This is only indirectly a post about Cuba. I actually like Cuba, and feel quite bad for its citizens. This post is really about Jagrup Brar, the BC NDP’s Small Business Critic (“critic” being the operative word), and apparently one of the last remaining slobbering admirers of Castro’s Cuba. In a Radio India interview, he is reported to have said about Cuba:
“[T]he gap between rich and poor is not there or very minimal. Nor is there an individual who doesn’t have a place to sleep or food to eat. Nor is there a child who goes to bed hungry.”
He went on at length about Cuba’s “free” education system, and its peerless “free” public health care network, where, he claimed, doctors are available at any hour and will dispense “any medication you need”.
There is no crime in Cuba, declared Mr. Brar. At least, he didn’t see any. And that’s what his Cuban “guide” said.
“He told me that the ‘rat race’ that exists in our society doesn’t take place there. He said they enjoy their lives and live their lives to the fullest. That’s the type of life there,” said Mr. Brar. “People roam free in the streets whether in the cities or the villages. I witnessed young women in the streets catching rides or waiting for the bus.”
Where to begin?
As it turns out, in violation of my general “no commies” policy, I’ve been to Cuba. My wife and I spend our honeymoon there. The beaches were nice, the liquor was plentiful, the people were friendly and the scenery was spectacular. And the country was terrible. In fact, in every respect, Mr. Brar’s description of Cuba is wrong. If that was his impression he was either thoroughly duped by his “guide” or else he’s utterly lacking the slightest critical thinking skills (or both).
Take his statement that everyone has “a place to sleep”. True, the Cuban government is very serious about housing its citizens. But perhaps Mr. Brar failed to notice that, in many instances that housing is materially worse than living on the street. In Havana, it is a regular occurrence for buildings to collapse, often killing their occupants (in some case, the state of disrepair is a function of age – some of Cuba’s buildings are the oldest in the Western hemisphere – in many cases, though, it’s a function of Soviet era building practices and standards. In Havana some of the worst buildings are the newest ones). Moreover, what housing there is is often badly overcrowded. In Canada, such housing would be illegal, and if a private sector landlord tried to rent it to tenants, Mr. Brar and his ilk would condemn his as a slumlord (with cause). In Mexico, or any other third-world country, it would be denounced as proof of the failings of the market. But when the Cubans do it…
Ah, but they have free health care. Man, we Canadians make such a fetish about health care. Doesn’t matter how horrible you are, if you give your citizens free health care, you’re alright. In Cuba you get free health care whether you want it or not, because in Cuba, unlike every other country in the civilized world, patients don’t have a right to refuse health care (making it a useful tool to control dissidents). You can get any drug you need – assuming they have it (though often basic drugs like aspirin or antibiotics are only available on the black market, for those who can pony up hard currency – perhaps like Mr. Brar’s “guide”). But hey, health care, baby.
But what about food? Well, yes, the Cuban government does give minimum rations to its citizens. And if you ask ordinary Cubans, they’ll tell you those rations are wholly inadequate. I vividly remember driving into Havana and one of the members of our group (a true believer) asked why there were so many people begging for money “when the government provides them with all the necessities”. Our guide gave him a look of undisguised contempt, like that was the stupidest thing that she had ever heard (and, I suppose, perhaps it was). “When there are no jobs” she said ” rations aren’t enough to live on, so people need to find money however they can”. Perhaps Mr. Brar missed the beggars. Perhaps, since beggars are often arrested by the police for harrassing tourirsts, the beggars knew enough to stay away from Mr. Brar and his “guide”.
There’s no crime in Cuba, says Mr. Brar? Hmm, law and order isn’t a problem in a dictatorship, funny that. I suppose if we had secret policeman on every corner we wouldn’t have crime too, but that’s a hell of a trade-off. Well, good on the Cubans, I guess multi-decade sentences for trafficking marijuana and intolerable prisons conditions DO work. Who knew? Of course, the Cubans have some crimes that we don’t have in Canada, you know, trying to leave the country, opposing the government, teaching your children something other than communism (a 3-year sentence, no shit).
But I think the best line was this one: “People roam free in the streets whether in the cities or the villages. I witnessed young women in the streets catching rides or waiting for the bus.” According to his guide, there’s no “rat race” in Cuba. Well, fair enough, with no cars and lousy public transit, there’s not much racing anywhere. But the young woman he saw hitchhiking rides in the street are doing so because there’s no other way for them to get home. It’s not quaint, it’s a testament to Cuba’s poverty. And had he waited to see them boarding the typical Cuban bus, like this one or this one (recently retired, these were nicknamed “Camels” for their distinctive shape – though looking at the passengers being squeezed in, “Cattle Cars” might have been a better nickname), I don’t think he’d characterize them as “living live to the fullest”.
I don’t doubt that Mr. Brar quite enjoyed his trip to Cuba. I quite enjoyed mine. If you have hard currency (and you can leave) and don’t mind (or avoid) the oppressive poverty around you, it can be quite enjoyable. But he and I don’t have to live there. Despite Mr. Brar’s wishful/naïve thinking, Cuba’s a pretty horrible place for its citizens. It speaks poorly of Mr. Brar that he’d come out as such a unshamed apologist for its government.