The socialist system in Cuba was well-intentioned and its execution in almost sixty years has lifted millions of people out of poverty, giving them good education, excellent health care, dignity and a good shot at a decent life, regardless of the colour of their skin or their stations in life. This is far more than Nigerian leaders have done for their citizens.
I visited Cuba with my husband two years ago when Castro was still alive. The Obama Administration opened this window of opportunity but it has since been shut by the present U.S. Administration. After more than a century of animosity with Cuba, President Obama decided it was time to open the doors, so the peoples and governments of both countries could resume normal relations. Before this, Americans could not visit Cuba because there was a blockade against Cuba. Those allowed to visit needed special permission from the government. My husband, an African-American cultural anthropologist who studies Yoruba religious traditions, belonged to this group. He had visited Cuba several times for research, bringing back stories. Even though this was my first visit, I knew Cuba long before I visited, as an undergraduate at Great Ife. As a member of the Alliance for Progressive Students (ALPS), a Marxist group seeking to bring social and political change to Nigeria, we received literature from several socialist and communist countries. From China came colourful magazines that featured happy Chinese people riding their bicycles, with brilliant birds in the sky, against a backdrop of beautiful mountains. The magazine people usually wore Mao suits and there were no cars in sight. Granma, a newspaper, came from Cuba. It came to us in English even though Cuba’s national language is Spanish. I thought back then that Granma was a romantic celebration of motherhood. I learnt during my visit to Havana that it was the name of the yacht that transported Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries to start their revolution in 1956. Granma, widely read by Cubans, is a daily newspaper published in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Turkish, and Portuguese, and distributed all over the world.
We arrived in Havana early afternoon. There was a flood of tourists from the United States who were eager to explore Cuba. The airport was small and hot, and the infrastructure could not cope with the hoards of visitors. After a long time, our luggage finally emerged on a conveyor belt. The airport is a smaller version of Murtala Muhammed Airport but the toilets were a little better because there was water. A woman was stationed in the toilet handling out leaves of toilet rolls to users. No immigration or custom officials asked for bribes. We got to the Hotel Vedado, to discover that we were to be housed in a sister hotel, Hotel St. John’s, nearby. It was a new building but we had to wait for hours in the lobby while the rooms were being cleaned. I had no idea what we might find because I had heard about Cuba’s severe shortages. We had packed with us necessities like soap and toilet rolls. I was grateful to find a room with clean sheets, running water, electricity, a good shower, and a very effective air conditioner. It was definitely a Third World hotel room but it was cleaned everyday with a change of sheets and towels. The service at the front desk was also friendly and helpful. Big tour buses could be seen in front of the hotel all day ferrying tourists back and forth to designated places in Havana. In such places, a tourist would see a very different Havana that does not reflect the reality of the daily life of Habaneros, as Havana residents are called.
Havana, the capital of Cuba is a remarkable city. The trade embargo imposed by the United States over many decades caused the shortages in Cuba. The most striking evidence of this is the presence of American cars from the 1950s when the embargo started. Havana cityscape is full of these brightly coloured old American cars with their polished and gleaming chrome tails. I was enthralled. Cubans use them, with other cars from the old Socialist bloc, as taxis. I, from my Nigerian experience, could identify Lada, the old Russian car which plied Nigerian roads during our oil wealth bingeing, when Nigeria imported everything from everywhere. Wealthy Americans now collect the old American cars, shelling out millions of dollars for them, but Cubans drive them out of necessity. Cubans, through ingenuity, have had to create the spare parts that sustain these elegant dinosaurs, but one thing was clear after a few days in Havana. The emission from them was a source of much pollution in the city. With the heat, dust and soot, the city could be very exhausting. Still it’s much better than a lot of Nigerian cities, with their filth, poor infrastructure, and disorganisation. There was water and there was electricity and city roads were well paved. The only thing Havana shares with most Nigerian cities is the lack of decent public toilets. Even in nicely maintained cultural institutions like museums, the toilets were a horror. Only in hotels could one find clean toilets.
One story my husband told me over the years, which I could not comprehend at all, was that medical doctors drive taxis in Cuba. Nothing in my experience prepared me for this possibility. I was to find out one evening. We were in Central Havana all day, exploring the city. We visited La Floridita, a historical pre-Revolution watering hole for the American jet set in mid-20th century. Daiquiri was supposedly their specialty, so like all tourists who willingly fall into this kind of trap, we faithfully had some at very steep prices, and I posed for a picture with the statue of Ernest Hemingway, prominently displayed in the bar. La Floridita was said to be one of the famous writer’s favourite spots in Havana during the heydays when Americans used the city as their playground. On our way back to our hotel, we hailed a taxi, one of the old American beauties. While its white leather interior was spotless, it was not the most comfortable ride. We struck up a conversation with our taxi driver, and to my shock, I found we were being driven by a gynecologist who said he had stopped practicing medicine three years earlier to take up taxi driving full time, because it was more lucrative to drive taxis. He told us he made more money in a day driving taxis than he made for a whole month as a doctor. We asked him about the possibility of emigrating but he said the government would not allow it. Some time in the past, doctors were not allowed to travel so they started a protest. The government then lifted the ban and thousands of doctors promptly left for Ecuador, Argentina, and other Latin American countries, never to return.
Consequently, the government resumed the ban. He said his wife and brother went out for a dinner of lasagna and a few drinks and it cost seventy-seven cucs (Cuban currency), about eighty U.S. dollars. This experience of being driven by professionals was repeated again and again during the course of our stay as we went around the city. Education is free in Cuba and the country sends its doctors and other professionals to countries in Africa and Latin America to help with disaster relief and development. It is painful and disorienting to see highly-trained people on whom the state has invested so much resources reduced to doing low-level unskilled jobs unrelated to their training and expertise.
There is no doubt socialism under Castro redistributed wealth in Cuba so that all the people of Cuba could benefit. Cubans are some of the best educated people in the world and probably one of the healthiest. They look healthy and look much younger than their age. In spite of privations, it has a great health care system, alongside education which is free for everyone. At the end of long rides on city buses, which were great opportunities to interact with Habaneros, it was not uncommon to find that the old black lady interlocutor was a retired microbiologist or some high-ranking professional. There are no rich people but we did not see any homeless, raggedy people or beggars on Havana streets. Central Havana could be grimy and dusty and you could see piles of trash that was not yet picked up. Food is rationed, along with other necessities, therefore the sumptuous breakfast buffets served to tourists in the hotels were an anomaly. The travel package deal to visit Cuba included breakfast and dinner at the hotel. It is expensive.
Another feature of Havana that commands attention is its gorgeous colonial architecture… I finally understood the implacable anger and hatred of the Cuban elites who fled to Miami after the revolution in 1959. They left a great city with beautiful homes and many asset behind. This great colonial architecture is decaying because the resources to maintain it are just not there.
On our first night in Cuba, we went to see a Rhumba show suggested to us by an American friend who studies Cuban music. The band was mostly Afro-Cuban and it gave a great performance. A Japanese woman was one of the vocalists. The venue was packed with Cubans and tourists, dancing joyously to good music. Cubans were eager to make friends. My husband told them the purpose of our trip, research into Afro-Cuban religious practices, Santeria, which is the worship of Yoruba gods and other African gods. A young man approached and claimed to be a Babalawo. He promised to take us to a bembe, a special festival celebrating the gods. He gave us an address to meet him the following afternoon but he was not there. We waited for a long time and he suddenly appeared and said the bembe was no longer taking place. He was going to take us to Ballet Folklorico which was having a performance of Afro-Cuban dances. Ballet Folklorico is the Cuban state dance company. We got there and found that tourists were charged a five cucs entrance fees, and Cubans two cucs. There were bands playing and most of the performers were Afro-Cubans. A band sang about the Orisas and there was a flawless rendition of the Yoruba song, “Epo nbe, ewa nbe”, a song celebrating twins.
The young man had become a fixer of some sort. He brought his girl-friend and they hovered around us most of the time, taking photos with us, and drinking beer and other libations with us, while we paid. At the end of the performance, he invited us to join their families to celebrate Valentine’s Day, which was coming up in a few days. I thought that was a kind and generous offer until my husband, who speaks Spanish well and understood everything that was being said, told me we were supposed to pay for all the food. That had been his experience in Cuba, people on the make, hustling. Cubans experienced extreme hardship starting from the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew subsidies. They call it the Special Period. Many relatives who fled to Miami send dollars and materials back to Cuba, so Americans are generally seen as very wealthy. Some Cubans feel the priority is to extract as much resources as possible from them while cultivating their friendship. It is not unlike what Nigerian immigrants feel when they go back home, with some family members and friends asking for money and goods which they imagine are flowing freely on American streets. Our relationship with the young man ended as we parted ways that night after he escalated his demands. My suspicion is that he was not a Babalawo and did not have any information about a bembe. He was out to take advantage of foreigners.
Another feature of Havana that commands attention is its gorgeous colonial architecture. At a first glance, this is beautiful real estate, but in reality rows and rows of buildings are falling gradually into disrepair and literally crumbling on the pavements all over the city. I finally understood the implacable anger and hatred of the Cuban elites who fled to Miami after the revolution in 1959. They left a great city with beautiful homes and many asset behind. This great colonial architecture is decaying because the resources to maintain it are just not there.
Enslaved Africans built much of the wealth of Cuba. From the early part of the 19th century, enslaved African labour was imported to grow sugar and tobacco on the island. It made the Spanish settlers of the island very wealthy. At a certain point, the population of Africans was higher than that of European settlers. After slavery, Cuba, like Brazil, paid Europeans to emigrate to the island so the country could be whitened. The original inhabitants of Cuba – the Arawaks and Tainos – have been wiped out by enslavement and diseases brought by European settlers. Millions of black people, descendants of enslaved Africans live in today’s Cuba. Afro-Cubans, as they are called, continue to practice the ancestral religions brought by their forebears, such as Yoruba Orisa religion and Abakwa, known as Ekpe from Cross River State. I was fortunate to witness the practice and celebration of our Orisa in Havana. Someone took us to a bembe.
Cuban socialist leaders claim to have slain the monstrous dragon of racism in Cuba, but this is a myth. The reality is that there is a distinction in how resources are distributed between the descendants of Africa and those of Europe. The white ruling elites fled after the revolution, so Castro and his peers had the opportunity to reset the race button. This means black and white Cubans who remained there after the revolution were starting at more or less the same line. As we went around Havana, we found that the leaders of all the institutions we visited were white, even at the Casa Da Africa, a museum devoted to things African. We also heard the familiar negative and racist construction of black people as “lazy”, “not liking education” and other unsavory characteristics that the oppressor white groups heaped on descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas. Racism is a problem socialism has not solved, even though Afro-Cubans probably got far more education under the system than they had in pre-Castro Cuba. Gender is another issue that the revolutionaries did not seem to have addressed well in terms of leadership. It is noteworthy that for decades now, the faces of leadership in Cuba have been male and white.
After asking around downtown stores where we might find a bembe, a store-keeper, a dignified and kind black man, told us one was happening that very evening. After he closed his shop, we took a taxi to the address of the head priest called Araba and incredibly, the store keeper paid our taxi fares, refusing our offer to pay.
When talking about Castro, Cubans did not mention Castro by his name. They were too afraid. Instead they pulled their imaginary beard to signal he was the subject of conversation. They believed there were government informants everywhere. All businesses were owned by the government. A black store-keeper said Castro regarded Cuba as his plantation, sending doctors or soldiers on missions abroad with fiat. Cuba, with its doctors and soldiers, has contributed a lot to political liberation and health on the African continent and elsewhere. It’s the conundrum of liberal politics in the West. Liberals are known to fight for oppressed minorities, they just don’t want them to be equals. It haunts American politics as well. George Orwell noted this in his satire on communism in his novel Animal Farm: “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
We attended several events in Havana. One was a fair which featured games, rides, toys, and food, not unlike American fairs, only with better and healthier food. It was a huge event attended by many people. There were hundreds of vendors selling all kinds of products and I thought we were seeing the beginnings of a private sector. I was informed by a food vendor that it was all state-controlled. Later in the evening when the fair ended, people needed to get back to town. The efficacy of the system showed in how quickly thousands of people were evacuated in clean city buses to their various destinations. It took us only seven minutes to board a bus in spite of what looked like unending lines. There were no fancy stores, art galleries or fine dining in Havana. We found tourist knick knacks in the markets and we also found religious good stores for African-inspired religion. They did brisk business at Casa da Obatala and their products were not cheap. There we found a man from Panama who had traveled to Havana to buy supplies for his store. He was an olorisa and had a big van full of products. It was said that the Castro government deliberately encouraged the worship of African gods after the revolution to counter the influence of the Catholic church. The creative force behind Ballet Folklorico comes from Orisa dances and mythology.
Our trip inevitably took us to the homes of the practitioners of Yoruba Orisa religion. After asking around downtown stores where we might find a bembe, a store-keeper, a dignified and kind black man, told us one was happening that very evening. After he closed his shop, we took a taxi to the address of the head priest called Araba and incredibly, the store keeper paid our taxi fares, refusing our offer to pay. Araba lived at the back of interconnected elegant but slightly dilapidated buildings, on the upper floor. His living room was modest and several altars could be seen all the way from the beginning of the corridor until we reached his door. An interview with him revealed a very well informed and intellectually astute man who discussed the issues around the religion with depth and clarity. When we got there, I saw him downloading Yoruba songs from his Apple laptop. I counted two other laptops in his crowded living room, and also saw cell phones and an iPad. There are no Apple stores in Havana. The flat screen television was tuned to a Chinese channel. It is not unusual for the practitioners of Yoruba religion to own the latest technologies because they receive international practitioners from Europe and the United States who donate these materials generously. Later in the evening, the bembe took place on the ground floor in a narrow passageway leading to the street. It was attended by many people, including children. They sang Yoruba Orisa songs and played Bata drums that replicated the sounds heard in Yoruba land. Just like our journeys in Brazil, I was deeply humbled to see our ancestral gods being venerated by the descendants of our ancestors taken away in chains.
We visited Casa Da Africa. The museum exhibits reflected little of the mighty continent and what was there was mostly about religion. The head of the Museum was white and their display on slavery and sugar production in colonial Cuba was done by a white artist who created some abstract images of white people that had nothing to do with slavery. There were a few artifacts of sugar production on display. It was clear to me that Cuba has yet to come to grips with the history and legacy of slavery, which produced so much of its past wealth and continue to deprive the descendants of enslaved Africans equality with the descendants of Europeans on the island.
We stopped by the Writers’ Union building and found a press conference in progress. The writer of a novel called Runaway Slave, which was published fifty years earlier was being celebrated. Those at the event looked just a little different from the man or woman on the street. They wore trendy clothes and were nicely coiffed. We were made to understand writing could be lucrative in Cuba if you write the right things that please the government. We took a trip to Guanabacoa, which means a place where water and mountains are and where water flows out of the Spring, in the native language of the long-exterminated owners of the land. We were there to see a museum devoted to African religions. There we saw exhibits on Orisa, Abakwa, and Bantu religions.
Guanabacoa is a big town about one hour away from Havana, but we could not find anything to eat in the shops when it was time for lunch. The shops had run out of food. We did find some ice cream and drinks.
Books were rock-bottom cheap and it is no wonder that Cubans are one of the most literate people in the world. The culture of reading and publishing is alive and well on the island. One of the representatives of a publishing company told us Cuban children are the most literate in the world.
On Valentine’s Day, we arrived in our hotel lobby to find it packed with couples coddling quietly. There was an eerie silence in the place. We had never seen that many people in the lobby. We were informed Valentine’s Day is a big celebration in Cuba. Couples were waiting for the party to start on the fourteenth floor of our hotel, where you could hear the music going all night. Havana has a big night life and in the evenings people could be seen relaxing along the pavement at the Malecon, the long seawall along the coast in Havana.
Another big cultural and literary event in Havana is the annual International Book Fair. It was held in a Fortress called San Carlos de la Cabana, which overlooks the harbour. It is a beautiful location for a book fair. Millions of Cubans attended this event which lasted for days and featured children activities, book readings, art exhibitions and other cultural events. My husband gave a lecture and did a signing for his book, Black Atlantic Religion (La Religion Del Atlantico Negro in Spanish). It was translated by a Cuban and published by a government-controlled research centre. Books were rock-bottom cheap and it is no wonder that Cubans are one of the most literate people in the world. The culture of reading and publishing is alive and well on the island. One of the representatives of a publishing company told us Cuban children are the most literate in the world. When asked about politics in Cuba, she said Cuba has a parliament which she pointed to in the distance. She said there is an elected congress. It’s like a pyramid. Neighbourhoods elect their representatives who in turn elect another layer of representation until it reaches the top. She said there are at least 500 representatives in Congress, and she feels the process is democratic.
In our hotel and elsewhere, we ran into travelers from other places. One of them is a black Brazilian scholar who was attending an international education conference in Havana. A dark-skinned Brazilian scholar is a rare creature because people like him have mostly menial jobs in Brazil due to racial discrimination which Brazil pretended didn’t exist for centuries. They said they had something called racial democracy. This scholar was surprised to hear that I cook because he said middle-class Brazilian women do not cook, as that is for the maids. He himself does not cook, but his mother visits to cook and clean up for him. There were gaggles of American high school students from Florida, many of whom were experiencing their first foreign trip. In their stereotypical American adolescent exuberance, they seemed happy to be there. We saw a group of African-looking youngsters in the market one afternoon. They were all medical students getting free medical education in Havana, courtesy of the Cuban government and people.
Our trip ended with a last-night dinner in the home of my husband’s old friends. They lived in an elegant apartment which seemed to have been restored. They said it was owned by a woman who lives in New York and they were taking care of it for her. It was quite opaque who owned what in Cuba since everything was supposed to be owned by the government. There were unconfirmed rumors that party leaders owned some of the businesses and restored real estate. The apartment is located in a lovely neighbourhood called Cayo Hueso (Key West). There is a mosque not too far away. We were offered a feast of rice, black beans, pork and salad for dinner. There was an exchange of gifts, and conversations were about the personal rather than the political. Meals in Havana generally were uninspiring. Culinary creativity seemed to have stagnated as well under socialism.
The socialist system in Cuba was well-intentioned and its execution in almost sixty years has lifted millions of people out of poverty, giving them good education, excellent health care, dignity and a good shot at a decent life, regardless of the colour of their skin or their stations in life. This is far more than Nigerian leaders have done for their citizens. Cuban leaders do not loot their country of wealth needed for development and the lives of their citizens are considered worthy. Cuba has developed a vaccine for lung cancer and their heart surgeons are some of the best in the world. However, no man can lead a country for more than half a century, no matter how kind, generous or brilliant, who won’t eventually become a despot. It’s human nature. The instinct for self-preservation and to retain power will trump the interests of the led. Any healthy political entity needs debate and dissent. There are many political prisoners locked away in Cuba. Capitalism is terribly destructive to human life in its purest form but a system that does not allow human talent and ingenuity, expertise and enterprise to thrive is just as destructive. Cuba also has to address racism which it now pretends does not exist. The whole premise of the system rests on fairness and equality. The pretence that all Cubans are treated equally regardless of their skin colour is a lie that officials tell everyone. Capitalist nations have not dealt with racism successfully, but at least it is identified and actively discussed. Cuba mutes discussions about it, while dark-skinned Cubans are supposed not to notice how they are being cheated by their white compatriots. Cuba needs to bridge the visible differentials in opportunities given to white Cubans and Afro-Cubans. The Castro dynasty has passed the torch. Hopefully, Cuba will rise into a new dawn. We hope it retains all the wonderful gains it made under socialism as it seeks a more productive and fair political system. Cuba has the opportunity to be the city on the hill for the rest of the world.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org