fine is less. The police are less aggressive than I expected, they never bothered us. Dario (a mulatto) asked me if many blacks in America have guns and use drugs and steal from people. I had to confirm what he already knew.

I was walking near the hotel with three women from my group. We saw a little corner store with very little inventory and it looked very neglected. We talked with one of the Negroes who was there to get some food with his ration book. One of the ladies wanted to get a picture of the ration book.

He agreed but a friend reminded him that it was against the law. We talked with him and he took us on a tour of his home. The rooms had 20-foot ceilings; it must have been the home of wealthy people at one time. It appeared to be divided into different units. Like the hotel where we stayed, there was no hot water. In his kitchen we noticed two dirty boxes with woodcarvings and or bones in them. He explained that that is his religion, Santaria. I did not ask if the empty beer bottle on top of his religious shrine was part of it or just there by chance.

We went up to the penthouse and out onto his roof. Then we hopped over the small dividing wall and onto his neighbors' roof and said hello. He then walked us through her home, down the stairs and across the balcony back to his home. They were very friendly and did not have any locks to keep each other out. At the end of the tour opened a bag and showed us several boxes of cigars he wanted to sell us. We all declined and one of the ladies gave him some money for his time.

The Cuban government gives everyone rations for food. However it is not enough to live on, so many Cubans make extra money by stealing things from where they work. The government is practically encouraging this by not giving them enough food rations to survive. The police no longer make much of an effort to enforce the law, because they know that these people have so little. However, if nobody would steal from their state owned businesses the government would have more money or produce and would be able to give adequate rations to its people. Somehow it does not work like that.

I visited the Martin Luther King Center in Havana. There was a large mural in the courtyard showing Cezar Chavez and someone who looked like Lenin. There were no pictures of King and none of the workers at the Center were black. They showed us a short video of a project they had completed. I noticed that less than 20% of the participants were black.

I had dinner in Chinatown, Havana. Chinatown was a small alley about 200 feet long, with about 20 small Chinese businesses most of which were restaurants. Very few of the people working there looked Chinese. About 1% of the Cuban population is Chinese and it looks like many have intermarried and lost their Chinese identity. They must have intermarried with mostly light-skinned Hispanics because none of them had a dark complexion. Just like the food, although good, it was not the same Chinese that we have in the U.S.

We had an opportunity to ask a tour guide a few questions. I asked how many immigrants come to Cuba each year. She said only in special situations like when a foreigner marries a Cuban. Immigration is not economically feasible for Cuba. Someone asked about gay rights. She said Cubans are not ready for that yet. Our own leaders could learn from her. This confirms the great difference between American communists and real communists. To read more about the reasons for these differences see the Center for Perpetual Diversity web site at www.PerpetualDiversity.com; click on 'Integration and the left.'

The highlight of the trip was the Third Hemispheric Conference against the Free Trade Area in the Americas. Few of the workers at the conference center were black or mulatto. Considering the racial mix in Cuba this seems unusual, but no one commented. The conference lasted 4 days and featured many speakers bewailing the neo-liberals and how they are selling out to the evil forces of corporate greed. They were all against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and various other plans pushed by most leaders in the Americas. Most of the participants were also in favor of the U.S. normalizing relations with Cuba, although this would mean trade between the two countries.

James Schneider at meeting with Fidel Castro

The conference ended on January 24, 2004 with a lengthy speech by Fidel Castro. At one point in his talk Fidel said that science has proven that the races are equal. But at another time he said that African countries are not known for obeying in comparison to Europeans or Latin Americans. This contradiction was easy to miss during such a long speech which covered many topics from the early days of the Revolution, to the American economy and the gold standard, U.S. health care costs, WWI and more. It was quite interesting, like a college professor giving a lecture, but after 2 hours, at 11:30pm, I got tired and left. However, the hard core Marxists stayed until after 3am when Castro finally concluded.

Communism seems to have a positive impact on the blacks. Although they live in much worse conditions than blacks in America, Cuban blacks are less racist and less angry. I could walk through the worst parts of central Havana at night without being attacked. I didn't even get any hostile stares which are common in U.S. cities. There were still about 10 percent whites (Hispanics) living in these areas and they did not seem uneasy, even at night on poorly lighted streets. The lower rate of violent crime is probably a benefit left over from the old days of hard line communism when police were much more vigilant.

American and European social scientists could learn much from Cuba. The poor and particularly the blacks are kinder there. Although people live in abject poverty, they are content with what little they have. I am sure that the government controlled media in Cuba does not constantly remind blacks about racism, slavery, and discrimination. Cuba has no senseless civil rights laws, which encourage legal trickery to evade the law or even get rich at the expense of society. Cubans who don't like their government keep quiet and wait for a chance to get away. Americans who don't like their government are active in the system and try to bring others into the country.