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In the last week I attempted to fulfill a desire of many years and see how life really works in an authentically communist society. I have been to China, but it is socialist only in name, having taken the worst elements of oppressive one-party government and exploitative capitalism to create a true monster, Vietnam seems far too underdeveloped to have achieved proper state socialism, North Korea is almost unreachable, and Venezuela hasn't fully established the system yet, so the only viable and authentic option is Cuba. In the opening I said I attempted to fulfill the desire, because I left deeply conflicted and it will take more time to think on what I saw, and likely more time in the country, to reach many definite conclusions about quality of life under state socialism.

It may be best to do this is random topical observations, interspersed with a chronology.

One obvious observations is that it is a proven viability to have a society without corporations (a thought that surely scares the hell out of the establishment in most of the world); for 51 years (you are not able to forget the number while in La Habana), the “vanguard party”, the July 21 Movement whose most famous members were the Castro brothers and Ernest Guevara, have held together a society where state companies manufacture consumables for the island. There is one company that bottles the one brand of bottled water available, along with one cola, one lemonade, etcetera, and another company that brews and bottles the two kinds of beer available (though there is also a state-run micro-brewery). There is the state-run rum distillery, Havana Club, and several state-owned cigar brands. That isn't to say one can't get imported beers, spirits and even Coca-Cola, symbol of free West; the government just buys these things from places such as Mexico (due to the Spanish on the lables) or Canada, fixes the prices, and then sells them off to the people. Interestingly, the lables on state-run consumables aren't at all bleak, in greys and beiges with boring font saying 'beans', as seems to have been the case in the Soviet Union, and from what I could gather from various people with various degrees of English, they never were like this, even before the advent of the tourist sector in the 1990s.

But, is there enough free choice available? This is a tough question, and one thing I didn't get a good feel for is how much access locals get to everything under the 'double economy' (more on that later), so I can only comment on the position I was in, and extrapolate. The quality of the available products is quite high, for example, the beers are better than CUB/Fosters, though not as good as micro-brews, and yet the Cuban microbrew is as almost good as any I've had, and thus choice becomes less of a concern. Chris, a friend from Australia, noted while we were there that three choices is 'the sweet spot', and so I guess in that regard it isn't quite ideal. In some ways, however, being bombarded with unnecessary levels of choice everyday of our lives, as we are in our societies, while not as catastrophic as some make out, certainly does require the creation of some mental filters lest one be worn down.

Which leads to a related topic: there is a the part of the mind dedicated to blocking out advertising so as you hardly notice it (I remember an advertising person once saying consumers are like roaches: you spray and you spray, but they eventually become immune), and because this function is used daily, you never even consider it. It's like walking: you do it everyday so you never ponder the mechanics of it. When you hit Havana, this part of the mind starts screaming. “Isn't there something I'm supposed to be doing?!” Outside of the one remaining brand, the government 'information', there is no advertising (except the odd poster in a bar for a state-run company, which is just weird, given there is no competition). It is liberating. Consider your daily life; if you are outside your home, or even often in it, in a large enough settlement the only places you can safely look and not see advertising is straight down at the ground (unless you are wearing brand-name shoes and socks) or straight up in the sky (unless there is a sky writer overhead). You can't even go to the urinal without an invasive poster right at eye lever (I make it a point to boycott any company that advertises in this way; any situation where my hand is on my genitals is private time). In Cuba, this is simply not the case. The only equivalent is in Europe, when you have a well preserved historical town centre that dates from before the industrial revolution, before these advertising-company toads existed.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 25th, 2010 11:41 am (UTC)
That profile pic is awesome dude.

Also, don't you get sick of all your private time? I happen to know that this happens to take up the lions share of your days...
Jan. 25th, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)
Why thank you for the mention of the profile picture; a member of The Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (official name) told us to nick off while we tried to take it. We walked across the street to take more (from which this one came), just beyond the threshold in which his apathy prevented him from doing anything other than roll his eyes. Then, we scooted at a brisk pace.

As for private time, all great writers are master private-timers, so I have to keep in practice.
Feb. 4th, 2010 08:32 pm (UTC)
Now that I finally come around to catching up on your blog, I'm sorry I didn't read this earlier. Very nice to hear you've visited the Island.

Of course, some part of me has trouble seeing you as an objective observer... All the same: great post!

(Joris who also loves your picture and isn't going to try OpenID anymore since last time it didn't work and erased my comment.)
Feb. 8th, 2010 08:09 pm (UTC)
Yes, hard to be objective, I think. Naomi, having no expectations or background (i.e. didn't do the reading), was maybe more objective (she hated it), but then again, she wasn't able to relate to the position of the people or government, having no historical context.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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