Understanding the difference between pobreza and miseria

After the rain in Haiti - Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP

Just back from Cuba where he attended the launch of the Spanish translation of his book, “A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks'” at the Havana International Book Fair, Cliff Conner posted a brief note about his visit at the CubaNews listserve.  (The other People’s History guy, Howard Zinn, called Conner’s book “a delightfully refreshing new look at the history of science” and judging from the standing room only reception Conner received in Cuba, I’m guessing it’s likely well worth the read.)  At any rate, Conner’s note apparently stirred up a hornet’s nest of outrage from a couple of ex-Cubans, who it seems responded with the usual tired diatribe about “dissidents,” defectors, etcetera.

How U.S. soldiers helped Haiti prepare for the rain - Photo: Seth Robson, Stars & Stripes

Conner’s response is gracious, far more gracious than I would have been, but then this blog is called Machetera for a reason.  I asked for permission to re-post his letter here because I think it is well worth having as a reference, especially for those who’d like to make a case about the Cuban revolution failing to address poverty in Cuba.

People like for instance, Darsi Ferrer, the State Department’s new “Cuban dissident” poster child, who aside from his interest in secondhand cement, is also an aspiring filmmaker.  Really, I’d rather not call even more attention to this guy but his film, co-produced with help from CANF and some German and Czech “NGO’s” (the Czechs, always the Czechs) would make you laugh if it were not so deadly serious.  Darsi, dressed in a white doctor’s coat, with a stethoscope draped around his neck – in case you forgot he was a doctor – complains to the camera in all seriousness about the “miseria” everywhere in Cuba, caused by inadequate housing and lack of common medicines.  He does this monologue without ever breathing a word about the blockade, while his wife paws through grocery bags full of clothing straight off the boat from Miami (was that a magenta thong or brassiere near the end?), doling out pieces one by one to their very ordinary and quite healthy looking Cuban neighbors.  The film begins and returns to shots of people collecting water from pipes coming out of a wall, as though this is something terribly shocking, and you have to think that it is tragic really that Ferrer couldn’t go do a medical mission in Haiti so he could learn how people get their water there.  The whole production is scored with haunting music from the Holocaust genre in case you still didn’t get the point, and I’m sure it plays very well in drawing rooms on Capitol Hill but it’s junk.  Pure, expensive, U.S. bought and paid for junk.

Here’s Conner:

*     *     *    *

A few weeks ago CubaNews published a report I wrote of a visit in February to the Havana International Book Fair, in which I offered some observations about what I had seen in Cuba. I received (via some friends I had sent the report to) a set of thoughtful comments on it from a couple of Cuban ex-pats. I thought their commentary was worth a reply, so I wrote one; it is appended below. (The names of the people I addressed it to and the names of the Cuban ex-pats have been changed because I do not have their permission to use them.)

Hi Rhonda and George,

Greetings from Mexico City.

Thanks for sending me Jaime and Alejandro’s comments on my “report” from Cuba.  Yes, I did find them very interesting and worthwhile, although I am quite sure that they and I would have to “agree to disagree” about a number of things regarding their former homeland. I will try to respond to what they wrote point-by-point, and will ask you to kindly pass this on to them.

Marush and I entirely agree with them about the tackiness of the Tropicana show, but I described it the way I did because I didn’t want to seem like a cultural snob. Besides, on a certain level, if you suspend your critical judgment, it can still be quite enjoyable. I also agree that the renovation process going on in Habana Vieja is better described as “restoration” than “reconstruction.”

I certainly don’t think of all Cubans living in the United States as ultra-right-wing fanatics. I do think that an ultra-right element dominated the first generation of post-revolutionary refugees, and still has a lot of political clout, but it seems that the younger generation (which apparently includes Jaime and Alejandro) is not nearly as politically homogeneous as their elders.

Although I wrote my report in a somewhat neutral voice, I am in fact a strong partisan of the Cuban economic system in contrast to the system that afflicts our country and most of the rest of the world. I adopted the neutral tone because in the context of the current (abysmally uninformed) American political discourse, even that will seem shockingly pro-Cuba to most of the people I sent it to. I wasn’t trying to be deceptive; I simply didn’t intend it to be an ideological manifesto.

Of course I recognize that Cuban society is not simply an abstract “system” but is organized and governed by fallible human beings. Although I obviously went there with certain preconceptions, and with hopes of seeing more positive than negative, I didn’t go with blinders or rose-colored glasses on. I was prepared to see it “warts and all,” and I did see some warts.

However, I think my preconceptions also “unblinded” me to a number of things that most apolitical tourists would never notice. For example (speaking of blindness), it only occurred to me today, after walking around in Mexico City for an hour and seeing a shockingly large number of blind people, that we had walked around the streets of Havana for ten days and did not see a single blind person.

A cynic might want to believe that the Cuban government simply hides its “problem people,” but I think a much better explanation is that there actually are fewer problem people per capita in Cuba than there are in other poor countries, and that is due to a health care system that really works, and really serves the interests of the population. (And I did notice indications confirming my previous research findings that Cuba is especially advanced in the field of eye care.)

Another small point: the “classic cars” are, as Jaime and Alejandro say, a stereotype, but if you think about it, they are indicative of a very profound and important difference between Cuba and the United States. They reflect the character of a society organized according to “waste not, want not” principles as opposed to one organized according to the principle of “planned obsolescence.” That in turn is an indication of an economy based on rationality as opposed to the irrationality of the market system. What a magnificent example of irrationality planned obsolescence represents!

I’ll take that further and say that this is what I see as Cuba’s most positive aspect: it has a “system,” including its government, that operates according to priorities that are rational from the standpoint of the vast majority of the population. Contrast Cuba’s universal health care with the absurdity of the so-called debate on that subject in our country. How embarrassing is that comparison for us? And after universal health care is universal education.

Then there is the governmental support for the arts that I mentioned in my “report.” (One libertarian friend replied that he would rather not have any governmental support for the arts because it could only be a corrupting influence. I think that is an unduly cynical point of view, but I acknowledge its legitimacy. As for me, I would rather see the NEA increasing arts funding rather than cutting it. Ditto the NEH.)

Here is what in my opinion separates Cuba from every other country in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are two Spanish words that are usually translated into English as “poverty”: pobreza and miseria. They are not the same thing.

Pobreza is a meager existence, a life of continuous hard work and struggle to make ends meet.

Miseria, on the other hand, is to be perpetually mired in filth, degradation, squalor, and hopelessness (think “slumdog”). There is plenty of pobreza in Cuba but virtually no miseria. In all of the other countries a substantial proportion of the population is wallowing in miseria, and most of the rest are in pobreza, alongside small middle classes and extremely small layers of the obscenely wealthy. But even the pobreza in Cuba is qualitatively different from – and preferable to – the pobreza elsewhere.

In the other countries, those in pobreza live in constant terror of being dragged down into miseria. In Cuba that fear has been eliminated by the most solid “social safety net” in the world. No matter how hard the daily struggle for existence, no Cuban has to fear that an unexpected illness will drive them into miseria, or that their children will be malnourished, or not be well educated. And although there is plenty of substandard housing in Cuba (a problem exacerbated by the 2008 hurricanes), Havana is still the only capital city in Latin America that doesn’t include a large, fetid tin-and-corrugated-cardboard shantytown in its midst.

The whole idea of a rational economy implies one that is guided by human intelligence, which is to say, the economy has to be planned. And that opens up the problem that anything human beings are involved in can turn out bad. I am fully aware (as I said clearly in my book) that the planned economies of the Soviet Union and China were severely perverted by entrenched bureaucracies.

So what the discussion over Cuba comes down to is whether the Cuban government, like the Soviet and Chinese governments, has turned the planned economy into a machine of self-enrichment by an entrenched bureaucracy.

It is my considered position that the answer is “no”; that the Cuban economy actually does prioritize the human needs of its population. That is something that I believe cannot be said about any other government on the face of the earth. (It is also why I think the U.S. government is so adamant about isolating Cuba as much as it can from the rest of the world. It fears its example and the spread of the “rationality virus.”)

Jaime and Alejandro are not entirely accurate in assuming that our trip to Cuba was simply a visita dirigida. In the first place, I would never be so naïve as to think that I could actually make solid scientific pronouncements about the state of a society based on a few days visit, dirigida or otherwise, or even one of several months.

My observations were admittedly impressionistic and any evidence I cited is anecdotal. But even impressions and anecdotal evidence can be worthwhile as long as they aren’t made out to be more than they are. I also deny that our visit was fully dirigida. As invited Book Fair guests, we were offered a number of wonderful opportunities by the Ministry of Culture, which we could have turned down, but why would we?

On the other hand, all of the people we visited, including Georgina, the CP Central Committee staffer, were on our own initiative and not foisted upon us.  (She happened to be a friend, based on time she had spent in the United States, of one of our American friends.) And finally, we did visit the homes of several people to whom we were in no sense “directed.”

I knew about the classic cars before we went, of course, but meeting and riding around with a man who owned and lovingly cared for one was a revelation. I also knew about the dual currency system, but actually experiencing it was worth a thousand second-hand accounts.

We could see the world-famous Coppelia ice-cream parlor from our hotel window, so one evening we ventured forth to check it out. As we approached what we thought was it, we were shooed by a security guard in another direction and wound up facing a small ice-cream stand that did indeed bear the name “Coppelia,” but which we could not imagine was the one we had heard about, so we turned around and went back to the hotel.

The next day we returned with our friend Walter and the mystery was cleared up.  The security guard apparently thought he was doing us a favor. He could tell at a glance that we were foreigners, so he had directed us away from the main facility that was for Cubans with moneda nacional in their pockets and toward the one that was for those of us privileged folk with C.U.C. The little stand had the great advantage of having no lines, while the main facility had long, long lines. Waiting in lines is one of the things that is most annoying in the lives of ordinary Cubans.

As for other socioeconomic “warts,” what about prostitutes, beggars, and petty street criminals? I am told that the increase in tourism has led to a rise in prostitution, and I have no reason to doubt it, but it was not obvious.

By comparison, when we were in Beijing recently, the prostitutes around our upscale hotel were not at all shy about advertising their wares.

As for beggars, we were not once directly asked for handouts, but on two occasions after we had told a street peddler we weren’t interested in what he was selling, he shifted to a request for money to feed his hungry children.

By comparison with the streets and subways of New York, that was rather minimal begging. And as for street crime, we were warned not to carry expensive cameras or wear flashy jewelry in some neighborhoods, and I assume the warnings had some basis in reality, but we neither saw nor experienced anything that made us feel

On the other hand, nobody warned us against hailing cabs in Havana, and we took quite a few, but we have been sternly warned not to do that here in Mexico City. It seems that it is not uncommon here for a cab ride to end in the passenger being robbed or worse.

Jaime and Alejandro wrote that “The Cuban sense of humor is legendary” in the context of telling a joke the point of which was to make fun of the shortages and other shortcomings in Cuban society.

The Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, told us a number of similar jokes. We heard from others that he has written and published a book about that genre of humor. His thesis, if I understood it right, was that the uptight purists who label such jokes “counterrevolutionary” are wrong to do so; that those jokes are a manifestation of legitimate popular dissatisfaction that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. If he really did write such a book, I say bravo for him.

Again, what it comes down to is this: Are the Cuban Ministers of X, Y, and Z simply bureaucrats with no concern for the principles they pretend to uphold (like politicians in every other country in the world), or do they continue to act in accord with the principles of the 1959 Revolution? My observations, based not on a ten-day visit to the island but on forty-plus years of close Cuba-watching from afar, suggest that by and large the latter is the case.

The one thing I found offensive in Jaime and Alejandro’s comments was the placement of the word “fascist” in a sentence about Georgina, suggesting that Cuban CP Central Committee members may be no better than fascists.

If I am right about Cuba having a sociopolitical system that is worth defending, then Georgina and her fellow CC workers are in the front lines of that defense, and I applaud them for it. But if I am wrong and Cuba is just another run-of-the-mill “corrupt politics as usual” country, that still would not justify a comparison with fascism.

Yes, Cuba has a single political party, but nobody tries to disguise that fact.  The U.S. “two-party” system, on the other hand, which offers us a “choice” between two candidates hand-picked by corporate interests, is an attempt to bamboozle us into thinking we have a voice in government. (I almost said “an obvious attempt,” but it is obviously not obvious enough, because it still seems to be working.)

Jaime and Alejandro say they are proud of young Cuban doctors who do such good work around the world, and also of Cuban athletes who do so well in international competitions, but they are troubled by the fact that so many defect. They think it can’t just be about the money, can it? Well, trouble yourselves no more; the defections are perfectly understandable if you take into account the context in which they occur.

First, consider the athletes (and you might also have mentioned ballet dancers). When we were at the Cuban National Ballet school we met an American woman named Mary Jane Doherty who is making a documentary film about the ballet school. She told us the story of the recent defection of a rising teenage star dancer whose parents encouraged her not to come back from a competition in Canada.

It was a devastating blow to the school and highly demoralizing to her fellow students. Why did she do it? Undoubtedly because her parents were tired of living in pobreza and saw their daughter’s talent as their ticket to a better life. As Mary Jane said, who can blame them? But it had nothing to do with yearning for artistic freedom or anything as noble as that; it really was all about the money, and it’s the same with the athletes.

El Duque as a standard bearer for democratic rights? Give me a break. My own greatest sports hero was Teófilo Stevenson, who Howard Cosell ceaselessly castigated as an idiot for refusing to defect and thereby losing out on the millions he could earn in the United States.

By the way, although we shouldn’t put too heavy a moral burden on the young dancer who defected, let’s not forget that she took with her a major investment that the rest of the Cuban people had made in preparing her for stardom. The National Ballet School gave her, for free, several years of world-class training without which her great talent could not have developed.

That gave her an opportunity that girls and boys from poor families in most other parts of the world would not have had. If you want to put a dollar value on that training, we’ll have to wait to see what value the market rewards her with. But if she gets rich as a ballet star, she will really owe it all to the millions of ordinary Cubans whose sacrifices subsidized her free training.

Most people in the United States will unthinkingly take the position that the girl had an unqualified right to defect – no ifs, ands, or buts. That is a reflection of the reigning ideology of extreme individualism in which the individual is everything and the collective is nothing.

In North Korea, the collective is everything and the individual is nothing. It seems to me that Cuba has managed to strike the best balance between the needs of individuals and the needs of the collective. (Ironically, it is the place where the abstract individual is exalted to the sky that allows millions of real flesh-and-blood individuals to fall through the cracks.)

It must be remembered that the high-profile defections only have to do with a miniscule number of highly talented individuals. Just as basketball can only be the road out of the ghetto for an infinitesimally small percentage of the millions of young men dreaming that they may be the next LeBron James, neither can defection to the land where streets are paved with gold solve the social problems of millions of ordinary Cubans. And yet they are encouraged to pursue those irrational dreams.

(An aside: Did you ever stop to think about why so much attention is paid to the relatively small number of poor Cubans who emigrate to the United States when at the same time a million poor Mexicans cross the border into the United States every year?)

As for doctors who defect, that is a particularly sordid story. Are you aware that the United States runs a special project devoted to luring those very Cuban doctors you are proud of away from their overseas missions that serve poor people who have no other medical care?* There has to be a special circle in hell reserved for the despicable officials who thought that one up.

[*]See: http://www.uscis.gov/files/pressrelease/CubanMedPrf091906.pdf

What I said about tourism and the Cuban economy was really just an impressionistic riff; I didn’t intend it to be taken as authoritative. I do remember that at one time the Cuban economy’s dependence on sugarcane production made it a classic example of third world monoculture. And I continue to believe that tourism will play a significant role in Cuba’s ability to survive.

I don’t know whether Jaime and Alejandro are correct in their claim that exile family remittances account for more income than tourism at present – I suspect accurate and reliable figures on that score are hard to come by – but even if it is true I don’t think it reflects badly on Cuba. The remittances are usually cited to suggest that the Cuban economy is artificial and would collapse without them, but at best they only partially offset the negative impact of the U.S. economic blockade. Given the choice between the remittances and ending the blockade, I’m sure the Cubans would gladly take the latter.

Furthermore, I would like to offer an alternative reading of Jaime and Alejandro’s statement that “Cuba’s dependence, until 20 years ago, was not on sugarcane but on the largesse of the Soviet Union.”

First of all, the collapse of the Soviet Union did indeed deal a harsh blow to Cuba’s noncapitalist economy, but the fact that the latter has survived for two decades “on its own” should put to rest any notion that Cuba’s dependence on the USSR was in any sense absolute. I would suggest that Cuba’s relationship with the USSR was not one of dependency but one of equal trading partners.

Free-market ideologues assert that when Cuba swapped sugar for Soviet oil, the USSR was “subsidizing” Cuba by selling them oil at a below-market price and buying sugar at an above-market price. That, however, implies that the world market prices of commodities are the “fair” price.

I would argue that they most decidedly are not. Historically, wealthy countries have had the financial power to control the terms of international trade. As a result, prices of things that poor countries produce – raw materials, agricultural products – are held low, and prices for things they have to import tend to rise.

This is a phenomenon known all too well to the poor countries as the “deteriorating terms of trade.” There is nothing at all “fair” or “natural” about world market prices. The terms of trade that the USSR and Cuba worked out were far more equitable and, from a moral point of view, far more fair.

I’m afraid I can’t add much more to what I already said about Cuba’s Jewish community, although I can say that what Dr. Altshuler told us supports what Jaime and Alejandro said about its small size.

As for Jaime and Alejandro’s comments about human rights abuses in Cuba, this is obviously a hugely important issue for two reasons. First, wherever people are being victimized, that should be brought to light, protested, and stopped.  Second, to the extent that such charges are true, they damage Cuba’s moral standing in the international community, and Cuba’s very survival as a positive example of postcapitalist society depends in large part on that moral standing.

When I first became a partisan of the Cuban Revolution more than forty years ago, the charges I heard of human rights abuses disturbed me profoundly, so I made an effort to investigate them the best I could. After a few years of finding that they were almost all bogus claims of right-wing exiles, I stopped bothering to investigate.

The one big exception was charges of institutional repression of gay Cubans, which was indeed a stain on the Revolution. Over the years, however, it seems that the situation has changed for the better. Not to say that there isn’t still a great deal of anti-gay prejudice in Cuba (in what country is there not?), but at least the problem is no longer one of active institutional mistreatment.

Cuban gay rights advocates continue to make demands on their government to be more proactive in defending gays against injustices, and it is encouraging that the loudest of their voices belongs to none other than Mariela Castro, the daughter of president Raúl Castro.

The fact that I found most earlier charges of human rights abuses in Cuba to be unfounded does not mean that I now simply dismiss Jaime and Alejandro’s allegations out of hand. I don’t find it impossible to believe that human rights abuses exist in Cuba.

Pobreza breeds social conflict everywhere, and Cuba is no exception. And wherever there are police, the police mentality can lead to human rights abuses that are simply intolerable. In the past few days I have seen reports in the Mexican press of the “women in white” protests in Havana being broken up by police.

I also note that usually trustworthy international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have been critical of recent Cuban judicial practices. As for the “women in white,” I see from CNN reports that after they were arrested they were not jailed but were taken to their homes.

I have not heard the official explanation, but I suspect it will be that the women were detained “for their own protection” from much larger groups of angry counterdemonstrators. I would have rather seen the police defend the women’s peaceful protest against the hostile counterdemonstrators, but I can’t say more than that because I wasn’t there.

Jaime and Alejandro specifically cited the case of a prisoner named Zamora. I think they are referring to Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died in a Cuban prison recently as the result of a hunger strike. I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of this case, but anything more I say about it would simply be talking off the top of my head.

I hope if his death did arise from an injustice on the part of Cuban authorities, steps will be taken to prevent such things from happening again. (It’s too late to help him.) I am somewhat encouraged by a CNN report that
quoted Cuban president Raúl Castro as saying that he “lamented the death of Cuban prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died after leading a hunger strike.”

Jaime and Alejandro asked whether Nadine Gordimer might write a protest letter on behalf of political prisoners in Cuban jails as she did for the Cuban Five who are now imprisoned in the United States. I can’t speak for Nadine, but I can say that my own experience suggests that she would not ignore a request to intercede on their behalf.

When I returned home from Cuba I wrote to her and asked if she would issue a statement protesting the incarceration of an American prisoner of conscience, Lynne Stewart, the courageous defense attorney who the Bush administration prosecuted for conspiring with terrorists because she had served as the lawyer for a man accused of terrorism.

I received a rapid response indicating that Nadine would investigate the case herself and let me know her decision. I don’t think that was a brush-off. She undoubtedly receives hundreds of similar requests from all over the world every year, and she is far too independent-minded to simply rubber-stamp them.

At the press conference I attended, I saw her tell the Cuban press officials she would not speak until they showed her the Spanish translation of her statement.  She told me she wanted to make sure they weren’t slipping in anything she hadn’t actually said.

In general, rank-and-file human rights activists like myself tend to confine ourselves to protesting the abuses of our own respective governments. That is not a matter of hypocrisy or double standards. Human rights abuses are intolerable wherever they occur, but our primary duty is to stand up against those that are committed in our own names.

As Cubans, Jaime and Alejandro understandably feel most strongly about abuses committed against their countrymen and countrywomen, but as ex-pats they do not have any more standing in the eyes of the Cuban government – probably even less – than I do to protest them. Nadine Gordimer is a rare exception whose
international reputation forces governments everywhere to at least hear her protests.

Well, Rhonda and George, when I began this e-mail I had not intended to hold forth at such length, but I guess it’s one of those “don’t get me started” things. The abysmal state of our poor planet earth is such that tiny Cuba is the only bright spot I see anywhere. If I had a magic wand and could wave it and transform all of human society into one big Cuban-style society, would I do it? Even if it meant that my own living standard would decline into pobreza?  In a heartbeat!

To raise the billions of humans who are currently in slumdog miseria would be well worth it. Besides, if the rational Cuban economy were a worldwide system, there’s no reason to think that even pobreza could not soon be eliminated. As John Lennon sang, “Imagine!” But since I don’t have a magic wand, I suppose the
world will either have to find some other way to free itself from the grip of the market system or else continue muddling on along its current path to self-destruction.


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