Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments. Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.
Apologies for the gap since the last episode. You may recall that in a couple of previous episodes, we interviewed Cuban dissident Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand, who settled in Brazil a few years ago after fleeing the island. He recently published a short book, “La Revolucion De Las Promesas”, or “The Revolution of Promises”, sharing some of his experiences and perspectives on the Communist system under which he lived most of his life. Unfortunately, the book was in Spanish, and he told me there was no planned translation to English. So…. I took the task on myself. Armed with my high school level Spanish education, email access to the author, and lots of help from Google Translate, over the last few months I’ve been translating the book myself in my spare time. A professional literary translator could probably do a lot better, but I’m pretty sure I got the basic ideas across, so quotes in this episode will be from my English translation.
Originally, Nelson was a bit nervous about writing a book. In the introduction, he explains how his friends managed to eventually convince him.
Imagine, just a month ago I had arrived in Brazil after having lived 53 years (all my life) without knowing anything other than the tyranny of man by man. There, on that Caribbean island, books that are published must renounce any efforts to capture the traces of suffering that are hidden, by the force of terror and censorship, in the depths of the heart of each Cuban. Publishers of such government-approved books could obtain the status of a privileged slave. For followers of a Libertarian ideology, the possibility of publishing a book in Cuba was nil and unimaginable…. The strongest argument was the need to insist on banishing, once and for all from the pages of history, the pernicious myth of philanthropic nature, welfare, and social justice, which had been woven for more than six decades around the Cuban political-social project.
But the truth is that beyond the “excellence” of the health and education system; beyond an “exceptional social justice system” sold with success and endorsed with a seal of guarantee from various international institutions such as UNESCO and the World Health Organization, among others; hides a tyrannical regime governed by despots of the lowest ilk, who have led the Cuban people to an alarming level of material and spiritual misery.
Nurturing the idea that the Cuban revolutionary project is an example to be followed does nothing more than drag the future towards an abyss of gloom.
The title of the book, “The Revolution of Promises”, comes from Nelson’s key point that the Cuban Communist regime has been built on endless promises of promoting freedom, prosperity, and human dignity— all of which have continually been broken. This started even before the revolution, when Castro firmly promised before the world stage that he was not a Communist, in order to better gain support from the US and other Western nations. In 1959, he actually promised a lot more than that:
On January 9, already in Havana, Fidel Castro told the people: “We have a free country. We have no censorship and the people can meet freely. We are never going to use force and the day the people don't want me, I will leave”.
Castro was also very clear in showing his lack of interest in power: “Power doesn't interest me. After the victory I want to return to my town and continue my career as a lawyer.” He said that in 1958, before the victory and on January 3, 3 days after the victory of the revolution, he again
emphasized this, saying : “I am not interested in power, I do not covet it…”
In February 1959, he promised: "I am sure that in the course of a few short years we will raise the standard of living in Cuba to that of the United States and Russia.” On March 13 of the same year, he reiterated: “We have said that we will turn Cuba into the most prosperous country in the Americas, we have said that the people of Cuba will achieve the highest standard of living than any country in the world”.
Many decades later, Nelson would learn firsthand the value of the promises about freedom and lack of interest in power:
In 2008 I was sentenced to two years in prison, by the Provincial Court of Havana, for demonstrating in favor of freedom of movement. In the final part of the trial, when the president of the Chamber urged the acting prosecutor to clarify whether or not he maintained the sanction that he had proposed in the provisional conclusions, he replied "I maintain my provisional conclusions, because it is a policy of the party and the government, that in cases like these we have to be implacable.” This is a real event which regularly occurs in current Cuban society, clearly demonstrating the arrogance of the Cuban Communist Party, which even goes so far as to challenge and intimidate the judicial bodies.
And far from bringing the prosperity and standard of living that were promised, Castro created a system where it was nearly impossible to keep a family fed on typical wages from a normal job. So nearly everyone has to struggle to earn money by any means necessary, either in the underground economy or through theft. Though everyone does it, the consequences are dire for those who are caught.
Cubans live to a large extent on what they can steal. Consistently, when you offer a job to anyone, they ask you if there is “something to be found”, which means, in popular slang, if there is something to steal. Everyone steals: the clerk of a market, the one of a pharmacy, the nurse, the doctor, the teacher, the cleaning assistant, the secretary, the lawyer and the judge of a court, the policeman and the jailer, the dentist and the butcher, the storekeeper and the guard. They do it not for pleasure, but out of necessity. The verb “to steal” in Cuba changed its meaning to “to survive”.
The storekeeper steals what is in his inventory; it can be screws, shoelaces, etc. The doctor sells the medical prescriptions; the nurse syringes, cotton, alcohol (this product is in high demand due to the level of alcoholism that exists in the population). The cleaner appropriates the detergent; the cook, food; the secretary paper, pencils and notebooks. And thus Cuba is composed of an endless chain of millions of people committing crimes to be able to bring something to eat to their homes daily.
When I was in prison, there were many inmates who, upon learning I was a captive lawyer, came to me in search of legal advice. I was able to verify that more than 80% of them were accused of the crimes of embezzlement and theft, and that none of them were well-connected with the rulers.
Every Cuban must be constantly aware of the general lack of freedom in every sphere of existence, to avoid making a misstep and getting into trouble. Nelson illustrates the extent to which his own mind has been trained by living in this situation for half a century.
Let me give you an idea of the strong repression to which independent journalists are subjected in Cuba, as well as anyone who expresses themselves, in any way, outside the discourse imposed by the rulers, and the consequences that result. Shortly after arriving in Brazil, I was invited to a demonstration that was held in support of President Bolsonaro prior to the elections. It happened that a Brazilian friend asked me for a small interview, to which I gladly agreed.
Almost at the end of the conversation I realized, in the middle of that crowd, that two policemen approached slowly; I didn't say another word. Seeing my facial expression, my interviewer perceived what was happening and with a calm smile, he told me: "Don't worry, you’re in a free country.”
As you would expect, maintaining such a regime also requires very tight control on information from the outside world. Trips abroad are an impossible dream for all but the top-ranking Party members, and residents of Cuba have to be very careful when talking to any visiting foreigners. Children were being built into the Communist ideal of a “new man”, who would have unquestioning loyalty to the party. Nelson shares a sad story about an international festival that he attended as a young child:
Back in 1978, the Eleventh World Festival of Youth and Students was held in Cuba. I was in the José Martí pioneer camp, better known as Tarará, when a young foreign delegate approached me and kindly gave me a pen. You can't imagine what that gift cost me: a reprimand in front of everyone and the seizure of the small pen. But what hurt me the most, I remember, was being told in front of everyone that I was not acting like a good revolutionary, the greatest insult that an aspiring “new man” could receive.
Beyond that, the government had to work to separate children from their families, to ensure that they would grow up with the approved political views:
But to create a New Man it was not enough to place love for the family in the background, giving priority to love for the revolution and its great leader; physical separation from an early age was indispensable. From the age of 6, children were taken to pioneer camps, where they spent up to a month receiving classes, family customs being replaced with new ones molded by the rulers, thus ending the institution of the family.
In adolescence they forced us to go for forty-five days, in each school year, to the so-called schools in the countryside for forced labor in agricultural activities. Eventually almost all the secondary and pre-university schools transitioned to the countryside, where the youngsters spent little more than 24 hours a week with their families. About the disastrous result of these schools I will comment later.
I remember my first time, I was 12 years old. There we were, a crowd of waiting children, with traditional rustic wooden suitcases, made in most cases by the parents themselves. Tears flooded the eyes of children and parents.
Already, sitting on the bus that would separate me hundreds of kilometers from my loved ones and the protection of home, I felt like crying. But I stopped myself: I didn't want to go through the experience of other children who were teased and labeled soft. Forty-five days, forced to work and live in inadequate conditions; separated from affection, attention and family customs. My agony, and that of my companions, was justified according to the leaders. The only motivation we had was to comply with the work norm, in exchange for obtaining a crudely elaborate piece of paper, which endorsed us as an outstanding student. This was the best gift we could give our parents every Sunday, the day designated for a brief reunion. How much our parents had to sacrifice to be able to see us for a few hours every Sunday!
To add insult to injury, numerous world bodies uncritically accepted Cuban educational statistics and reports, leading to fawning praise by UNESCO and the World Bank:
- "For several years now, Cuba's educational system has distinguished itself by its high quality." (UNESCO)
- “Cuba has the best educational system in Latin America and the Caribbean" (WORLD BANK)
- "Cuba is a world example of best practices in education" (UNESCO)
- "Cuban education is an example for the world." (UNESCO)
Aside from the work camps and propaganda, Cuban education also suffers from the same problems affecting all careers: anyone competent wants a job that offers ways to earn or steal money on the side, and teaching bears few opportunities of this kind. Many educated professionals earn spare money by tutoring, but actual teachers are not allowed to do this, presumably due to fear of conflict of interest. The result has been a continual shortage of teachers. The government tried to solve this by recruiting massive numbers of barely-educated recent graduates to fill the open spots, often incentivized by a chance to avoid military service. As Nelson summarizes:
The result was disastrous. Cases of sexual harassment, fights between students and teachers, immorality of all kinds, and the collapse of the academic preparation of the students, began to gain space in Cuban schools.
With this poor preparation inherited from years of educational crisis, many young people arrived at the universities practically without knowing how to write. This greatly worried the university teaching staff to such an extent that the Cuban government had to introduce entrance exams for students leaving pre-university education, to be able to access university studies. This constituted a tacit recognition by the government of the inadequate preparation of the Cuban student body.
Now I wonder if UNESCO and other UN agencies took this verifiable reality into account when certifying the high quality of the Cuban educational system.
The health care system is another of the great promises made by the Cuban government, and to this day we have Western leftists, on the basis of seeing some elite hospitals reserved for top Communists, praising their success in providing universal health care.
A health system cannot be of excellence where, literally, the vast majority of its hospitals lack the most basic hygiene conditions. Cuban hospitals feature locked and fetid bathrooms, dirty and stinking mattresses, and patient clothes and blood-stained sheets aged by time. Hospitals are in terrible construction conditions, unpainted; they commonly feature leaks and broken doors; and windows are in poor condition or non-existent. The lack of security promotes the occurrence of robberies and thefts, with patients being the main victims. In addition the peace of mind of the sick are threatened by the large influx of street vendors who turn hospital wards into true trade fairs.
There cannot be a health system of excellence in a country where, in order to have a bone scan, an axial tomography, or an MRI, the people have to wait up to six months in the best of cases, unless they pay a bribe that exceeds the monthly salary of any worker.
To make up for the shortage of doctors caused by their massive deployment to provide services outside of Cuba, the government was forced to place medical students in hospitals without the required knowledge and experience. This has resulted in a considerable increase in wrong diagnoses and negligence, increasing the cases of damage to the health of patients, as well as the number of preventable deaths.
Even worse than incompetence, though, is active collaboration by health care workers in the government’s oppression. Nelson shares another personal experience here:
There have been many peaceful Cuban dissidents, who after having received cruel beatings by the repressive organs, have been denied, by orders of state security agents, the right to receive the results of the medical examinations carried out (Medical Certificates). This prevents them from being used as irrefutable proof of the atrocities and abuses committed by the regime.
I remember as if it were today that night of May 8, 2008, when a doctor from the National Hospital, with a sarcastic smile, proceeded by order of the state security agents who were guarding me as a detainee, to extract some blood without presenting any ailment, despite my refusal and finding myself handcuffed.
But one of the most persistent causes of daily suffering in Cuba is the simple lack of food. This is another case where uncritical acceptance of government statistics by the UN helps to mislead the world community about the actual problem.
Perhaps you have read news like this: "The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recognized that hunger is not a problem in Cuba”. This constitutes, in my opinion, a great example of mockery, contempt, and disrespect towards the Cuban people who suffer from hunger. If anything has bathed Cuban homes in tears in the last sixty years of socialism, it has been, above all things, food shortages….
During all this time there has not been a Cuban town-dwelling mother or father who has not suffered the anguish and despair of not having a decent plate of food to give her children. The Cuban father of a family literally has no space to think about anything other than how to procure food for the day. It is a thought that accompanies him 24 hours a day, 30 days a month and 365 days a year.
If, as I have already expressed, the price of the basic basket in Cuba is symbolic, the amount of food that Cubans receive for a whole month is as well. The reality is that the so-called food security that the Cuban government allocates to the population only guarantees ten days of sustenance, no more.
For the remaining twenty days of the month, Cubans have to struggle to be able to eat, since they have no other alternative than to resort to the exorbitant prices of the food that is offered in the agricultural markets, in hard-currency stores that are often out of stock, or in the informal market, prices well beyond the reach of the average Cuban…. The aspirations of the average Cuban do not go beyond subsistence.
… Nor does the FAO say that children in Cuba have guaranteed milk up to the age of 7, with irregular deliveries and of poor quality. From that age, parents have to procure it, when it appears, on the black market or in stores in hard currency, which is a real headache for Cuban mothers and fathers.
You cannot talk about food security in a country where the majority of its inhabitants cannot have regular access to sufficient nutritious food.
And as you would expect in the face of such scarcity, Cubans cannot be fussy about the quality of the food they do manage to find.
To this we must add the poor quality of food. There are many times that soy hash and mortadella are sold in poor condition, with the color and stench typical of decomposed products, but there is no other option for many Cubans.
In my case, to be able to consume that unworthy hash, I boiled it several times, added a little salt and the odd seasoning if I had it, and that's it. In the case of the mortadella, I washed it well, fried it almost until it burned to kill the bacteria, and that was it. We ate it, or went hungry, simple as that.
Even the Communist Party had to eventually acknowledge that there was a problem with the food supply. Their solution, however, was rather ridiculous.
Only insolent rulers, without any political will to procure the well-being of their people, can think of, after sixty years in power, this alternative: in the face of a deep food crisis, encourage the production of sugarcane “guarapo” (sugar water) and the consumption of lemon juice.
"We have to have lemons in the country. Lemonade is the base of everything. You add anything else to a lemon soda base and it's already a really nice soda, and very good…", this was the recent proposal that the president presented to the people of Cuba to alleviate the deep food crisis.
I very much doubt that there can be a ruler today, even from the poorest country on the planet, who has the shamelessness to propose to his people as a solution to the food problem, "incentivize the production of lemons to guarantee them as a food alternative, for lemon soft drinks.”
Nelson also devotes a chapter to discussing the effects of the US embargo on Cuba. You have probably heard the constant claims that Cuba’s poverty is due to the US embargo, and thus it is only due to the evil Yankees that Cubans live in such poverty. While Nelson agrees that the embargo has not accomplished anything, he also points out that it is extremely unlikely to have had any negative effects— if anything, Cuba is an economically privileged country in the arena of world trade. The US is actually one of Cuba’s largest trading partners anyway, due to embargo exceptions such as food and agricultural products. And aside from this, Cuba has received preferential trade terms and billions of dollars worth of loan forgiveness from countries such as China, Russia, Venezuela, and even Spain and France.
Nelson concludes by pointing out the many ways in which, before the Communist takeover, Cuba was one of the most prosperous and advanced nations in the Western hemisphere, largely seen as almost comparable to our European allies. They led the way among Latin American countries in adopting modern industry, steamships, railways, and similar technologies. They were even leaders in workers’ rights, being the first country in the region to mandate 8 hour work days, and providing the second highest average income in Latin America. They were recognized internationally for low infant mortality, low illiteracy rates, and a high number of doctors per capita.
Following the most elementary of the senses, common sense, Cuba should be today one of the countries with the best welfare state on the planet in all senses. However, the legacy left behind by 61 years of communism and tyranny has literally been none other than material misery, spiritual misery, and above all things, great despair.
<closing conversation with Manuel>
If you can read Spanish, be sure to check out Nelson’s book, “La Revolucion De Las Promesas”, at the link in the show notes. I’m also working on making my English version available, and will add another link there when I get that online. Be sure to keep Nelson’s points in mind the next time you hear an American leftist praising Cuba.
And this has been your Story of Communism for today.