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Why Cuba is different from Burma

I provide this article on Cuba because it states so persuasively the 
differences between Burma and Cuba and the reasons needed for different 
policies.  I hope this article does not lead to an endless range of 
articles comparing other countries to Burma.  This would use up a lot of 
bandwidth that is already overwhelming most of us with information. I 
post this article because particularly in the US, CUBA is often used for 
and against sanctions in arguments about Burma. 

Copyright 1995 The Seattle Times Company   

                               The Seattle Times
                    January 22, 1995, Sunday, Final Edition
    HAVANA - Cuba's dire economic crisis has been the subject of frequent news

stories in the United States in recent years. There is a widespread assumption

that the country's experiment in socialism has been an utter failure and that

the revolutionary leadership is about to be swept aside by an increasingly

frustrated population. Yet, for those of us who have actually spent time on that

Caribbean island nation, a far more complex picture emerges.

   The deprivation in Havana is real. The shabby buildings, decaying

infrastructure and empty stores are testaments to the country's hardships.

Prostitutes, child beggars and hungry people walk the streets of this seaside

capital, sights which until recently had been unseen since the triumph of the

revolution 35 years ago.

   In order to bring in badly-needed hard currency, the Cuban government created

"dollar stores" in tourist areas. One result is that taxi drivers and waiters

are far better off than the vast majority of other Cubans, including most

professionals. This sort of dual economy is not unusual in Caribbean nations

hungry for tourist dollars, but the contrast is all the more striking in a

country where relative social equality had long been one of its proudest


   Yet conditions in Cuba are certainly no worse - and in large part far better

- than in most Third World countries I have visited. In addition, in the Cuban

countryside, away from where most American journalists travel, conditions are

not nearly as bad as in the capital. The Cuban government has always put its

development priorities in the rural areas, which had been largely ignored under

the pre-revolutionary regimes. In addition, food is more plentiful as farmers

are now allowed to sell their crops on the open market and the state farms have

been turned into democratically-run cooperatives.

   While the remaining rigidities in the Cuban economic system are apparent, it

is also evident why UNESCO and other international organizations have given Cuba

such consistently high marks in providing for the social and economic needs of

its citizens. Despite recent hardships, Havana's infant mortality rate remains

lower than that of Seattle and most American cities; the average life expectancy

for a Cuban is longer than that of the average American. In terms of housing,

health care, education, women's rights and environmental preservation, Cuba

still ranks among the highest in the Third World. Before the revolution, it was

among the lowest.

                      The Seattle Times, January 22, 1995

   Cuba is the first genuinely socialist society I have visited in more than two

dozen visits to lesser-developed countries. While the overwhelming state role in

the Cuban economy is justifiably criticized, I cannot help but question if such

a system is any worse than that of Cuba's neighbors - the Dominican Republic,

Haiti, or Puerto Rico - where most of the wealth is controlled by foreign

multinational corporations and a tiny minority of nationals.

   Similarly, is rationing through coupon books less fair than rationing by

ability to pay? Is an economy run by a handful of ideologically-driven state

bureaucrats really less workable than an economy run by a handful of

profit-driven corporate executives?

   Indeed, with all the coverage about Cuban boat people, most Americans do not

realize that a far larger percentage of Dominicans, Haitians and Puerto Ricans -

who live in capitalist economies - have settled in the United States than have


   Cuba's record regarding political rights has been and remains poor. The press

is state-controlled and hundreds of political prisoners remain in detention. At

the same time, Cubans have never had to suffer, like those in many other Latin

American countries in recent years, from the widespread terror of

government-backed death squads.

   There are still a large number of loyal Fidelistas, willing to follow

government edicts in lock step. There is a small but growing number of those who

want to overthrow the whole system, and do not feel afraid to say so publicly.

The vast majority, however, appear to want to maintain some semblance of

socialism, but recognize that the country needs to undergo some major reforms.

   "We originally wanted to build a Cuban model of socialism," said a botanist

named Miguel in Pinar del Rio. "But the U.S. embargo and threats of invasion

forced us into the arms of the Soviet Union. We were forced to swallow a Soviet

model of socialism that didn't work. Now, we want to try again to build

socialism our way."

    Indeed, during my entire visit to Cuba, I did not see a single hammer and

sickle. Nor were there any images of Lenin, though I saw a fair number of

Lennon. British and American rock music blared out of loudspeakers at an

artisans' fair in Havana, where young vendors displayed attractive handicrafts

and felt unafraid to talk politics.

   The regime of Fidel Castro has been unable to deal with the whole new

generation of Cubans who have grown up since the revolution and are questioning

socialism altogether. Rather than compare their circumstances to the dire

poverty most Cubans experienced before the revolution, these twentysomethings

compare things to five and 10 years ago, a period of relative affluence.

   Instead of comparing themselves to their worse-off Jamaican, Haitian or

Dominican neighbors, they compare themselves to their better-off relatives in


   Meanwhile, the U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio Marti and its affiliated television

station regularly broadcast into Cuba extolling the virtues of capitalism and

the need for overthrowing the entire Cuban revolution.

                      The Seattle Times, January 22, 1995

   None of the dozens of Cubans I talked with from across the political spectrum

support the U.S. embargo. Nor did anyone I could find support the right-wing

Cuban exiles, like those regularly welcomed by the Clinton White House. Indeed,

I heard a number of complaints about how the more moderate Cuban dissidents -

who are far more representative of their people - are routinely denied access to

U.S. policy-makers.

   Roberto, an unemployed construction worker in his 30s from Havana, observed,

"Clinton seems to be forcing us to choose between the current dictatorship and

supporters of the old dictatorship. But we want freedom!" He continued, "Those

Miami Cubans want to take over all the state enterprises for themselves. We want

a true socialism where we can run things for us. We don't want Communists or


   There is a consensus among Cuban dissidents in Cuba that the U.S. embargo

strengthens hard-liners in the government and deters reform. The Cuban

government has used the embargo to blame the U.S. for all of the country's

economic ills, thereby avoiding badly-needed economic restructuring.

   The embargo has indeed been devastating. Since 1960, U.S. policy has barred

Cuba from any economic exchange with its historic largest trading partner. Last

year, the embargo was extended to include subsidiaries of U.S. companies

overseas, which had been supplying 70 percent of the country's food and

medicines. In August, Clinton cut off remittances by Cuban-Americans to their

families, which was a major source of income for hundreds of thousands of


   In the meantime, the U.S. has put enormous pressure on foreign companies not

to trade with Cuba, threatening to cut them off from American markets. For all

intents and purposes, the embargo is more like a blockade. The result is an

economy near collapse and enormous human suffering unlike anything seen in Cuba

since before the 1959 revolution.

   It is quite ironic that the Clinton administration, which espouses free trade

as a democratizing force and insists upon granting most-favored nation trading

status to a Communist government in China, has been so vigorous in enforcing a

strict embargo against a communist government in Cuba. This is all the more

incongruous since China's human-rights record is far worse. Indeed, the Clinton

administration's propensity for sending foreign aid and arms shipments to

right-wing governments which engage in widespread human-rights abuses gives

little credibility to Clinton's insistence that his Cuba policy is motivated by

concerns about democracy.

   The United Nations General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly in opposition to

the U.S. blockade. Only two countries out of the 180 member states joined the

U.S. in voting against the resolutions.

   The cutoff in Soviet aid several years ago is also a major factor in Cuba's

economic decline. Still, even at the peak of Soviet assistance to Cuba, such

foreign subsidies were proportionally less than what the U.S. currently sends to

Israel. The impact has been greatest in the areas of energy, transportation and


   Unable to obtain enough fuel, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, motor

vehicles and other items from the Eastern Bloc, the Cubans faced a potential

                      The Seattle Times, January 22, 1995

catastrophe. However, much to the delight of environmentalists around the world,

the government decided to embark upon a remarkable transformation toward a

"green economy."

    Cuba has made impressive strides in recent years in the use of organic

fertilizers and integrated pest management. It has actually increased the

quantity and quality of crop yields at lower costs and with fewer side effects

in terms of health and the environment.

   There has also been an emphasis on renewable energy sources. Construction on

the country's nuclear power plant has been suspended and windmills, solar panels

and biomass generators are springing up across the country. Indeed, 70 percent

of the country's sugar mills are currently powered by waste from the cane.

   A bicycle revolution has swept the country, with millions of Cubans now

traveling under their own power. Hundreds of miles of traffic lanes, paths and

entire roads are now reserved exclusively for bicycles.

   While most countries have been destroying their rain forests, Cuba has made a

conscious effort to expand its forested areas. One of the byproducts is that

Cuba is now a leading biotechnology center for medicines developed from tropical

plants. As a result of such practices, Cuba was one of only two countries in the

world to receive an A+ rating at last year's Rio Earth Summit for its

sustainable development practices.

   A number of appropriate-technology firms in the U.S., seeing an unprecedented

opportunity for new markets nearby and job creation at home, have sought to sell

their products and expertise to an eager Cuban government. Unfortunately, the

Clinton administration has threatened them with heavy fines and even the jailing

of their executives if they pursued any such deals.

   Environmental activists from around the world have been flocking to Cuba to

witness these developments firsthand, hoping that they can be emulated

elsewhere. Similar efforts in other countries never have had such strong

government backing.

   While few American environmentalists would trade the U.S. economic system for

Cuba's, it is not unreasonable to ascertain that the Cubans' great progress in

environmental preservation is made possible in part by the absence of pressure

from private corporations. In the United States and other capitalist countries,

such efforts have usually been stifled by special interests able to muster

sufficient political clout to successfully block such efforts.

   Most of Cuba's ecological innovations were made more out of necessity than by

design. However, the Cubans believe that many of these changes are here to stay,

even if the availability of fossil fuels and chemical agents improved. Indeed,

as they like to point out, sooner or later all countries may have to make such a

transition to a more environmentally sustainable economy.

   Cuba is a gorgeous country. Its climate, natural beauty, music and culture

make it a popular holiday destination for hundreds of thousands of Canadian and

European tourists annually. The Cuban tourist industry is growing rapidly.

Cuba's Minister of Tourism, a world-renowned environmental architect, has made

the preservation of scenic areas a priority in the development of new resorts.

                      The Seattle Times, January 22, 1995

   Many Americans would like to visit Cuba, but to do so is not easy. Even

though Congress passed a non-binding resolution last May requesting that the

Clinton administration relax the travel ban, Clinton tightened restrictions in

August to include even educational visits. Indeed, since I am not a full-time

accredited journalist, I risked a five-year prison term and $ 250,000 fine

simply by going to Cuba to research this article.

   Americans can legally travel to any other country in the world - including

North Korea, Iraq and Vietnam - without penalty. Yet Cuba remains off-limits.

   The real purpose of the travel ban appears to be to prevent Americans from

being able to learn about Cuba firsthand. Could it be that President Clinton is

afraid of exposing Americans to a Third World country which is pursuing an

alternative to traditional U.S. development strategies of encouraging low-wage,

foreign investment-driven models which show little regard for the environment or

human needs?

    Though Clinton has thus far been unable to destroy the Cuban revolution

through an embargo, he has been able to prevent most Americans from being

exposed to anything other than its negative aspects. It is only by allowing

Americans their freedom to travel and lifting the embargo against Cuba that the

people of both countries can learn from each other about their successes in

freedom, justice, economic development and environmental protection. Stephen

Zunes, an associate scholar with the Institute for Global Security Studies,

traveled to Cuba in October under the auspices of Global Exchange. He lives on

Bainbridge Island.



Michael Beer