Neill Blomkamp's 2013 science-fiction film Elysium 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 is 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.
I've always wanted to visit Cuba and experience communism firsthand. When I finally got my chance several months ago, I was startled to discover how much the Cuban reality lines up with Blomkamp's dystopia. In Cuba, as in Elysium, a small group of economic and political elites live in a rarefied world high above the impoverished masses. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would be appalled by the misery endured by Cuba's ordinary citizens and shocked by the relatively luxurious lifestyles of those who keep the poor down by force.
Many tourists return home convinced that the Cuban model succeeds where the Soviet model failed. But that's because they never left Cuba's Elysium.
I had to lie to get into the country. Customs and immigration officials at Havana's tiny, dreary José Martí International Airport would have evicted me had they known I was a journalist. Havana, the capital, is clean and safe, but there's nothing to buy. It feels less natural and organic than any other city I've ever visited. Initially, I found Havana pleasant. But the city wasn't pleasant for long, and it certainly isn't pleasant for the people living there. It hasn't been so for decades.
Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It's eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. Most foreigners don't know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.
Marxists have ruled Cuba for more than a half-century. Fidel Castro, Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara and their 26th of July Movement forced Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959 and replaced his standard-issue authoritarian regime with a communist one. The revolutionaries promised liberal democracy, but Castro secured absolute power and flattened the country with a Marxist-Leninist battering ram. The objectives were total equality and the abolition of money; the methods were total surveillance and political prisons. The state slogan, then and now, is “socialism or death.”
Cuba was one of the world's richest countries before Castro destroyed it. “Contrary to the myth spread by the revolution,” wrote Alfred Cuzan, a professor of political science at the University of West Florida, “Cuba's wealth before 1959 was not the purview of a privileged few. … Cuban society was as much of a middle-class society as Argentina and Chile.” In 1958, Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe.
“More Americans lived in Cuba prior to Castro than Cubans lived in the United States,” Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, author of a series of books about Castro and Guevara, tells me. “This was at a time when Cubans were perfectly free to leave the country with all their property. … More Cubans vacationed in the U.S. in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba.” Havana was home to a lot of that prosperity, as is evident in the extraordinary classical European architecture that still fills the city.
But rather than raise up the poor, Castro and Guevara shoved the rich and the middle class down. The result was collapse. “Between 1960 and 1976,” Cuzan says, “Cuba's per capita GNP in constant dollars declined at an average annual rate of almost half a percent. The country thus has the tragic distinction of being the only one in Latin America to have experienced a drop in living standards over the period.”
Communism destroyed Cuba's prosperity, but the country experienced unprecedented pain and deprivation when Moscow cut off its subsidies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Journalist and longtime Cuba resident Mark Frank writes vividly about this period in his book Cuban Revelations. “The lights were off more than they were on, and so too was the water. … Food was scarce and other consumer goods almost nonexistent. … Doctors set broken bones without anesthesia.”
“It was a haunting time,” Frank wrote, “that still sends shivers down Cubans' collective spines.”
By the 1990s, Cuba needed economic reform as much as a gunshot victim needs an ambulance. Castro wasn't about to reform himself and his ideology out of existence, but he had to open up at least a small piece of the country to the global economy. So the Soviet subsidy was replaced by vacationers, mostly from Europe and Latin America, who brought in much-needed hard currency. Arriving foreigners weren't going to tolerate receiving ration cards for food, so the island also needed some restaurants. The regime thus allowed paladars — restaurants inside private homes — to open, though no one from outside the family could work in them. Around the same time, government-run “dollar stores” began selling imported and relatively luxurious goods to non-Cubans. Thus was Cuba's quasi-capitalist bubble created.
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.”
Not only are most Cubans not allowed to have money, they're also hardly allowed to have things. The police expend extraordinary manpower ensuring that everyone required to live miserably at the bottom actually does live miserably at the bottom. Dissident blogger and author Yoani Sánchez describes the harassment sarcastically in her book Havana Real: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”
Perhaps the saddest symptom of Cuba's state-enforced poverty is the prostitution epidemic. Some Cuban prostitutes are professionals, but many are average women who solicit johns once or twice a year for a little extra money to make ends meet.
The government defends its maximum wage by arguing that life's necessities are either free or so deeply subsidized in Cuba that citizens don't need much money The free and subsidized goods and services, though, are as dismal as everything else on the island. Citizens who take public transportation to work — which includes almost everyone — must wait in lines for up to two hours each way to get on a bus. And commuters must pay for their ride out of their $20 a month. At least commuter buses are cheap. By contrast, a one-way ticket to the other side of the island costs several months' pay; a round trip costs almost an annual salary.
As for the free health care, patients have to bring their own medicine, their own bedsheets and even their own iodine to the hospital. Most of these items are available only on the black market and must be paid for in hard currency. Cuba has sent so many doctors abroad — especially to Venezuela, in exchange for oil — that the island is facing a personnel shortage.
“I don't want to say there are no doctors left,” says an American man who married a Cuban woman and has been back dozens of times, “but the island is now almost empty. I saw a banner once, hanging from somebody's balcony, that said, ‘Do I need to go to Venezuela for my headache?'”
Housing is free, too, but so what? Americans can get houses in abandoned parts of Detroit for only $500, but no one wants to live in a crumbling house in a gone-to-the-weeds neighborhood. I saw adequate housing in the Cuban countryside, but almost everyone in Havana lives in a Detroit-style wreck, with caved-in roofs, peeling paint and doors hanging on their hinges at odd angles.
Education is free, and the country is effectively 100 percent literate, thanks to Castro's campaign to teach rural people to read shortly after he took power. But the regime has yet to make a persuasive argument that a totalitarian police state was required to get the literacy rate from 80 percent to 100 percent.
Cuba is short of everything but air and sunshine. Even things as simple as cooking oil and soap are black-market goods. Individuals who manage to acquire such desirables will stand on street corners and whisper “cooking oil” or “sugar” to passers-by and then sell the product on the sly out of their living room. If they're caught, both sellers and buyers will be arrested, of course, but the authorities can't put the entire country in jail. “Everyone cheats,” says Eire. “One must in order to survive.”
Cuba has two economies: the national communist economy for the majority and a quasi-capitalist one for foreigners and the elite. Each has its own currency: the communist economy uses the Cuban peso, and the capitalist bubble uses the convertible peso. Cuban pesos are worth nothing. They can't be converted to dollars or euros. Foreigners can't even spend them in Cuba. The convertible pesos are pegged to the U.S. dollar, but banks and hotels pay only 87 Cuban cents for each one — the government takes 13 percent off the top. The rigged exchange rate is an easy way to shake down foreigners without most noticing. It also enables the state to drain Cuban exiles.
Castro created the convertible peso mainly to seal off Cuba's little capitalist bubble from the ragged majority in the communist economy. “Foreign journalists report on the creation of ever more luxurious hotels, golf courses and marinas,” Eire says, “but fail to highlight the very simple and brutal fact that these facilities will be enjoyed strictly by foreigners and the Castronoid power elite. Apartheid, discrimination and segregation are deliberately built in to the entire tourist industry and, in fact, are essential to its maintenance and survival.”
Until a few years ago, ordinary Cubans weren't allowed even to set foot inside hotels or restaurants unless they worked there, lest they find themselves exposed to the seductive lifestyles of the decadent bourgeoisie from capitalist nations. A few years ago, the government stopped physically blocking Cubans from hotels and restaurants, partly because Raúl is a little more relaxed about these things than Fidel but also because most Cubans can't afford to go to these places anyway.
A single restaurant meal in Havana costs an entire month's salary. One night in a hotel costs five months' salary. A middle-class tourist from abroad can easily spend more in one day than most Cubans make in a year.
Cubans in the hotel industry see how foreigners live. The government can't hide it without shutting the hotels down entirely, and it can't do that because it needs the money. I changed a few hundred American dollars into convertible pesos at the front desk. The woman at the counter didn't blink when I handed over my cash, but when she first got the job, it must have been shattering to make such an exchange. That's why the regime wants to keep foreigners and locals apart.
Tourists tip waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides and chambermaids in hard currency, and to stave off a revolt from these people, the government lets them keep the additional money, so they're “rich” compared with everyone else. In fact, they're an elite class enjoying privileges — enough income to afford a cellphone, log on to the Internet once in a while — that ordinary Cubans can't even dream of. I asked a few people how much chambermaids earn in tips: Supposedly, the maids get about $1 per day for each room. If they clean an average of 30 rooms a day and work five days a week, they'll bring in $600 a month — 30 times what everyone else gets. Only in the funhouse of a communist country is the cleaning lady rich compared with the lawyer. Yet elite Cubans are impoverished compared with the middle class and even the poor outside Cuba.
Leftists often talk about “food deserts” in Western cities, where the poor supposedly lack options to buy affordable nutritious food. If they want to see a real food desert, they should come to Havana. I went to a grocery store across the street from the exclusive Meliá Cohiba Hotel, where the lucky few with access to hard currency shop to supplement their meager state rations. It carried rice, beans, frozen chicken, milk, bottled water, booze, a small bit of cheese, minuscule amounts of rancid-looking meat, some low-end cookies and chips from Brazil — and that's it. No produce, cereal, no cans of soup, no pasta. A 7-Eleven has a far better selection, and this is a place for Cuba's “rich” to shop.
An advertisement in my hotel claimed that the Sierra Maestra restaurant on the top floor is “probably” the best in Havana. I had saved it for my last night. I had my first and only steak on the island and washed it down with Chilean red wine. The tiny bill set me back no more than having a pizza delivered at home would, but the total nevertheless exceeded an entire month's local salary. Not surprisingly, I ate alone. Every other table was empty.
I stared at the city below out the window. 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 after it is liberated from the tyrannical imbeciles who govern it. I tried to pretend that I was looking out on a Cuba that was already free and that the tables around me were occupied, 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.
This piece originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News