Bringing you one of the better reads of the day, Michael Totten’s piece in City Journal wrapping up his reporting from Cuba in a neat and depressing package.
Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 science-fiction film Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, takes place in Los Angeles, circa 2154. The wealthy have moved into an orbiting luxury satellite—the Elysium of the title—while the wretched majority of humans remain in squalor on Earth. The film works passably as an allegory for its director’s native South Africa, where racial apartheid was enforced for nearly 50 years, but it’s a rather cartoonish vision of the American future. Some critics panned the film for pushing a socialist message. Elysium’s dystopian world, however, is a near-perfect metaphor for an actually existing socialist nation just 90 miles from Florida.
Cuba had been a relatively wealthy nation — comparable to Argentina in living standards, and with high levels of trade and tourism both to and from the nearby US. From the time of the revolution into the mid-70s, Cuba’s economy gradually declined while nearly every other Latin American economy grew rapidly. Then the USSR, which had provided much aid and oil, suddenly collapsed and the aid was cut off. Privation in Cuba increased dramatically — surgery without anaesthetics, food rationed or unavailable. Venezuela took up some of the role of the dead USSR in the Chavez era, shipping oil to Cuba and paying the state for use of Cuban doctors. The Cuban state was forced to open up a capitalist bubble to allow tourism to expand and provide needed foreign currency.
When the ailing Fidel Castro ceded power to his less doctrinaire younger brother Raúl in 2008, the quasi-capitalist bubble expanded, but the economy remains heavily socialist. In the United States, we have a minimum wage; Cuba has a maximum wage—$20 a month for almost every job in the country. (Professionals such as doctors and lawyers can make a whopping $10 extra a month.) Sure, Cubans get “free” health care and education, but as Cuban exile and Yale historian Carlos Eire says, “All slave owners need to keep their slaves healthy and ensure that they have the skills to perform their tasks.”
Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money. I asked several Cubans in my hotel if that arrangement is really true. All confirmed that it is. The workers don’t get $8–$10 an hour; they get 67 cents a day—a child’s allowance.
Michael Totten ends his piece with a visit to a tourist restaurant overlooking Havana — no Cuban can afford to go there and it’s almost empty:
I stared at the city below out the window as I sipped my red wine. Havana looked like a glittering metropolis in the dark. Night washed away the rot and the grime and revealed nothing but city lights. It occurred to me that Havana will look mostly the same—at night, anyway—after it is liberated from the tyrannical imbeciles who govern it now. I tried to pretend that I was looking out on a Cuba that was already free and that the tables around me were occupied—by local people, not foreigners—but the fantasy faded fast. I was all alone at the top of Cuba’s Elysium and yearning for home—where capitalism’s inequalities are not so jagged and stark.
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