Cuba and the U.S. in the Age of Elian

When Elian Gonzalez finally returns to Cuba, there will be a great many
Americans wishing he would take along some drunken great uncles. Therein
lies the lasting significance of the soap opera.

One might have hoped that this lengthy national obsession with the psychological
state of a 6-year-old would transmute into greater concerns about the rights
of children generally, starting with the 5,600 a year who, like Elian,
enter the U.S. without their parents, and including those, some 2,000 last
year, who find themselves in detention rather than in Disneyland. Or that
the Senate might be inspired to leave Somalia standing alone and add the
ratification of the U.S. to the other 191 on the UN Convention on the Rights
of the Child.

The Elian drama has been a boon, in the short term, at least, to the Miami
Cubans, especially those associated with the Cuban American National Foundation
(CANE), who have made a living for almost half a century by cultivating
hostility toward the revolutionary regime. It has been a boon also to their
Republican Congressional allies, to Castro and the Cuban government, to
perpetrators of pack journalism in the United States, and to political
hypocrisy in general. But this unsavory episode may prove to have been
a boon as well to freedom of expression.

The Elian case appears to signify the end to the Cold War in the U.S.,
as the Cold Warriors are deprived of their last sure-fire, red-baiting,
debate-blocking issue. This time around the Administration finally parted
company with CANE. Congressional and editorial opinion has been all over
the board, and public opinion has been solidly on the side of sending the
boy home to Cuba with his father.


U.S. Sovereignty Reclaimed?

A joke making the rounds in Havana at the beginning of the year has Castro
asking Clinton, “When will you give us back Guantanamo?” Clinton responds,
“When you give us back Miami.” The case of Elian might have been just another
proving that the U.S. federal government lacked sovereignty, in effect,
with respect to policy-making toward Cuba. After all, policy toward Cuba
had been held hostage for 40 years by Dade County’s Cuba exiles and their
supposed weight in the electoral college of a populous swing state.

More important, perhaps, the specter of revolutionary Cuba had always been
a trump card that the most reactionary politicians could pull out and play
whenever they needed it, not only to sway policy but also to sway elections
and cripple governments, in the U.S. as well as elsewhere in the Americas.
If the Elian case, with all its drama and pathos, won’t keep that game
going, it may be that the game itself has finally run its course.

It has become clear for the first time to the general public that the great
divide on the issue of U.S.-Cuban relations does not lie in the Florida
Straits, but rather in Washington, DC. In fact, it is and has been for
most of the 40 years since the revolution for the United States a domestic
political issue. This revelation has come about in part because Cuba, as
the last vestige of a vanquished socialist system, is more curiosity now
than threat. Fidel, having stood down nine U.S. presidents and outlasted
all other national rulers, has risen above his own legend as revolutionary
leader; he has become a celebrity. And Che iconography has become a cash-cow
all around the capitalist world.

University students on the lookout for the next “been there, done that”
frontier are abandoning Kathmandu and Prague for Havana. But most important,
U.S. business has gotten edgy about their exclusion from a close-in emerging
market. (Cuba is only the most visible area where Canada makes a good living
off of U.S. policy pigheadedness.) Among the more than a million visitors
to Cuba in 1998 were some 2,500 U.S. business executives.

Visiting Cuba may be the only way for Americans to begin to understand
the country. For the most part, images conveyed by the U.S. media continue
to be detached from reality. Cuba’s government is not teetering. Castro
is not invulnerable, but his image as a fighter and a survivor is one that
resonates with many Cubans as the personification of the national experience
and the national ethos. Nor is the economy a basket case, although with
the dissolution of the Soviet market system in the early 1990s, the Cuban
economy shrank by some 40 percent in just over 2 years.

But the revolution is nevertheless in jeopardy. As UNESCO economist Julio
Carranza has said, even if it were possible to clone Castro, it would not
be possible to clone the historical context that opened for him and other
Cuban revolutionaries a window of opportunity—not just to seize a government,
but to redefine its role.

At last year’s International Conference on Globalization and Development,
Castro admonished the assembled sophisticates and cynics that “if there
is one thing this revolution has proved, it is that utopias can become
realities.” He noted that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the price of
petroleum went from the equivalent of $7 dollars a barrel to $40 a barrel;
“and we had to pay for it with sugar. But there was no one left out on
the street. No school or university or clinic closed.”


The Regenerative Revolution

In the Cuban case, as in other rare cases of successful social revolution,
the greatest achievements have been in the delivery of services—services
that elected progressive governments promise but are usually unable to
deliver—especially health care and education. This is because, while revolutionary
governments are subject to credit freezes and capital flight and thus are
sorely lacking in material resources, what they have in abundance is highly
motivated and mobilized citizens, committed to a common vision. Such a
citizenry may be able to do little about building heavy industry; but it
can accomplish near miracles in the promotion of literacy or the eradication
of contagious disease. When the population ceases to be so mobilized and
motivated, it is safe to say that the revolution has run its course.

In order to know that the Cuban revolution has not run its course, one
need only hear Dr. Raul Gil Sanchez, director of the Mental Health Clinic
of Regla, talk about the medical system that he so proudly serves—preventive,
holistic, integral, integrated, and free—and the innovations and elaborations
undertaken in the 1990s, even as GNP plummeted and supplies vanished. When
petroleum scarcity stopped traffic in the early l990s, doctors made their
house calls on bicycles; and clinics responded to new obstacle courses
for resupply of instruments and pharmaceuticals by exploring lower tech
alternative approaches to healing from the rich reserves of non-Western
medical traditions. Cuba continues to produce a surfeit of doctors of its
own—one to 200 citizens compared to one to 800 in the United States—and
to subsidize training for a great many medical students from around the
Third World as well.

Cuban museum-piece cars are back on the streets, but they compete now for
right-of-way with more than a million bicycles. Meanwhile, the shortage
of petroleum had led to a proliferation of alternative sources of energy,
including waste products of the sugar industry. Urban dwellers met the
challenge of food shortages by turning garbage dumps into community gardens;
and the lack of imported fertilizers and pesticides has given rise to the
commercial production of organic substitutes.

The holistic, preventive, community-oriented approach to medicine carries
over to other aspects of social infrastructure. Neighborhood after-school
programs, involving social workers and psychological counselors, head-off
potential slides into juvenile delinquency. Literacy rates run in the high
nineties. In a comparative study of education carried out by UNESCO in
13 Latin American countries in 1999, Cuba outscored all, including Argentina,
on language and math. While young and old of the developed world were being
entertained by a box, Cubans were entertaining themselves; and Cuban baseball,
ballet, jazz, and salsa are now in unquenchable demand around the world.

The Problem

Contrary to the impression generally conveyed by the U.S. media, the Cuban
economy is by no means frozen in time. After the circulation of dollars
was legitimated in 1993, the economy began to rebound; and by 1996 GNP
growth registered 7.8 percent the highest in Latin America. Cuba is now
open for business, with investments from some 40 countries, and the tourism
industry is growing so fast that many fear “Cancunization.”

In Cuba as elsewhere, however, if there is a solution to every problem,
there is also a problem to every solution. The most obvious solution—hard
currency capital—is also a mortal threat to equity, the central goal and
accomplishment of the revolution. Another story making the rounds lately
in Cuba features Fulano de Tal, who is boasting loudly of his new job as
a doorman in a tourist hotel. His friends apologize to bystanders. “He
has illusions of grandeur,” they say. “He’s really only a brain surgeon.”
In the new dual economy, Cuba’s best and brightest take a backseat to the

Cuba’s economic rebound has come about without so much as a sympathetic
nod from the international financial institutions and despite a tightening
of U.S. sanctions. One is left then to wonder what purpose the embargo
is assumed to serve. Cubans are adamant about the importance of its being
lifted, and I question their judgment on this matter only with trepidation.
But it seems to me that for Cubans the embargo has been at the least a
mixed blessing. Long before the “special period” of hardship of the early
1990s, the embargo had reinforced Cuban entrepreneurship by providing the
necessity that is the mother of invention. Now that Cuba has no choice
but to integrate the global economy, the embargo has dictated that such
integration should engage a well-diversified set of trading partners.

For the United States, the embargo merits no such mixed assessment. It
has been counterproductive in every particular—the most grievous particular
having been availing the Castro government, through unrelieved U.S. hostility,
of a “security” cover for the prosecution of domestic dissidents.

Jan K. Black is with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.