Obama’s three-day trip to Cuba is the first to the country by a sitting president in nearly 90 years.
WHEN he arrives in Havana on Sunday, President Obama should continue to press for further economic opportunities for Cuba, and, in doing so, take credit for a second revolution already under way. After all, why let Raul Castro take the credit?
My trip last year to Cuba was an introduction in what nascent capitalism really looks like. Having arrived at the Havana airport, a state employee surreptitiously exchanged my money, and did it at a better rate than I’d get at the tourist queue. If caught, he would have been arrested. In Cuba, capitalism means taking some risks.
And governments, even socialistic ones, quickly learn to tax capitalists. For about 10 years, Cuba has allowed individual ownership of small enterprises, such as taxis, cafes, bookstores and room rentals out of individual homes. The small entrepreneurs I talked with all indicated a three-tiered tax structure: They pay a fixed monthly fee for the privilege of their business, a 10 percent tax on receipts and a year-end income tax. Talk about a bureaucracy.
Yet these individual businessmen and women were the happiest of individuals. They were obtaining foreign currency and supplementing meager wages.
A retired schoolteacher with 40 years of service was acting as our group guide. He could earn more in a week than his pension for a year; his retirement was the equivalent of $40 a month. To save money, he lived with his brother, a dentist. His brother said that while his professional education had been free, his compensation thereafter was small. To visit the United States one time, he had to take out a loan for airfare. When asked about the meaning of Cuba’s revolution, he said that it was good and bad.
Everywhere one sensed this ambivalence about the revolution. A former Cuban judo star, whose earnings had given him the ability to purchase his Peugeot taxi, commented on the ubiquitous highway billboards extolling the virtues of the revolution: “palabras, palabras, solo palabras” (words, words, just words). Yet when Cubans hear the haunting melody “Hasta Siempre, Comandante” (Until Forever, Comandant), they may be brought to tears. The song recalls Che Guevara’s letter of resignation to Fidel Castro in 1965. Guevara would give up his government post in favor of fighting in Africa and South America, where he was eventually killed.
The woman who rented me a room said Guevara and Fidel were her heroes. In her small town of Veñales, they had electricity, television, Internet, universal education and health care for all. She had two rooms to rent and her daughter-in-law was the region’s physician. For her, the revolution was a huge success and Americans were welcome in her home. Besides, she told me we tip better than Germans.
Before leaving, I was having breakfast at a swank hotel. Dishes were being rapidly bused. Because cups were in short supply, some were being returned to the barista under the counter. In a sleight of hand, he was rinsing the cups so that they could be used to reset the tables.
In the largest bookstore in the heart of Havana, I asked for books by Leonardo Padura Fuentes, considered Cuba’s greatest resident novelist. The store had in stock one copy of one of Padura’s books — the shelves in the bookstore had empty spaces.
Likewise in the countryside, much of the land lies fallow. And where tilled, one finds oxen or ancient tractors marked “Belarus” pulling one-blade plows. Cups, books, plows: Everything in Cuba is scarce.
The Museo de la Revolución in old Havana is a stately building with all its floors dedicated to explaining the story of the Cuban revolution. Fading artifacts and old photos fill glass cases. There are no interactive exhibits and nothing can be touched. Parts of speeches and documents are simply displayed behind the glass. It reminded me of a high-school trophy case at a school that has not won a state title in a long time. The employee in the bookstore of the museum explained to me under pictures of Che and Fidel how much Cubans were counting on U.S. investment.
The United States should end the economic embargo of Cuba and get credit for Cuba’s second revolution — an embrace of capitalism. The Cubans look to us as a beacon of hope.
Where else in the world are we so revered and emulated? If we act unilaterally, we deny credit to Raul Castro. This would be the quickest way toward political change on the island.
After all, what do we have to fear from 11 million people who want to be like us and purchase a few good John Deere tractors? Better yet, let John Deere build them a factory.