À propos of recent reports and denials of a financial scandal in Cuba's Ministry of Tourism (one of the few places where anybody can get hold of large number of dollars there), a friend asked me a provocative question: what I thought of Cuba today. Here's the answer he provoked:
Briefly, what I think is that the tragedy of Cuba is that its people have not been permitted to assume [excuse me, I'm using this in the Spanish sense of asumir -- to "appropriate," or to "accept as theirs"] the enormous achievements of 1957 (beginning of the war) or 1959 (triumph of the revolution) to, say, 1970 (when the colossal failure of the "10-million ton sugar harvest" demonstrated the weakness of a command economy) and move on. Those achievements were, 1st, freeing the island from the heavy hand of US capital so that its people had some room to breathe and maneuver ("Cuba libre"); 2nd, hugely reducing disparities in wealth and life-chances (between black and white, rural and urban, rich and poor); 3rd, bringing the entire population to literacy and expanding educational opportunities to create a highly skilled, critically conscious population; 4th, infrastructural and industrial development projects that -- while mostly uncompleted and in some cases misdirected (importing a windowless Czech factory to make refrigerators, for example, or trying to convert the green zone around Havana into an immense coffee plantation) -- nevertheless pointed the way to greater economy autonomy and improved standards of living.
Having done these things, and having developed a literate population fully capable of rational debate, they should have been allowed to open political contests to groups outside the party, and let the enormous ingenuity of the people go into economic projects more constructive than building rafts to float to Miami, or "barbacoas" (improvised lofts) as a homemade solution to the housing crisis. Some very stubborn Cubans inside the party and a pack of crazed and persistent Cubans in Miami conspired (with lots of help from Washington) to keep tensions so high that party leaders are afraid to relax their grip or let Fidel retire.