Cuba's Future According To A Havana Taxi Driver
01 December 2016 in Politics
I worked in Havana as a translator and journalist from 1992 to late 1993, in what was known as the "Special Period," the economic crisis which ensued just after the dissolution of the Soviet trading bloc. What follows is an excerpt from the ensuing memoir, Through the Wall: A Year in Havana.
Our cab driver's kinky black hair is laced with grey. Judging by his dark skin, it's easy to predict how poor he was before the revolution. It’s also easy to guess whether he supports it or not.
"Reynaldo, did people really eat more meat before the revolution than they do now in Special Period?"
"¡Ay no, m'hija!" He shakes his head. "Before the revolution you could buy as much meat as you wanted. The ones who had jobs. But the quarter of us who didn't? And when the sugar harvest was over, it was even worse.
"Let me tell you a little story," he turns around momentarily in his seat to look at us. "One of the first things the revolutionary government did was cut my rent by fifty percent. And put the sale price at 3,240 pesos. That's—give me a minute—around 46 dollars!—a little more than swordfish costs now!" The realization makes him roar with laughter. "That's what I paid for my old apartment! I sold it and bought a plot of land where I built my house and my son's house. I have nothing to complain about. My house is huge. It's beautiful. People forget that. They forget all the unemployment this system has eradicated."
"Even in the Special Period, people who don't work still don’t go hungry. People forget it wasn’t always that way. That there were beggars and street peddlers who would do anything for a few coins; musicians piling onto the backs of trucks and playing for scraps of food. Especially the new generation forgets. That's about five or six million people who never saw capitalism.
"Those young people, bunch of spoiled brats," he continues. "Obsessed with pull-overs and jeans. One told me he wants a Jaguar. Ridículo. As if he lives in the United States.
"They complain about the food: 'But there's no butter for the bread.' When I lived with my mother, lucky was the day when we could have a piece of bread with our coffee. And God help any one of us who got sick. You had to have real good connections to see a doctor with the kind of money we made. No sir, these kids, all they want are the virtues of capitalism. They don't see all the problems. The violence. The homeless. You tell me which one of those things are a problem here? Which one?"
I reflect and shake my head. The first generation of Cuban socialists seem satisfied to have left colonial squalidness behind and have their basic needs met. But spared their parent's poverty, many of those under forty expect more. They are like me: peering at Cuba through a "First World" lens.
"It's true, now with all the shortages you might hear about a street gang somewhere, but imagine if the States had the kind of shortages there we have here now!" Reynaldo steamrolls ahead. "How many homeless would there be then? How many were there during your depression? I'm telling you, if I ever have to come up against people who want to go back to capitalism, I'd lay my life on the line to defend this system. ¡Así eh!"
Now that Fidel has passed, the success of the new human Che envisioned will be tested. If these young people genuinely feel as though they have input, if they are sufficiently educated to withstand being bought off by foreign investors or seduced by consumerism as Che and Fidel envisioned, to the extent that a capitalist global economy permits, the revolution will continue and Cuba will have beat all the odds again. On the other hand, if this "new being," accustomed to European-style health care, education, adequate housing and food, expects to continue developing to her greatest potential, but instead hits her head on a glass ceiling—a ceiling imposed either by Cuba's impoverished status as a former colony or by the Old pro-Soviet Guard's refusal to allow her input into her own future—this could lead to the revolution's defeat.
I ask Reynaldo if he feels the revolution has failed to educate its young people sufficiently.
"You mean failed in politicizing them?" Reynaldo looks hard into my eyes. "Political education is not something you learn in school. It comes from the blows you receive in life, nothing else. Nothing else."