At Large

An Old Man’s Island

Walk down any street in contemporary Cuba, and all you will see is failure.

By 8.19.11

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To lure a Cuban into actually telling you what he thinks requires something akin to a blood relationship, so it's hard to know how the average citizen feels about his country or the direction in which it's headed. The view of the illegal taxi driver in Santiago de Cuba on the eastern tip of the island is quite different from that of his worldly counterpart in Havana. But one thing is consistent: No matter his political stance or economic status, the ordinary Cuban always believes his country is at the center of global affairs. Cuban girls are prettier, jazz is more original, dance is more imaginative and baseball players are better than anywhere else -- except maybe for a few Dominican shortstops. These viewpoints ring increasingly false. It should be clear to everyone by now that Cuba is a failing country, and that the Cuban Revolution was a failed experiment.

About one hundred thousand Cuban Americans are said to make their way to and from Cuba each year, though some say that figure is much higher. The economic impact (even beyond the amounts of money brought into Cuba clandestinely) is immense, as each traveler is now authorized by the American government to legally bring into Cuba $3,000 in cash. This comes in addition to the $500 quarterly allowed for U.S. residents to send to even extended family members in Cuba. Religious organizations can receive unlimited remittances, and those really add up.

Despite some initial disagreement, there now seems to be a consensus around the figure of a minimum of $1.2 billion as the amount remitted yearly from Cuban Americans to their relatives in Cuba. Of this, the Cuban government assesses about 20 percent in various fees. If Cuban expatriates and their now adult children had not fled to the U.S. and elsewhere, the economy of Cuba would be in far worse shape than it is today. That's one of the many ironies of the Cuban Revolution.

Meanwhile, one of the more tragic scenes of contemporary Cuba plays out each day along the ramshackle streets of Cuban communities. There are laws that control any business designed to make individual profit. Gratuities in hard currency or convertible pesos from tourists is one of the exceptions, as is money made by clandestine taxi operators in their ancient and dilapidated vehicles running on stolen gasoline. So professionals, such as teachers and lawyers, vie for part-time employment as waiters to earn foreign currency tips.

Although the Cuban Government under Raul Castro's leadership recently loosened the restrictions on small private businesses, the ordinary citizen still doesn't enjoy forking over license and operating fees to officialdom. Individuals eking out an income often revert to a certain device that Cuban soldiers brought back from their tour in Angola during the 1970s and 1980s.

In Africa's poorer urban environs, women set out on the ground each day a selection of what they have acquired to sell -- from fruits and vegetables to private possessions such as clothes and household supplies. In Cuba this form of marketing has become known as candongas, which is a play on words meaning "trickery." Instead of placing the goods for sale on the ground, the Cuban peddler lines it all up on a cot or some other homemade platform. Here private possessions of everything from auto parts to used shirts and pants are sold -- but without government licenses or taxation.

Paladares, the unlicensed neighborhood restaurant, is another way ambitious entrepreneurs get around government regulations. As many chairs as possible are jammed around a few tables. The comparatively cheap food can range from edible to not-so edible, but that doesn’t inhibit the crush of clientele. It's a real moneymaker for the proprietor, but these untaxed, unlicensed establishments last only about a year at best. Nonetheless the fly-by-night system works. Many lower-level officials eat at the paladares.

For people who know their way around or know people who know someone who knows his way around, everything needed can be purchased in Havana. Computers, videos, Harley Davidson sweat shirts -- they're all available for a price. The Ministry of Interior has a vast operation aimed at controlling this strictly illegal trade. It fails regularly -- except when it doesn't want to. That's why there is a regular roundup of sellers and buyers.

August 11 was Fidel's eighty-fifth birthday. One wonders what he possibly could have celebrated -- other than still being alive. He and Raul have been around for a long time, but as revolutions go, Cuba's is put-putting along like the decrepit American cars that now -- more than anything else -- are the still living symbols of 1959.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.