Wednesday, August 2, 2017

10 Reasons to Avoid Cuba (Part 3)

Part 1 is HERE.  

Part 2 is HERE

7. Castro's Revolution Has a Dark Side

We've all seen Fidel Castro in military garb, and he has a legitimate claim to fending off CIA-backed fighters post-revolution. The problem is what he did after the revolution. As Orwell warned in Animal Farm, revolutionaries have a habit of becoming like previous overseers once in power. 

An excellent graphic novel, Cuba: My Revolution, shows post-revolutionary changes most people never see. 

"Leaving Cuba is not easy. The regime makes you quit working as soon as you apply for a visa even if it takes years to get it. An inspector inventories all your belongings. When you leave, all bills must be paid, your house left fully furnished, and your car turned in to the police station." 

"Fidel has abolished Easter, Christmas, New Year's Eve, and [the Feast of the] Epiphany." [Note: Fidel did not want holidays to interfere with the all-important sugar harvest. Cuba eventually allowed Christmas celebrations in 1998.] 

"I'm losing the pharmaceutical company. He's [Fidel] nationalizing everything. No one can have more than $800 in savings and all private practice will be abolished eventually." 

"UMAPs are camps established to eliminate counterrevolutionaries. Homosexuals. Jehovah's Witnesses and others are sent to remote areas, and sentenced to forced labor."
Bonus, from Wikipedia: "The UMAP camps served as a form of alternative civilian service for Cubans who could not serve in the military due to being, conscientious objectors, homosexuals, or political enemies of the revolution. The majority of UMAP servicemen were conscientious objectors... about 8% to 9% of the inmates were homosexual men, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers, intellectuals, farmers who resisted collectivization, as well as anyone else considered 'anti-social' or 'counter-revolutionary.' Former Intelligence Directorate agent Norberto Fuentes estimated that of approximately 35,000 internees, 507 ended up in psychiatric wards, 72 died from torture, and 180 committed suicide." 

Some revolution, huh? 

8. Nothing Works Consistently in Cuba So Let's Dance Everybody

The prevailing image I'll have of Cuba is the owner of a small bakery with his head in his hands. 
After a second day of heavy rains, the power went out--again. His bakery sells perishable items, including ice cream. The portable generator didn't work, and he propped the door open to prevent heat from destroying inventory. I wanted to take a picture of the owner but it felt inappropriate. Here he was, doing the best he could, selling excellent products, and it didn't matter--Havana's infrastructure was so poor, no matter how much he prepared, he could suffer losses quickly and unexpectedly. A handwritten sign on the wall asked, in English, "Looking for an investor." 

When small businesses start, they must find the cheapest rents--or the most comfy garages.  They do not get to start up in nicer locations, and if they do, their choice of increased costs might be one reason so many small businesses fail in the first four years (though such statistics are skewed by high-earning professionals creating a "fun" side business to a take a loss against income, then closing it after a few years). It takes time to build a book of business and loyal customers, and most business owners expect to lose money the first two years. 

In my case, when opening a solo law firm, I bought all my furniture from Goodwill and a consignment center and found a cheap annual lease in one of the oldest buildings in the city. (Tip: research the minimum lease period your state and city require for 60 or 90 days' notice to evict without cause, or you might have to move after just 30 days if you have a fickle landlord.) Despite no upgrades in many decades, things still worked. I knew the elevator would work almost all the time, the power would always be on unless the entire city went dark, and so on. It took a long time to get my business telephone and fax lines connected--and far too much money--but they got connected after about two weeks. (I disliked AT&T for many years after getting my costly business lines and eagerly hoped Vonage would gain momentum, but the quality of calls on Vonage was never very good--at least then. Today, I wonder how much the excessive cost of the business lines was due to a tax or fee imposed by the city rather than AT&T.) 

In any case, because of decent infrastructure, I could focus on my work. Most importantly, I could open a business without needing to take out loans (I already had student loans), choose a fairly dismal location, and still compete with the rich, established folks in nicer areas. I had to charge lower prices, but that's the flywheel of business: you start out charging little and focus on learning as much as you can, and you can become an expert without needing to be profitable right away because you can pay lower set-up costs somewhere, and things still work. Even in one of Havana's most affluent neighborhoods, things did not work. The flywheel of small business creation, backed by enthusiastic elbow grease, couldn't get moving. 

In such an environment, where you cannot improve even if you work hard, why bother? Why not just dance and sing? 

9. Cuba Does Have Magic

It's not all bad. One humid day, I wanted an ice cream sandwich and asked a neighbor where I could find them. (Without WiFi regularly available, everyone relies on each other for information.)  He thought a store two streets down might have one, but they only had one flavor of ice cream pints, not the famous ice cream sandwiches (aka bocaditos de helado). 
Mmmm, crunchy coating

Before leaving the apartment complex, we had asked around about ice cream sandwiches, and another neighbor suggested the store we visited. On the way back, my neighbor called to a few people on their terraces in Spanish, asking them where we could find ice cream. When we got to the apartment complex, he took me to his apartment, and lo and behold, his little brother was on a small stool in the kitchen, happily scooping ice cream out of a generic tub. Somehow, in 15 minutes, the neighborhood had heard my Cuban neighbor's request and gotten his family ice cream. Show me any other country where that happens. 

My first day in Cuba, when I mentioned I wanted to try Cuba's famous ice cream sandwiches, my landlord called out in Spanish through a window and then took me to the narrow hallway between my apartment and the one next to it. An outstretched hand awaited us with a bocadito de helado. The neighbor's side hustle was selling ice cream sandwiches. I exchanged money for ice cream without seeing her face because the alley was too narrow to have a proper introduction. 

I eventually found a place selling ice cream sandwiches with multiple flavors about a mile away, but the sandwiches didn't taste as good as my neighbor's. It's hard to compete with the first impression of an unexpected hand outside a window, offering ice cream. 

10.  Competition and Choices

The Dominican Republic, which also has beautiful beaches, is near Cuba.  Why visit Cuba when you can visit Caribbean beaches in a more comfy environment? 
Dominican Republic. Not Cuba. 


So I suppose I lied. These are not ten reasons to avoid Cuba. They're only nine. I visited Cuba when I was 39, the same age as Che Guevara when he was executed. Had Che lived longer, he would have learned that revolutionary ideals need sound economics and sustainable trade agreements to flourish. To be fair, America and other debt-ridden capitalist countries aren't exactly shining economic models, either. Maybe in the end, whatever label you give any system, it all decays because you're just following someone else's idealized version of society rather than your own moral conscience. 

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