A visit to the dystopian Havana that tourists never see
Downtown Old Havana, just blocks from the capitol – Ted Soqui/Corbis
Michael J. Totten – City Journal – Spring 2014
Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 science-fiction film Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, takes place in Los Angeles, circa 2154. The wealthy have moved into an orbiting luxury satellite—the Elysium of the title—while the wretched majority of humans remain in squalor on Earth. The film works passably as an allegory for its director’s native South Africa, where racial apartheid was enforced for nearly 50 years, but it’s a rather cartoonish vision of the American future. Some critics panned the film for pushing a socialist message. Elysium’s dystopian world, however, is a near-perfect metaphor for an actually existing socialist nation just 90 miles from Florida.
I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba—not because I’m nostalgic for a botched utopian fantasy but because I wanted to experience Communism firsthand. When I finally got my chance several months ago, I was startled to discover how much the Cuban reality lines up with Blomkamp’s dystopia. In Cuba, as in Elysium, a small group of economic and political elites live in a rarefied world high above the impoverished masses. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto, would be appalled by the misery endured by Cuba’s ordinary citizens and shocked by the relatively luxurious lifestyles of those who keep the poor down by force.
Many tourists return home convinced that the Cuban model succeeds where the Soviet model failed. But that’s because they never left Cuba’s Elysium.
I had to lie to get into the country. Customs and immigration officials at Havana’s tiny, dreary José Martí International Airport would have evicted me had they known I was a journalist. But not even a total-surveillance police state can keep track of everything and everyone all the time, so I slipped through. It felt like a victory. Havana, the capital, is clean and safe, but there’s nothing to buy. It feels less natural and organic than any city I’ve ever visited. Initially, I found Havana pleasant, partly because I wasn’t supposed to be there and partly because I felt as though I had journeyed backward in time. But the city wasn’t pleasant for long, and it certainly isn’t pleasant for the people living there. It hasn’t been so for decades.
Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.
Marxists have ruled Cuba for more than a half-century now. Fidel Castro, Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara, and their 26th of July Movement forced Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959 and replaced his standard-issue authoritarian regime with a Communist one. The revolutionaries promised liberal democracy, but Castro secured absolute power and flattened the country with a Marxist-Leninist battering ram. The objectives were total equality and the abolition of money; the methods were total surveillance and political prisons. The state slogan, then and now, is “socialism or death.”
Cuba was one of the world’s richest countries before Castro destroyed it—and the wealth wasn’t just in the hands of a tiny elite. “Contrary to the myth spread by the revolution,” wrote Alfred Cuzan, a professor of political science at the University of West Florida, “Cuba’s wealth before 1959 was not the purview of a privileged few. . . . Cuban society was as much of a middle-class society as Argentina and Chile.” In 1958, Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe. “More Americans lived in Cuba prior to Castro than Cubans lived in the United States,” Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, author of a series of books about Castro and Guevara, tells me. “This was at a time when Cubans were perfectly free to leave the country with all their property. In the 1940s and 1950s, my parents could get a visa for the United States just by asking. They visited the United States and voluntarily returned to Cuba. More Cubans vacationed in the U.S. in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba. Americans considered Cuba a tourist playground, but even more Cubans considered the U.S. a tourist playground.” Havana was home to a lot of that prosperity, as is evident in the extraordinary classical European architecture that still fills the city. Poor nations do not—cannot—build such grand or elegant cities.
But rather than raise the poor up, Castro and Guevara shoved the rich and the middle class down. The result was collapse. “Between 1960 and 1976,” Cuzan says, “Cuba’s per capita GNP in constant dollars declined at an average annual rate of almost half a percent. The country thus has the tragic distinction of being the only one in Latin America to have experienced a drop in living standards over the period.”
Communism destroyed Cuba’s prosperity, but the country experienced unprecedented pain and deprivation when Moscow cut off its subsidies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Journalist and longtime Cuba resident Mark Frank writes vividly about this period in his book Cuban Revelations. “The lights were off more than they were on, and so too was the water. . . . Food was scarce and other consumer goods almost nonexistent. . . . Doctors set broken bones without anesthesia. . . . Worm dung was the only fertilizer.” He quotes a nurse who tells him that Cubans “used to make hamburgers out of grapefruit rinds and banana peels; we cleaned with lime and bitter orange and used the black powder in batteries for hair dye and makeup.” “It was a haunting time,” Frank wrote, “that still sends shivers down Cubans’ collective spines.”
By the 1990s, Cuba needed economic reform as much as a gunshot victim needs an ambulance. Castro wasn’t about to reform himself and his ideology out of existence, but he had to open up at least a small piece of the country to the global economy. So the Soviet subsidy was replaced by vacationers, mostly from Europe and Latin America, who brought in much-needed hard currency. Arriving foreigners weren’t going to tolerate receiving ration cards for food—as the locals do—so the island also needed some restaurants. The regime thus allowed paladars—restaurants inside private homes—to open, though no one from outside the family could work in them. (That would be “exploitative.”) Around the same time, government-run “dollar stores” began selling imported and relatively luxurious goods to non-Cubans. Thus was Cuba’s quasi-capitalist bubble created.
When the ailing Fidel Castro ceded power to his less doctrinaire younger brother Raúl in 2008, the quasi-capitalist bubble expanded, but the economy remains heavily socialist. In the United States, we have a minimum wage; Cuba has a maximum wage—$20 a month for almost every job in the country. (Professionals such as doctors and lawyers can make a whopping $10 extra a month.) Sure, Cubans get “free” health care and education, but as Cuban exile and Yale historian Carlos Eire says, “All slave owners need to keep their slaves healthy and ensure that they have the skills to perform their tasks.”
Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money. I asked several Cubans in my hotel if that arrangement is really true. All confirmed that it is. The workers don’t get $8–$10 an hour; they get 67 cents a day—a child’s allowance.
The maximum wage is just the beginning. Not only are most Cubans not allowed to have money; they’re hardly allowed to have things. The police expend extraordinary manpower ensuring that everyone required to live miserably at the bottom actually does live miserably at the bottom. Dissident blogger and author Yoani Sánchez describes the harassment sarcastically in her book Havana Real: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.” Perhaps the saddest symptom of Cuba’s state-enforced poverty is the prostitution epidemic—a problem the government officially denies and even forbids foreign journalists based in Havana to mention. Some Cuban prostitutes are professionals, but many are average women—wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers—who solicit johns once or twice a year for a little extra money to make ends meet.
The government defends its maximum wage by arguing that life’s necessities are either free or so deeply subsidized in Cuba that citizens don’t need very much money. (Che Guevara and his sophomoric hangers-on hoped to rid Cuba of money entirely, but couldn’t quite pull it off.) The free and subsidized goods and services, though, are as dismal as everything else on the island. Citizens who take public transportation to work—which includes almost everyone, since Cuba hardly has any cars—must wait in lines for up to two hours each way to get on a bus. And commuters must pay for their ride out of their $20 a month. At least commuter buses are cheap. By contrast, a one-way ticket to the other side of the island costs several months’ pay; a round-trip costs almost an annual salary.
As for the free health care, patients have to bring their own medicine, their own bedsheets, and even their own iodine to the hospital. Most of these items are available only on the illegal black market, moreover, and must be paid for in hard currency—and sometimes they’re not available at all. Cuba has sent so many doctors abroad—especially to Venezuela, in exchange for oil—that the island is now facing a personnel shortage. “I don’t want to say there are no doctors left,” says an American man who married a Cuban woman and has been back dozens of times, “but the island is now almost empty. I saw a banner once, hanging from somebody’s balcony, that said, DO I NEED TO GO TO VENEZUELA FOR MY HEADACHE?”
Housing is free, too, but so what? Americans can get houses in abandoned parts of Detroit for only $500—which makes them practically free—but no one wants to live in a crumbling house in a gone-to-the-weeds neighborhood. I saw adequate housing in the Cuban countryside, but almost everyone in Havana lives in a Detroit-style wreck, with caved-in roofs, peeling paint, and doors hanging on their hinges at odd angles.
Education is free, and the country is effectively 100 percent literate, thanks to Castro’s campaign to teach rural people to read shortly after he took power. But the regime has yet to make a persuasive argument that a totalitarian police state was required to get the literacy rate from 80 percent to 100 percent. After all, almost every other country in the Western Hemisphere managed the same feat at the same time, without the brutal repression.
Cuba is short of everything but air and sunshine. In her book, Sánchez describes an astonishing appearance by Raúl Castro on television, during which he boasted that the economy was doing so well now that everyone could drink milk. “To me,” Sánchez wrote, “someone who grew up on a gulp of orange-peel tea, the news seemed incredible.” She never thought she’d see the day. “I believed we would put a man on the moon, take first place among all nations in the upcoming Olympics, or discover a vaccine for AIDS before we would put the forgotten morning café con leche, coffee with milk, within reach of every person on this island.” And yet Raúl’s promise of milk for all was deleted from the transcription of the speech in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper. He went too far: there was not enough milk to ensure that everyone got some.
Even things as simple as cooking oil and soap are black-market goods. Individuals who, by some illegal means or another, manage to acquire such desirables will stand on street corners and whisper “cooking oil” or “sugar” to passersby, and then sell the product on the sly out of their living room. If they’re caught, both sellers and buyers will be arrested, of course, but the authorities can’t put the entire country in jail. “Everyone cheats,” says Eire. “One must in order to survive. The verb Ωto steal≈ has almost vanished from usage. Breaking the rules is necessary. Resolví mi problema, which means ‘I solved my problem,’ is the Cuban way of referring to stealing or cheating or selling on the black market.”
Cuba has two economies now: the national Communist economy for the majority; and a quasi-capitalist one for foreigners and the elite. Each has its own currency: the Communist economy uses the Cuban peso, and the capitalist bubble uses the convertible peso. Cuban pesos are worth nothing. They can’t be converted to dollars or euros. Foreigners can’t even spend them in Cuba. The convertible pesos are pegged to the U.S. dollar, but banks and hotels pay only 87 Cuban cents for each one—the government takes 13 percent off the top. The rigged exchange rate is an easy way to shake down foreigners without most noticing. It also enables the state to drain Cuban exiles. A million Cuban-Americans live in south Florida, and another half-million live elsewhere in the United States. They send hundreds of millions of dollars a year to family members still on the island. The government gets its 13 percent instantaneously and most of the remaining 87 percent later because almost every place that someone can spend the money is owned by the state.
Castro created the convertible peso mainly to seal off Cuba’s little capitalist bubble from the ragged majority in the Communist economy. “Foreign journalists report on the creation of ever more luxurious hotels, golf courses, and marinas,” Eire says, “but fail to highlight the very simple and brutal fact that these facilities will be enjoyed strictly by foreigners and the Castronoid power elite. Apartheid, discrimination, and segregation are deliberately built in to the entire tourist industry and, in fact, are essential to its maintenance and survival.”
Until a few years ago, ordinary Cubans weren’t allowed even to set foot inside hotels or restaurants unless they worked there, lest they find themselves exposed to the seductive lifestyles of the decadent bourgeoisie from capitalist nations like Mexico, Chile, and Spain. (I cite these three countries because most of the tourists I ran into spoke Spanish to one another.) A few years ago, the government stopped physically blocking Cubans from hotels and restaurants, partly because Raúl is a little more relaxed about these things than Fidel but also because most Cubans can’t afford to go to these places, anyway.
A single restaurant meal in Havana costs an entire month’s salary. One night in a hotel costs five months’ salary. A middle-class tourist from abroad can easily spend more in one day than most Cubans make in a year. I had dinner with four Americans at one of the paladars. The only Cubans in the restaurant were the cooks and the waiters. The bill for the five of us came to about $100. That’s five months’ salary.
The Floridita bar in downtown Havana was one of Ernest Hemingway’s hangouts when he lived there (from 1940 until 1960, the year after Castro came to power). He was in the Floridita all the time—and, in a way, he still is. There’s a statue of him sitting on his favorite bar stool, grinning at today’s patrons. The décor is exactly the same, but there’s a big difference: everyone in the bar these days is a tourist. Cubans aren’t strictly banned any more, but a single bottle of beer costs a week’s salary. No one would blow his dismal paycheck on that.
If he were still around, Hemingway would be stunned to see what has happened to his old haunt. Cubans certainly aren’t happy about it, but the tourists are another story—especially the world’s remaining Marxoid fellow travelers, who show up in Havana by the planeload. Such people are clearly unteachable. I got into an argument with one at the Floridita when I pointed out that none of the patrons were Cuban. “There are places in the United States that some can’t afford,” she retorted. Sure, but come on. Not even the poorest Americans have to pay a week’s wage for a beer.
Cubans in the hotel industry see how foreigners live. The government can’t hide it without shutting the hotels down entirely, and it can’t do that because it needs the money. I changed a few hundred American dollars into convertible pesos at the front desk. The woman at the counter didn’t blink when I handed over my cash—she does this all day—but when she first got the job, it must have been shattering to make such an exchange. That’s why the regime wants to keep foreigners and locals apart.
Tourists tip waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides, and chambermaids in hard currency, and to stave off a revolt from these people, the government lets them keep the additional money, so they’re “rich” compared with everyone else. In fact, they’re an elite class enjoying privileges—enough income to afford a cell phone, go out to restaurants and bars, log on to the Internet once in a while—that ordinary Cubans can’t even dream of. I asked a few people how much chambermaids earn in tips, partly so that I would know how much to leave on my dresser and also to get an idea of just how crazy Cuban economics are. Supposedly, the maids get about $1 per day for each room. If they clean an average of 30 rooms a day and work five days a week, they’ll bring in $600 a month—30 times what everyone else gets. “All animals are equal,” George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, his allegory of Stalinism, “but some animals are more equal than others.” Only in the funhouse of a Communist country is the cleaning lady rich compared with the lawyer. Yet elite Cubans are impoverished compared with the middle class and even the poor outside Cuba.
About half the dinners I had were acceptable, and a few were outstanding, but the breakfast buffets in my hotel, the Habana Libre, were uniformly disgusting. Bacon was half-raw, the sausage made from God-knows-what. The cheese was discolored, the bread hard and flavorless. Yet the grim offering was advertised in the lobby as “exquisite.” Maybe if you’ve spent your entire life on a Cuban ration card, it’s exquisite, but otherwise—no. The question wasn’t what I wanted to eat, but what I thought I could eat without my stomach rising up in rebellion.
Leftists often talk about “food deserts” in Western cities, where the poor supposedly lack options to buy affordable and nutritious food. If they want to see a real food desert, they should come to Havana. I went to a grocery store across the street from the exclusive Meliá Cohiba Hotel, where the lucky few with access to hard currency shop to supplement their meager state rations. The store was in what passes for a mall in Havana—a cluttered concrete box, shabby compared even with malls I’ve visited in Iraq. It carried rice, beans, frozen chicken, milk, bottled water, booze, a small bit of cheese, minuscule amounts of rancid-looking meat, some low-end cookies and chips from Brazil—and that’s it. No produce, cereal, no cans of soup, no pasta. A 7–11 has a far better selection, and this is a place for Cuba’s “rich” to shop. I heard, but cannot confirm, that potatoes would not be available anywhere in Cuba for another four months.
Shortly before I left Havana, I met a Cuban-American man and his wife visiting from Miami. “Is this your first time here?” he asked. I nodded. “What do you think?” I paused before answering. I wasn’t worried that I would offend him. He lives in Miami, so his opinions of Cuba are probably little different from mine. But we were in a crowded place. Plenty of Cubans could hear us, including the police. They wouldn’t arrest me if I insulted the government, but I didn’t want to make a scene, either. “Well,” I finally said. “It’s . . . interesting.” He belted out a great belly laugh, and I smiled. His wife scowled.
“I hate this place!” she near-shouted. Fidel himself could have heard, and she wouldn’t have cared. She wasn’t going to be quiet about it. Tourists who visit Cuba and spend all their time inside the bubble for the “haves” could leave the country oblivious to the savage inequalities and squalor beyond the hotel zone, but this woman visits her husband’s family in the real Cuba and knows what it’s really like.
“His family is from here,” she said, “but mine’s not, and I will never come back here. Not while it’s like this. I feel like I’m in Iraq or Afghanistan.” I visited Iraq seven times during the war and didn’t have the heart to tell her that Baghdad, while ugly and dangerous, is vastly freer and more prosperous these days than Havana. Anyway, Iraq is precisely the kind of country with which Castro wants you to compare Cuba. It’s the wrong comparison. So are impoverished Third World countries like Guatemala and Haiti. Cuba isn’t a developing country; it’s a once-developed country destroyed by its own government. Havana was a magnificent Western city once. It should be compared not with Baghdad, Kabul, Guatemala City, or Port-au-Prince but with formerly Communist Budapest, Prague, or Berlin. Havana’s history mirrors theirs, after all.
An advertisement in my hotel claimed that the Sierra Maestra restaurant on the top floor is “probably” the best in Havana. I had saved the Sierra Maestra for my last night and rode the elevator up to the 25th floor. I had my first and only steak on the island and washed it down with Chilean red wine. The tiny bill set me back no more than having a pizza delivered at home would, but the total nevertheless exceeded an entire month’s local salary. Not surprisingly, I ate alone. Every other table was empty. The staff waited on me as if I were the president of some faraway minor republic.
I stared at the city below out the window as I sipped my red wine. Havana looked like a glittering metropolis in the dark. Night washed away the rot and the grime and revealed nothing but city lights. It occurred to me that Havana will look mostly the same—at night, anyway—after it is liberated from the tyrannical imbeciles who govern it now. I tried to pretend that I was looking out on a Cuba that was already free and that the tables around me were occupied—by local people, not foreigners—but the fantasy faded fast. I was all alone at the top of Cuba’s Elysium and yearning for home—where capitalism’s inequalities are not so jagged and stark.
Michael J. Totten is a City Journal contributing editor and the author of five books, including The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel.