I recently visited Cuba for the first time, with a few extended family members. We were there for my cousin’s graduation from med school, and we took some time to see a few sights too, in and around Havana. It was my first visit to a communist country. It was eye-opening.
Having grown up in Canada, Cuba has figured very low on my ‘awareness radar’. Everything I knew about the country, prior to my trip, I’d gleaned from my right-winged American husband. I gathered that Fidel Castro was ‘bad’ and America was ‘good’. I didn’t come across much about Fidel in my first few hours on the island, but during the medical school graduation ceremony I was introduced, albeit in a foreign language (of which I could only eke out a few words and implications!), to what looked to be the Cuban perspective on former president Fidel Castro. “Viva Fidel!” Long live Fidel! (or his ideology, as the case may be, as the man himself is deceased.)
Speakers venerated the man in their addresses, we saluted and chanted “Viva!” in response to their prompts. Wow, what a benevolent leader he was, creating this tertiary institution to benefit the people – which students attend and from which they earn their bona fide title of ‘doctora’ or ‘doctor’ free of charge! In that moment I realised that the image I’d formed in my mind of the oppressive Mr. Castro was incomplete: I’d only gotten half the story, up to that point, the other side, the American side. “Ok, Cubans really do love their leader. I was naïvely fooled into thinking that he was the enemy!” I felt some shame at having developed an opinion without learning the whole story. The rest of that day was spent rejoicing with the graduates and feeling good about their unique opportunity, and about Mr. Castro.
A couple of days later, my family and I headed into Old Havana to find ourselves a tour. As we ambled along the sidewalk, a slender, older brown-skinned woman in ragged clothes stopped us and asked, in very clear English, whether we were Americans. Upon receiving an affirmative reply, she proceeded to tell us a bit about her experience: that her father had worked with American soldiers at Guantanamo Bay, and she’d later studied in Paris. When she returned to Cuba after the Revolution, she found her father killed and the people’s freedoms abolished. Sometime after that, her Havana apartment was raided and trashed in return for her speaking out, leaving her and her adult son homeless.
She told us that she was glad that President Trump had recently banned cruise ships from visiting Cuba, as 95% of the income from those tourists would have supported her corrupt government, reinforcing their corrupt ways. (At no point did she ask us for money, by the way; it appeared that she was not telling us her sob story in the hopes of receiving hand-outs, but to inform us of how things really are in everyday Cuban life.)
We parted company with this woman in a bit of a daze; my relatives and I talked amongst ourselves about all we’d just heard, as we made our way into Old Havana. After the initial shock wore off, we found ourselves at the majestic capitol building and then located the tour buses which we’d seen advertised. Out front of one of the tour buses, a handsome young gentleman in a plaid shirt and straw hat gave us his best sales pitch: we could board one of these buses and drive along the strip, visiting a few of the modern hotels and newer buildings, or, if we preferred a tour of the older, more historic parts of town, we could opt for a horse-drawn carriage tour.
We were indeed more interested in seeing the old parts, so we agreed to the carriage tour, with him as our guide. As his driver navigated the streets of Old Havana, our tour guide gave us a detailed description of what happened where, and lead us on foot to see various historic landmarks. He painted for us a lovely picture of his Cuba. Then, when asked questions ‘off the record’,…. he hesitated a little, and a not-so-cheery image emerged.
Our guide told us that, thanks to Fidel’s regime, everyone, from manual laborers to highly educated professionals, earn a mere pittance in wages and paltry food rations, such that much theft occurs from construction sites in order to sell on the side, and employment in the tourism industry, with the hopes of unreported tips from visitors, is the most sustainable lifestyle on the island. He wishes that President Trump hadn’t banned the cruise ships, because even the 5% that wouldn’t have gone to the corrupt government would have made a world of difference to the people. He explained that, although Cubans are now technically permitted to leave the country (something which was forbidden under Fidel’s rule), very few can afford to do so, and even those who have the money can’t get out because “everyone knows that Cubans will stay wherever they can escape to, so no-one wants to issue them tourist visas.”
We can’t know what was in Fidel’s heart or mind. It seems that the concept of communism is ideal, in many ways: everyone is looked after, equally, and the inequalities and suffering that result from capitalist looking-out-for-number-one are done away with. It seems that this could work in a heavenly society; however the world in which we live is not heavenly, and we are not angels; once love of self and pride of self-intelligence get a hold, the system goes awry.
On that day when I heard real-life stories from real-life Cubans, I realised that the new image I’d formed in my mind of the benevolent Mr. Castro was also incomplete. This time, I got my first real glimpse into communism. This time, I realised that, although they aren’t physically shackled, the poor Cuban people are like prisoners in their own country. Invisible prisoners.
There are two kinds of dominion; one of love towards the neighbor, and another of love of self. These two kinds of dominion are opposites. S/he who exercises dominion from love towards the neighbor, desires the good of all, and loves nothing better than to perform uses, thus to serve others. Serving others is doing good from good will, and performing uses. Such is her/his love, and the delight of his/her heart. Moreover, so far as s/he is elevated to dignities s/he rejoices in it, not on account of the dignities, but on account of the uses which s/he can then perform to a greater extent and in a higher degree. Such is dominion in the heavens. But s/he who exercises dominion from love of self desires the good of none but him/herself and his/her own. The uses s/he performs are for the sake of his/her own honor and glory, which to him/her are the only uses. His/her end in serving others is that s/he himself may be served and honored, and may rule. S/he seeks dignities not for the sake of the goods s/he may do, but in order that s/he may gain eminence and glory, and may thereby be in his/her heart’s delight. (True Christian Religions 400:8)