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I read the news today, oh boy

As a final thought in the last entry, I mentioned the value of finding Cuban guides who speak English so as to gain insight into life on the island (and, as I was memorably once told, often the only way to gain pertinent information is to ask impertinent questions). The fact that people can and are willing to give honest answers to questions about life under Cuban communism is of intrinsic interest to the second monolithic topic, after the previously treated economic questions: questions of freedom.

While the US government and Cuban government each try to sell this as a simple, binary issue, taking of course opposite poles, no matter how many American Presidential speeches talk about “that imprisoned island” (JFK, 1962), and no matter how many government billboard in Havana declare in bright colours “Vivo en un país libre” (I live in a free homeland), the issue is far from simple.

In what follows I don't even hope to make an argument one way of the other, but just to share some thoughts (maybe not all totally well conceived) on what I saw and what I have read, and to illustrate the complexity of the issues. I don't expect this will make any friends. This has been a topic of (good natured) contention between myself and Naomi since we got back.

As mentioned above, free speech is not as suppressed as people might have been led to believe. Cubans are allowed to speak with foreigners and are not afraid to tell you if they do or do not like their government, without looking over their shoulders. Some love their government, and walk past you on the street addressing you with “¡Revolution!”, some tell you they hate it, that they have no opportunity to better themselves, that they don't like their jobs. But they tell you. Speaking to an Argentinian academic working in Mexico, his view was that this has always been the case, that it is inherently Latin American that you can say what you like, and, provided you don't cross a line, the government considers you are in your own sphere, not theirs. This, he said, is true also of Cuba. Of course, if speaking out crosses over into organising, documented history tells us the government reaction is different.

The most surprising thing for me is that Havana is not a city in police lock-down. In fact, I don't recall having seen one soldier or military policeman, not one firearm, as one sees in Moscow, Beijing, and even in Rome or (I believe) Paris (in fact Rome, and Italy in general, shows more military than Beijing, something Rob had some problems with early in his travels). The policemen one does see on the streets are no more threatening than the police presence in Melbourne or Mexico City. You feel safe with it. People just go about their daily business on the streets.

The other face of this, as the afore mentioned academic paints it, is that under the rationing of all goods, and the short supply of goods, one cannot survive without breaking the law. It's just not possible. Thus, everyone is guilty of buying black-market meat or something similar, and with everyone as a petty criminal, if you are under suspicion the police can just arrest you, a very convenient situation for the government to have, and horrid for the population.

Compare this though with Australia (and I suspect most countries). If a policeman pulls you over and you fail the all-important “attitude test” (and I have never, ever understood people giving coppers lip), then that policeman can and will find a fault with your vehicle and mark it unroadworthy, because no car in the fleet stands up under strict enough inspection. I suspect many people know someone who went to court after some small infraction and the police charge them with a dozen petty things (“You insulted my partner and thus he felt threatened and as a result I felt threatened, so here are 2 charges of assaulting police”). Maybe not as bad as Cuba, but not alien to our system.

The usual hobby horse of the US is that Cubans cannot elect their government. This is partially true, but as a stand alone statement it is willfully misleading. They cannot vote out Castro or the generals that make such a large part of the decision making apex, and there is only one party, but they do get to vote for local representatives. But then, when did US citizens get to vote for key offices such as Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State? And, while I get to vote in Australia, I was still stuck under a Prime Minister I detested for 11 long years, and my singular and impotent vote against him did nothing to warm my heart each time he performed a bastardly act. Granted though, 11 years under a leader you loath and are personally incapable of changing is orders of magnitude away from 51 years, and granted, while on a microscopic level democracy is pointless, after 11 years we got our act together on the macroscopic level and could boot him.

The worst curtailment of freedom I saw in Cuba, and one there is no apology for, is the inability to travel. Cuban citizens must apply to the government to travel abroad, and this right, rarely granted, never comes with the ability to travel with family ('cause if you are allowed to travel, you are probably somewhat important, and if you travel with family they will never see your important self again). Being in a profession that fundamentally relies on being able to travel and cross-pollinate ideas and training, this fills me with horror. One could not operate as a scientist in Cuba under these restrictions. That said, in conversation with my twice mentioned colleague, he suggested that Cuban scientists can and do travel to Mexico (and, apparently, Italy) but you must be in a field of research in which you hold patents or some other tangible advantage to the government. Then, you get to travel frequently. Without family. There is a lady who comes here often, and I intend to seek her out for discussion. My only counter note is that US citizens aren't exactly free to travel to Cuba either. Me thinks both governments fear that their people will see that life on the other side is not so cataclysmic as made out.

Another strong-armed restriction is freedom of access to information. No internet access for locals without official permission and observation, and only one newspaper, Granma (named after the 12-seater boat aboard which 80 scruffy, bearded revolutionaries landed in Cuba) which, truly, is garbage. 8 pages long, and one of the copies I bought spent 2 of them talking about how Celia Sánchez was the greatest image of the people. She was a revolutionary who died in 1980. I doubt after 30 years there is anything new to say about her.

Ultimately, my only conclusion is that on the question of freedom in Cuba, it is not for us to judge. It is certainly not for a neighboring country, with clear (if feebly denied) intentions of hegemony to judge. I was told by a local that to understand Cuba, you must live in the system for a year. No-one but the Cubans have, and thus no-one but the Cubans can decide if they are free. Maybe a better metric than freedom is actually happiness. I spoke to people who hated and resented their government, and I spoke to people who love it. I spoke to people who were happy and those who were anything but. I defy anyone to name a country where that isn't the case. One man told me Cuba needs to get rid of this old way (communism), but the people still want it. Those last words are very telling.

Now, having set some context, and having written something that could restrict my access to two countries if read by certain bodies, I will move on to the lighter “I did this, I saw that” part.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 29th, 2010 06:03 am (UTC)
This was a great read, kudos on taking the time to put pen to paper (so to speak). And yes, I still find overtly military presence in the public arena an alarming situation -- I don't understand or agree with the mindset that deems such a presence necessary or desirable, except under extraordinary circumstances.

Anywho, it's been great to read about Cuba, although I am disappointed I wasn't there with you.

All the best,
Dr Bob
Jan. 29th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
And I agree with you; I cannot conceive of a reason why military police with machine guns need be in the capitals of the great European powers, especially when in all other ways the EU seems to be 50 years ahead of the rest of the world sociologically. I understand (though don't agree with) it in Moscow, but Rome?
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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