Sunday, August 06, 2006

Banana Republic? Cuba After Castro

With the news of Fidel Castro's intestinal surgery, and the "temporary" shift in power to Castro's brother Raul, the extremely important question is: Now what? The Cuban power transition was big news across the media on Wednesday, with the story of Raul's accession, for example, analyzed in this article from the Washington Post.

An intriguing initial answer to where Cuba's going is offered in
this story from the August 14th edition of Business Week. The story's author, Frederik Balfour, visited the country in July, and he's able to offer a breezy but professional account of what might lie in store for the Carribean dictatorship, indicating that he's skeptical there'll be much change:

I wasn't in Cuba on assignment. I was on vacation and told few people about my job as a correspondent for BusinessWeek in Hong Kong. Let's be clear: Although you don't see a lot of cops, and those you do see are unfailingly polite, Cuba is still a police state, and people are afraid to speak their minds, especially to foreigners. For that reason, nearly everyone I spoke with requested anonymity.

Although I left Cuba before Castro announced his illness, I saw little evidence that the country is poised for any significant change. Cuba appears to be frozen in time, with the same empty storefronts, crumbling Colonial-era buildings, and ancient Chevys, Buicks, and Chryslers everywhere. The antique jalopies operate mainly as taxis, often carrying 10 passengers at a time. But since taxis are a luxury for most Cubans and even bicycles are difficult to come by, buses are the most common mode of transport. Cuba's buses are notoriously unreliable, with waits of an hour or more common. Once a bus arrives, it's likely to be a converted 18-wheeler jam-packed with passengers.

This is a country of extreme scarcity. Even basic items such as shampoo and soap are untold luxuries sold only in special shops requiring hard currency or a local scrip called the CUC. That's why enterprising Cubans park themselves outside five-star hotels panhandling for toiletries that can be resold on the black market. Others supplement their official salaries of perhaps $15 per month selling whatever they can. Many families keep their front doors open, using their living rooms as storefronts hawking everything from second-hand shoes to spare parts for various machines to meat and vegetables.

Some are tapping into the tourist trade. While Americans are forbidden to visit, citizens of most other countries are welcome to do so (I'm Canadian), and last year 2.3 million tourists came through. That has created opportunities for people such as the couple I stayed with in Havana. Both former lawyers, they quit their jobs and converted their two-bedroom apartment into a guest house, charging $25 per night. Even after paying a big chunk of that to the government, they are very well off by Cuban standards.

To be fair, Cuba boasts excellent social services. The country's free education and health care are the envy of its Caribbean and Latin American neighbors. Castro has sent hundreds of doctors and teachers to Venezuela, which in turn has helped keep Cuba afloat with cheap oil. Of the dozens of developing countries I've visited, nowhere does the divide between the haves and the have-nots appear to be so narrow, though that's largely because almost everyone is a have-not.

No matter what he thinks, Castro won't outlast the elephant. And just about every Cuban I met hopes his departure will lead to more haves than have-nots.

Whatever happens, I certainly hope no one takes seriously the calls heard this week for Cuba to become the 51st state of the union.

Be sure to take a look at the article's photograph slide show.

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