Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Opening the gates to Cuba

21 students went to Cuba over the spring break as part of the Global Academic Travel Experience (GATE) course at Fuqua. We spent about 8 days there, 6 in Havana and 2 in Varadero, a resort town. This is one trip that is going to stay on in my mind for a long time. Not only was it a very welcome break, it was also a trip where we learnt a lot and I personally learnt a lot about Cubans as well as Americans. The only two international students on this trip were me and a Japanese friend of mine. The trip was fantastic and I made some great friends in this trip. We have to submit a paper on our trip this week, elaborating general experiences, learning and observations as well as a specific topic of research, which in my case, is music.

As we reached Havana on a sunny afternoon, it immediately reminded me of Bombay, as I saw it in movies in the 1960s. We drove around the malecon, which looks identical to the Marine Drive in Bombay, with wide pavements and people sitting on the parapet wall separating the beautiful ocean from the city. It was not even close what I had expected, which was a backward city with narrow roads, age-old cars, visible poverty on the streets and generally dirty. Havana turned out to be a beautiful city with great historic structures and architectures, wide roads and generally, very clean. At places, the architecture was bizarre, telling tales of its turbulent past and influences from around the world.

One of the striking features of old Havana was the different color combinations of its buildings. No two buildings matched in color, but moreover, even the colors of windows and doors did not match the building color. So you would see an orange building with blue windows and doors and the building adjacent to it would be green in color. I wondered if this was because these buildings were from different era, or simply a matter of choice. I quickly learnt that it reflected the true nature of the Cuban culture, colorful, vibrant and full of contrast.

From there began our journey into one of the most vibrant countries I have visited and it reminded me again and again of India. Of course, Cuba holds a big mystery within due to its troubled relationship with US for almost half a century, and that only made it better as we tried digging to understand it. There are posters of Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara almost everywhere, indicating that the government has a strong hold on businesses, media and many aspects of Cuban life. It's hard to draw a picture in mind of a country sitting at a five star hotel and traveling in luxury buses with the best guides, but many people have claimed that Cuba is stuck in a time warp. That would almost make anyone think that Cuba has stopped developing since 1959, when Fidel came to power. Is it true? How backward is Cuba, if at all?

We met government officials, businessmen, intellectuals, artists, scientists and local people. Perhaps the most insightful meeting we had was with a professor and editor of a magazine called Temas (Themes). This magazine is one of the avenues of expression for people and for them to discuss important issues in the society. The professor talked to us about Civil Society and what constitutes civil society. Churches, NGOs, media, unions etc., all come together to form civil society, which works with the state to guide the society to the right direction. As he spoke about Temas and the largely Marxist concepts of intellectuals engaging other intellectuals in debate to come to a decision for the common good, I couldn't help but think about Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. My understanding of socialism is very limited, but I learnt an alternative way of governance. Cuba today reminded me of India in the 80s, when I was a boy, saw the only news channel run by the government, co-operative societies for crops production, huge barriers to entrepreneurship through licenses and virtually non-existent MNCs or MNCs that came as JVs. So is Cuba stuck in a time-warp? Yes, but the time-warp is in not nearly as remote period as we think. The fall of the soviet union was a big blow to the Cuban economy, and marks the failure of socialism and communism all over the world. It is no coincidence that countries like India opened up their economies and started a slow, but marked movement towards globalization in the 1990s. Cuba started doing the same in 1993 in their so-called 'Special Period'; the main difference is that it is still trying to keep both sides alive in its parallel economies of two currencies, one for tourism (convertible peso) and one for domestic industry.

For an average American entering Cuba today, the policies might seem so different that it will be easy to say that Fidel has betrayed Cuba. Has Fidel betrayed Cuba? He is a dictator, no doubt, but if you look a little deeper, Cuba has problems quite similar to India. I keep coming back to India because I see so many parallels that I am almost certain that most of Cuba's problems have hardly anything to do with the totalitarian regime, and more due to an age-old failed system of economy and governance, socialist policies and communism. In the face of capitalism and globalization, these systems did not stand a chance, and in my opinion, will be wiped out of the face of the planet.

So what did Fidel do right? Definitely couple of things in my opinion. Cuba has a modest infrastructure, has a stellar literacy rate (97%), which beats even the US and is supposed to have great healthcare. These are not mean achievements considering a strong embargo and antagonism from the neighboring US. We visited a biotechnology research center in Havana and the gentleman we met there was one of the most bright and humorous person I have come across. He introduced us to the various researches being done in a string of facilities across the country. In a country that is run by intellectuals, this comes as little surprise. Soviet Union had cutting edge research establishments and India, thanks to its Nehruvian socialism of 50s and 60s, also boasts of world class research and teaching establishments like the IITs, IIMs, IISc, BARC and many more. Cuba is no different. These are direct consequences of intellectuals running your country. It is still a completely different issue if this is sustainable or even fair to you as a citizen.

US slapped a trade and travel embargo on Cuba in the year 1962 and the embargo is still in effect. As it stands today, only three countries voted against the U.N. resolution calling for the US to end the Embargo, The Marshall Islands, Israel, and the US of course. During the Cold War era, US and Cuba had a fallout and in the age of strong polarization, Cuba became a Russian ally. As is often the case with politics, there is no point in discussing who was right, who was wrong, or even what was cause and what was effect. Did alienation from US led Cuba towards USSR or did the communist policies of Cuba led US to take strong actions against it? I don't know the answer, but what matters today is that the embargo does not make sense. However, I can understand that US cannot lift the embargo from Cuba without losing face. During the last 4 decades, US has built an image of Cuba as a country drowned in troubles due to the dictatorial and totalitarian oppression. Of course, if I might say so carelessly, dictatorship comes with its fair share of oppression, but from what we have learnt in this trip, Fidel doesn't seem to have squeezed his people to pocket money for himself.

There is significant discontent with the archaic policies of Fidel, but there doesn't seem to be a very concerted dissident activity in Cuba, just small groups spread here and there. Given these dynamics, everyone seems to be waiting to see what will happen after Fidel. Fidel has appointed his brother as the Vice President, who can constitutionally take charge after the President, but only time will tell what happens. The US will play a large role (wanted or unwanted) most certainly in the decision and will probably get a good excuse (or valid reason, depending on your perspective) to lift the embargo. What will it mean for Cuba? How is the embargo affecting Cuba today?

US likes to say that the embargo is successful and that it is cornering the Cuban government. In reality, that's hardly the case and Cuba has almost rest of the world to play with. Of course, not having a huge market such as US for tourism and trade means a lot for a small country like Cuba, but it certainly didn't topple any governments in the past and is certainly not going to in the near future.

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