by Michael Munger
In 2001, the author took a trip to Cuba. What follows is a time capsule, written up in a journal at the time but never published. Given recent events, we may look to Cuba’s recent past to think about its future. The three people profiled here are likely still living in Cuba — still waiting, still hoping.
It’s May 2001. A professor friend (let’s call him “Fred”) and I had been invited to Cuba to lecture at the Center for the Study of the United States. We had prepared stuff on the American presidential election. And we had worked up presentations on some of the subcabinet appointments for Bush’s government, particularly those affecting Latin America and Cuba. But we were out of our league.
The folks at the center were smart, funny, and had direct outside Internet access. That meant two things: First, they were stone spooks, “studying” the United States for Cuban intelligence. Second, since they lived in a system where whim and personal bias were king, they knew an incredible amount about whim and personal bias. Fred and I knew the formal American system; the Cubans wanted to know about the third deputy undersecretary of photocopier maintenance in building four at the State Department, because they knew who was really in charge.
My color overheads impressed them, though, because they cost $1.50 per page. The reason they were impressed was that, as professors — and near the top of the heap in terms of income — they were well paid, earning in some cases more than $30 per month. The idea that someone would pay nearly $30 to make 18 overheads was amazing to our hosts. I later found out they also drove taxis nights and weekends, since they could make a month’s salary in tips in a couple of days.
We had some free time, and there are plenty of things to do in Havana. Visiting Hemingway’s house, touring the Morro Castle, museums, parks — it’s a 500-year-old city, with 50 years of ideologically excreted zealot-guano caked on top.
We encountered three of the most interesting, sad, and hopeful people I’ve ever met, in three different settings. Each of them represented a layer of Cuban society. Let’s start at the top.
1. Museo de la Revolución: Antolina
Fred and I went to the Museo de la Revolución, unsubtly sited in the former presidential palace. It had last been occupied by the appalling gangster-dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day, 1959. Our tour guide was a young woman I’ll call “Antolina.”
Antolina showed us the bullet holes near the stairway, where the Castro-aligned “students” had run up the stairs to try to kill Batista in 1957. Batista’s office was impressively ornate, and Antolina showed us the “secret” exit behind a curtain where cowardly Batista had hidden from the students’ righteous anger. Though the attack had failed, it had been a glorious union of intellectuals and the working class, the union that still animates Cuba today, and blah, blah, blah (I’m skipping a lot).
Halfway through the tour, we went outside to look at some anemic military displays. Fred asked Antolina a question about the “students” and where they had come from. It couldn’t have been more innocent. But she immediately turned to him and said, “Look, you’re professors; I’m a historian. That other stuff is just what we tell tourists.”
And then she told us her version of the real story. Remember, she was in uniform, a priestess at the Temple of Socialism. But she also cared about history. First and foremost, she cared about Cuba and the truth. In that moment, she felt more of a connection with history than with the revolution.
It turns out, at least according to Antolina, that the attack was botched from the outset. Students and workers were supposed to coordinate and pull up to the palace together. But the workers pulled up first, saw soldiers on the roof with rifles, and panicked. They drove off, tires squealing, and hid behind a building. Then they bailed, leaving the truck. The students arrived about a minute later, and immediately attracted the already-aroused interest of the soldiers on the roof.
Several students were killed in the parking lot, but 10 or so made it inside the building, brandishing rifles and yelling. They fired wildly, making the bullet holes by the stairs. As they went up the stairs, the soldiers were getting organized. The students just ran around bumping into each other until they were killed or captured. It is not clear they ever even found Batista’s office, on the second floor. And, if they had, it would hardly have mattered, because Batista was upstairs in his bed that entire day, suffering from diarrhea. In short, the workers ran off before the first shot, the students got lost and then got killed, and Batista was out with a tummy ache anyway.
Through gestures and concise, idiomatic description in what was, after all, her second language, Antolina made us feel as if we had been there. Though the story was brief and furtive, she told it in a way that has stuck in my mind ever since. This impressive young woman should have been a real historian, doing real research, or curating some important museum collection. If she had been born in almost any other country, she would have been. Her self-confidence, in retrospect, was striking. When she found out we were professors, she decided we were all peers. Even more impressively, she was right: she was clearly our equal. But the best post open to her was as a cleric in the Cuban secular church.
2. The tour guide: Trino
The second striking personality was a government-approved tour guide who went with us by taxi to several sites and tried to work with us to get through an army “roadblock” that had no apparent purpose. He was friendly, bright, and very energetic. I’ll call him “Trino.”
At lunch, Fred and I asked Trino about himself. It turns out he had an advanced degree, the closest equivalent one could find to an MBA in Cuba. He wanted to start his own business, after Castro passed on, and he had several plans about how to make it happen. I slowly realized that Trino was furious. And what made him angry was the system he had to live in (partly because that meant he had to be a tour guide to fat idiots like me!). More than anyone else I met, this tour guide made me feel the tragedy of “modern” Cuba.
He had enormous plans, gigantic ambitions. But he had to go to Morro Castle, or Hemingway’s house, or some other attraction every day and answer the same questions. (“Do they have those six-toed cats here?” “No, ma’am, that was Hemingway’s other house, the one in Key West.” (Dios, me tira ahora…) His life was ticking by, and he couldn’t organize any development ventures, even though he lived in one of the largest, most attractive, least developed tourist destinations in the world. There is prime real estate, right on the Malecón, one of the most beautiful ocean vistas anywhere, where the buildings are completely uninhabitable. Some visitors ask, “Were these buildings damaged in the revolution?” What Trino wanted to say, but couldn’t, was “No, ma’am, they have been damaged by the revolution.”
We had asked our spook hosts, back at the university, why these properties weren’t being developed, or just torn down. They earnestly explained that there were plans to renovate them, but that the government had not yet authorized the money. Somehow, Miami had managed to find ways to generate huge new private building projects, but there were no renovations along the entire Malecón.
Trino had to ride by these great gold mines every day, seeing but unable to touch or build. It was a tragedy of the unseen, because of what was not happening. All you would have to do is take ten 26-year-old entrepreneurs like Trino, open up a financial system for direct foreign investment, and endorse private property. Within a year, each Trino would be making $30k a month, the unemployment rate would be below 3 percent, and the Malecón would be beautiful even if you turned away from the ocean and looked across the street.
3. The cigar hooker: Evaristo
The last guy was the most amusing. His type is not unique to Cuba; it can be found in any police state. The young man I’ll call Evaristo was utterly charming, amusing, and completely untrustworthy — so we liked him immediately. Evaristo was selling contraband cigars in, incredibly, the government cigar shop. To be fair, he wasn’t actually selling cigars there. He was openly trying to hook people into walking across the street (good hiding spot!) with him and buying the “same” cigars (he claimed) at less than half price, avoiding all those nasty taxes and laws and things.
Being a free-market libertarian, I am completely terrified of tax dodges and black-market transactions, since governments have men with guns. Being a lefty, my friend Fred believed in a more nuanced approach: pay the taxes you think are legit (to be fair, for Fred this is almost all of them), but feel free to weasel on the rest. So, I paid $80 for 10 cigars in the government shop, got my receipt for US Customs, and followed Evaristo and Fred to the “private” cigar shop run by Evaristo’s “associates.” (I’m sorry for all the scare quotes, but it was scary.)
We got into the first floor and saw that the building was just a shell, left over after a pretty severe fire. There was nothing on the first floor, including light or air (it is possible I was hyperventilating by this time). Being a coward, I stayed on the first floor while Fred and Evaristo went upstairs to complete their transaction. Fred was gone quite a while, and then came down beaming. He had gotten twice as many cigars, at less than half the price. And Evaristo got paid, probably handsomely, because he was creating value in a place where value is usually destroyed.
The cost of the revolution
Cuba has not failed to attract tourists. The lovely old Hotel Nacional is where the flocks of libidinous German and Chinese businessmen roost while they wear out the local hookers. So it is possible to make money, if you do it the way the state requires. The real cost of the revolution is that it told people that they can have what they want. Then it told them what they could want. And then it failed to deliver even that. Don’t worry, be quiet. It is not an economic system, but rather a religion.
After a week, it was time to go. The taxi picked us up right at the hotel. It was a massive Mercedes, maybe two years old, and plush. It was about a 25-minute ride (a little over 15 miles) to the airport, and we swooshed by horses pulling iron plows as if we were in a spaceship. Our driver was quiet, courteous, drove just over the speed limit, stayed off the horn, stayed in his lane, and spoke passable English. It was a better taxi ride than you could get in Miami or New York.
When we got to the airport, the driver said, “Four-tee.” Fred and I both heard it that way. We were delighted. A veteran taxi driver was charging us an outrageously realistic world price for a realistically high-quality service. It was the Cuba of the future, and we were the vanguard. As we tried to hand him a wad of fives and tens, the driver’s eyes widened, and he shook his head wearily. Idiot Americans. “No, no: four-TEEN.” A month’s salary for a Cuban worker; bus fare to an American.
Hasta la victoria siempre
Who cooked up this mess? It is common to blame Marx or Lenin, who came up with the original recipe. Or to castigate Castro, and heaven knows that there are thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of ruined lives that Castro should have to answer for. But one of the important thinkers of the revolution in Cuba was its Christ figure and poster boy, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Guevara was what Fidel was not: handsome, brilliant, educated, a medical doctor, an accomplished writer, and (in the last years of his brief life) openly anti-Soviet. He was also capable of giving a public speech in less than five hours, a skill Castro has never developed, but is still [in 2001] trying to work on several times a month.
There is one other important thing about Che (a nickname, after his habit of ending sentences with the Argentinian slang for “pal” or “buddy”). He was a philosopher of the revolution. To understand the “project” of revolution in Cuba, it is worth quoting him at length. What follows is from his “Man and Socialism in Cuba” (1965). The letter attempts to distinguish the roles of the individual and the collective, and addresses the project of remaking citizens.
I shall now attempt to define the individual, the actor in this strange and moving drama that is the building of socialism, in his two-fold existence as a unique being and a member of the community.…
Society as a whole must become a huge school.… Education takes among the masses and the new attitude that is praised tends to become habit; the mass gradually takes it over and exerts pressure on those who have still not become educated. This is the indirect way of educating the masses, as powerful as the other, structured, one.…
We can see the new man who begins to emerge in this period of the building of socialism. His image is as yet unfinished; in fact it will never be finished, since the process advances parallel to the development of new economic forms. Discounting those whose lack of education makes them tend toward the solitary road, towards the satisfaction of their ambitions, there are others who, even within this new picture of over-all advances, tend to march in isolation from the accompanying mass. What is more important is that people become more aware every day of the need to incorporate themselves into society and of their own importance as motors of that society.…
The vanguards have their eyes on the future and its recompenses, but the latter are not envisioned as something individual; the reward is the new society where human beings will have different characteristics: the society of communist man.
This is not just evil, but empirically untenable. There are no “new economic forms.” And the real “motors” of a healthy society are people pursuing “the satisfaction of their ambitions.” People “incorporating themselves into society” are people descending into a living grave.
Cuba should be a wealthy, prosperous, educated country. The weather, scenery, and beaches are great, and people run incredible “private” restaurants (paladares) out of their homes. For $18 or less, you’ll get appetizers to cigars, and you’ll never taste better camarones al mojo de ajo. The cars, rebuilt “coches de Bondo” from the mid-1950s, still run, though none of the engines, brakes, or steering are original. In every situation where the Cuban people have been allowed to “tend toward the solitary road,” they rock the house.
The parts of Cuba that suck are — well, everything else. The government restaurants are grossly overpriced, and the service is decidedly indifferent. The government construction projects consist of groups of men arriving to work about 10 a.m., staring at the walls for a while, having some lunch in the shade, and then calling it a day. I had no trouble recognizing the Department of Motor Vehicles service ethic, or the Department of Transportation work ethic, from my own experience here in the United States. The difference is that, in the United States, the messed-up collectivist part is just an annoyance. In Cuba, the messed-up collectivist stuff is the part Castro and his coreligionists are proud of!
It’s all a profound illustration of Mises’s fundamental insight:
Most men endure the sacrifice of their intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams. They cannot bear that their utopias should run aground on the unalterable necessities of human existence. What they yearn for is another reality different from the one given in this world.
“Hasta la victoria siempre,” Che’s famous saying, could mean either that the final victory will be forever, or that the fight for victory will last forever, depending on the context. A nice ambiguity. The final victory for Cuba won’t happen when Castro dies. The idea of the New Communist Man, the living-dead zombie state perpetuated by the revolution, will have to be buried with him.