March 14, 2010
The Cuba I SawBy Megan Smith
Interested in seeing Barack Obama's dreams for the U.S. in real time? Pack some toilet paper, Tylenol, and towels. Then hop a plane to Cuba. Just ninety miles off Florida's coast, Obama's ideas are alive and kicking.
In fact, visiting Cuba today may be more meaningful than ever before. Touring the country of 11 million lets you see everything the far left "knows" is right, just, and good for all of us.
Step out at Havana's José Martí airport to throngs of Cubans. The people -- warm and welcoming -- meet friends and relatives at the airport. Hundreds wait for arrivals. Though the government boasts 3.4% unemployment, judging by airport greeters and others hanging around town, those stats are questionable.
Cuba has two currencies: the CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos, pronounced "kooks"), which buy the good stuff, and the Cuban peso: fairly worthless. Cubans are paid in pesos. Twenty-five pesos equal one CUC. It's nearly impossible to earn enough pesos to purchase the number of CUCs needed to buy better items. So Cuba's black market is thriving.
Billboards featuring Fidel and his murderous pal Che Guevara are everywhere.
"Vive la Revolución" and "Siempre la Revolución" signs abound, too. Never mind that the Revolution happened 51 years ago, or that Cuba's been trapped in a time warp and state of decay ever since. The Revolution was Castro's finest moment. And he will never let you forget it. There are no promos for anyone else...except Hugo Chávez. Advertising private enterprise is banned.
Cuba has a centralized government. People vote for municipal officials (neighborhood folks) every two and a half years to represent them in Congress. The Castros are never on a ballot. And, in the Obama spirit, Castro's ideas reign supreme regardless of needs or opinions.
In 1997, Fidel, born Catholic, allowed Pope John Paul into Cuba. Touched by his visit, the dictator rewrote the Constitution, reinstating religion. Lucky Castro rediscovered his roots; if not, no one could practice religion today. Cuba is all about Castro all the time.
Cuba is an antique car-collector's dream...except that Cubans aren't collecting 1940s and 1950s vehicles -- they're driving them. New cars? A few. But generally, oldies must do. Licenses? Interesting. Socialists say everyone's the same. So why link someone's status to license color? Brown plates, for example, signal a government VIP, blue an inspector-controlled vehicle.
Here's something on Obama's wish list: the civilian security system. In Cuba, it's called the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or the CDR. Billed initially as an extra security force, "a collective system of revolutionary vigilance," it puts at least one government spy in the neighborhood. And those spies monitor everything. Even an extra bag of groceries is suspect.
Obama's mandatory national service? Alive and well in Cuba. Eighteen-year-olds complete military or social service. (Many believe that this is additional indoctrination.) Those not attending higher education serve two years, while the rest serve only one. In this communal "utopia," there's plenty of discrimination.
Of course, there's free health care, which Cubans (and Michael Moore) are programmed to hype to Americans. They tell you that Fidel brought universal health care. Sounds terrific, right? All services free? Docs earning 250 pesos a month, yet working nonstop? What could be better?
Well...remember that Tylenol? It's a donation to Cuba. Cuba's health care has "minor" glitches like no medicines. There aren't over-the-counter or prescription drugs, vitamins, or supplies like diabetic strips. There's inferior training, doctor shortages, rationed care, and a lack of equipment. (A few years ago, Havana -- a city of 2 ½ million -- had only one MRI machine.) The hospitals are in terrible shape, and the system is economically draining. Actually, some with money might get better care, but they pay under the table.
Cuba boasts the ultimate jobs bill: Everyone's guaranteed work. Of course, it's government employment -- there is almost nothing else. Jobs pay about $250 a month, which won't cover basics. (Many Cubans rely on remittances from U.S. relations to survive.) There's no incentive, nothing really works -- try the toilets -- and innovation is squashed. The government dictates hours...they're long. A taxi driver I met works from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days but still can't make ends meet.
Fired for wrongdoing or company politics? It's over. No severance, no recommendation, and probably not another job. But hey, who's complaining? It's socialism and it's fair, even when it's not.
Government entitlements are plentiful, however. Each person, employed or not, gets the same "benefits," including that fabulous health coverage and a monthly ration book for food and more. Of course, nothing is sufficient, so everyone is deprived. But with handouts galore, many stay unemployed.
Cuba got a shot of financial reality when Russia stopped footing its bills in the '90s. Suddenly, to quote Margaret Thatcher, they'd "run out of other people's money." Castro added a tiny private sector, turning Cuba socialist instead of communist. Today, Cuba's entrepreneurs are artisans, in-home restaurateurs, and small shop owners. They are heavily taxed and highly regulated, but it's an improvement.
Of course, Cuba bans freedom of speech and the press, something Obama, Axelrod, Pelosi, Reid, and Durbin would celebrate. In fact, speak against the government and disappear: effective. Dissent is outlawed. (Obama and Pelosi, eat your hearts out.)
Obama would rejoice because Fox News is not in Cuba. In fact, only snippets from an Obama favorite -- CNN -- are aired for tourists. Cubans access five state-controlled channels -- everything is censored.
And the internet is controlled. (Obama wants this, too?) The higher-ups get some online privileges; others don't.
Remember the towels? They are giveaways, too. Towels are in short supply. And the toilet paper? Don't ask. Here's a famous Cuban saying: When there's a toilet paper shortage, you know the socialists are coming.
But what Cubans lack in towels and toilet paper, they have in Castro's long speeches. Before his illness, Castro often spoke incoherently for eight to twelve hours to crowds of 50,000. Luckily, he, like Obama and Axelrod, understood astroturfing. Castro "hired" audiences, paying them in food, money, jobs, and more to show up and cheer.
Washington will be pleased to know that there are few overweight Cubans. (No financial drain there.) Of course, it's because they lack food. (Only the elderly, sick, and kids under seven are allowed milk.)
Housing? When Fidel "spread the wealth" in the '50s and '60s, he seized vacated homes of the rich, who fled. In his uncorrupt and crony-less way, his friends were given good homes. Most others shared tight quarters (2,000-ish square feet) with about twelve more people. Same today, but buildings are crumbling. There's peeling paint, broken windows, and cracked doors everywhere. No money for repairs. But who's complaining? Housing is free!
It's almost impossible for Cubans to travel inside or outside their country. The government won't let them. It's easy to see why people risk their lives to escape to U.S. shores. Cuba is the world's largest prison.
So if Barack Obama and his DNC succeed in making their dreams for the United States a reality, here's some advice: Head to the grocery and stack up on toilet paper. Then hang on real tight -- it's going to be one rough ride.
Megan Smith is the pen name for a Chicago area writer who just returned from Cuba.