Fidel Castro is dead, proving once again that only the good die young.
The news of his death was especially poignant to me as I have visited Cuba several times, back in the day when it was still completely communist, before he handed over the hammer to his kid brother. That would be the hammer he used to drive his flock of “followers”.
As a lifelong serial entrepreneur, I had an especially hard time understanding Cuba, which is the antithesis of the entrepreneur spirit.
Pedro was the guide I would hire, and he would spend the day with me, driving me around in his clunky old Russian car that was held together with baling wire. Pedro was not a government minder, as far as I could tell, although when I asked him one day to come up to my room to help carry my souvenirs, cops came out from nowhere to stop him from getting into the elevator, so who knows? Were we being watched all the time? I was free to leave Pedro and I often did.
I paid him $30 a day when his wife, who had a masters degree in biology, made $28 a month, as did most professionals. And Pedro didn’t mince words in criticizing his government, even one time voicing his opinion that all Cubans were just Castro’s slaves. Here are some of my observations from my times in Cuba:
People would come up to me to give me money and ask that I buy some milk for their children. Nobody could buy milk for anyone over the age of seven, except of course foreigners. Yet, flying over the island I saw miles and miles of empty green grass that appeared it would make good pasture land. Why not put some cows on those fields? Nobody I asked had an answer.
Every morning I would watch from my hotel window as semi-trucks would pull over to the curb where people would tumble out of those windowless cans, and walk to their jobs. One day Pedro drove me out to the suburbs to show me where those workers came from. Dozens and dozens of high rise apartment buildings were growing out of the fields like giant bean stocks. As we drove around the neighborhoods I asked where were the grocery stores, the restaurants, the playgrounds, everything that makes a neighborhood? Pedro said there wasn’t anything like that. There were no frills in these ‘burbs. No entertainment nor conveniences.
One day I was walking on my own and became tired. I jumped in the basket of a grown man’s tricycle and offered to pay him to take me to my hotel. The man jumped off his trike and ordered me out of the basket before anyone saw me, or his only vehicle would be confiscated. He was not allowed to rustle up any money on the side of whatever his government job was. Why? Because everyone had to make the same amount of money. $30 a month.
The organization of the government jobs is what drove me most crazy. Pedro and I would be in a restaurant or a bar and I would look around, count the house, and wonder out loud what kind of living the owner was making. Each time Pedro would sigh, again, and once again explain that the owner was Uncle Fidel. And that this restaurant or bar was only there to serve me, the foreigner. It was mind boggling to me that nobody could start a business.
Pedro pointed to the “minders” at each of these businesses, who would be sitting or standing near the cash register. They were government employees whose job it was to spy on their fellow government employees to assure Uncle was not being short changed. God forbid that anyone should make an extra peso.
Bread lines. I had never seen a bread line before, but here they were, stretching down the street, with those standing in line clutching their ration coupons. Again, there is lots of vacant land in Cuba, they can’t grow more wheat? Why not? Nobody I asked knew why not. Everything was centrally planned by people nobody ever saw, and more scary, everyone just went along with it, not even wondering why things were so. Once people get to that point, the society is a goner. You have to imagine things to be different in order to make it so.
Government secrecy was extreme. The citizens would go for a year or more and never see Castro on TV or hear him on the radio. They didn’t know if he was married or had children, or where he lived. I knew more about him than his people knew. (Two marriages, six to 10 kids, depending on how you’re counting, living his later years on a large estate on a small island off the main island).
Cuba has often been respected for its health care, and statistics seem to point to success at keeping people alive to a ripe old age, but doctors all make about $30 a month. And people are forced into vaccinations and regular checkups. A good thing? Maybe. But I also saw more missing limbs than I had ever seen anywhere else in the world. Short cuts in medical procedures? (Excuse the pun). Maybe. Or maybe there were just a lot of buzz saw accidents.
Education in Cuba is also a big deal, but what are you going to do with that education? Go into agriculture? Obviously, they don’t hire well educated people in that field or someone would plant some food. Law? There’s only one law in the entire country, and that would be Castro’s law. Medicine? And work for starvation wages? You spend all that time in school and you still stand in bread lines. So why go to school? So you can read enriching books? You can do that with a grade school education. Provided you have access to books.
What I found missing in Cuba was the chance to fail. The chance to make your own health care decisions, be them ever so bad, the chance to start your own business, although that very well might not go well, or the chance to buy your own home that might drive you to the poor house with repairs.
The right to fail could be jotted down in the American Bill of Rights, but the fact is, that right is kind of a byproduct of all our other rights. If we have the right to make our own decisions, we automatically have the most important right of them all, and that is the right that so many people are most afraid of: The right to fail. In talking to many Cubans, the fear of that fundamental right to fail is what I found separates the Cubans living in Miami from those still clinging to the island life. That is the fear of too much freedom, which is nothing more or less than the fear of being responsible for their own lives.
Maybe some people do better under communism. Well, minus the firing squads of course.