Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Some Thoughts on My Recent Trip to Cuba

Whenever I go on particularly interesting or meaningful trips I like to sit down and write about them to help organize my thoughts before I forget too much, which happens sooner and sooner the older I get.

I have just returned from one of those trips-- four days in Cuba with 14 other men from Tucson who went on a "humanitarian" mission to visit the Jewish community of Havana. Since virtually all travel to Cuba from the U.S. is banned, these missions are one of the few ways to legally visit that country. There are currently about 1500 Jews in Cuba and I'm certain that more than that many visit from the U.S. each year on a trip such as ours.

Although we were there a short time, I came away with some strong impressions about Jews, life in Cuba, and life in general.

In Cuba there was once a community of 15,000 Jews before Castro took over in 1959. After that, community shrank to only 800 before starting to grow back to 1500 a few years ago. There are now three synagogues in Havana and Jewish communities in two or three other cities. The American Joint Distribution Committee pumps almost $180,000 a year into Cuba and pays for professional staff on the ground.

The Jews of Cuba have it better than any other group on the island. In the first place, they are the most visited and get more stuff (clothes, medicine, toys, etc.) than anyone else. Second, they are the only group that gets to move away if they want. Jews are allowed to move to Israel because that is considered a religious act--not a political one. About 50 to 60 Jews make aliyah every year. At that pace, most of the vitality may be gone from the community in a few years since the people who are leaving tend to be the best and the brightest.

I was told there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba because nobody knows what Jews are.

Cuba is pretty much a wall-to-wall Communist state which is very unusual these days. The government controls all aspects of life. It decides who gets what job and where people can and can't live. The average income is about $25 a month and that's what everybody makes from a doctor to an engineer to a street sweeper. Health care is free and food staples are subsidized. The problem is that the shelves in the government stores have very little on them.

Everyone gets paid in CUPs (Cuban Pesos) which are accepted at government stores and on public transportation. In an effort to bring in more hard currency, a few years ago the government created CUCs (Convertible Pesos) which are exchanged for hard currency from foreign countries when tourists come to Cuba. The government takes an 8% cut off the top for all currencies except dollars where they take an 18% cut.

Over the last 10 years, resorts, hotels, and stores have sprung up that can only be patronized by foreigners and Cubans who have access to CUCs. Those Cubans are almost all service workers, tour guides, artists, and others who have access to tourists. So, in a bizarre twist, some of the richest Cubans are tour guides and artists who can make hundreds of dollars a week or more while doctors and engineers make $25 a month. It is a country with rich artists and starving doctors. We are used to the opposite.

The nice hotels are very nice and there are also really good restaurants and clubs. The problem is that there is nothing to buy. No one takes American credit cards and there is little merchandise. Our tour guide, Alain, made a $300 tip from our group alone and probably has thousands stashed away. Yet, he told me that other than nicer clothes and better food, there is nothing to spend money on. He can't travel, he can't buy a car, and there is no home cable TV or internet. Being rich certainly beats being poor but not by as much as is does in other places.

It seems like the ways Jews had to live through most of history. They could only live in certain places and pursue certain professions. They couldn't own land and really had no place else they could go. Some did well financially, but it really didn't do them any good.

There have been more joint ventures in recent years, but the Cuban government has been tough to work with and not very smart. Europeans and others who come in to build businesses find that the Cuban government decides who they will hire and fire and when.

If Cuba ever opens up to real development, it would be a bonanza. There is prime beachfront property and Havana was rocking in the 50's. There were great beaches, casinos, hotels, top entertainment acts. Pretty much like it's laid out in Godfather II. The problem was that most Cubans lived horribly and the dictator Batista (who had support of U.S. government) ran a repressive regime and killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of people.

That set the stage for the revolution led by Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara (whose picture is everywhere) that overthrew the government in 1959. Fidel promised the masses better health care and education and, due to his alliance with the Soviet Union, was able to deliver on that promise for more than 30 years.

The people who were most unhappy about the revolution were businessmen and entrepreneurs who had thrived under Batista and lost everything when Castro took over and nationalized all their homes and businesses. Most of those disenfranchised Cubans moved to South Florida where they have become a very influential political force in American politics. There are well over a million former Cubans in South Florida who hate Castro and who have used all their influence over the years to retain the U.S. embargo of Cuba, prohibit travel, and do everything they can to hurt Cuba economically. Here in Arizona we're not tuned into the enormous political power of the Cuban exiles, but it's out there.

Now that Fidel has passed power to his 76-year old brother Raul there is hope and speculation that there will be a thawing in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, but the Cuban lobby in South Florida has successfully opposed all those efforts in the past and no one in Cuba expects to see much happen soon.

Havana is an amazing city with a great deal of energy. The cigars, rum, salsa clubs, and people were pretty unique but it was the energy of the people that I found impressive in view of the system in which they live. Maybe it's partly because of the baby steps toward free enterprise that are kicking in. Maybe it's because they are so athletic, attractive, and have such amazing rhythm. People look like they're dancing when they're just walking down the street.

Maybe I'm reading more into things than I should, but I felt the same way in Eastern Europe last year and in China the year before--about capitalism, not the dancing part. People who have never known capitalism and free choice seem to appreciate it so much more when they get it. In America these seem to be blessings that we take for granted. Unfortunately, until the last couple years, we seemed to feel it was our God-given right to be economically superior. Now we've watched the value of our dollar and financial institutions collapse and it has been a little bit humbling. Maybe it's just me--I've got a lot to be humble about.

Visually, Havana is amazing. There are miles of oceanfront property and hundreds of amazing buildings and cars that were built in the '50s and are either crumbling or being restored. But, like me, they were hell in their day.

Everyone seems to be licking their chops over all the money that's going to be made when Cuba "opens up." I can tell you for sure that I'm not one of them. There will be a ton of money made and ten tons of money lost when that happens just as there always is when an investment seems to be a "can't miss" proposition.

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