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Why Cuba is different from Burma
- Subject: Why Cuba is different from Burma
- From: mbeer@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Fri, 22 Dec 1995 10:03:00
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
SECTION: ISSUES; Pg. B7
HEADLINE: BEHIND A CANE CURTAIN, CUBA ENDURES
BYLINE: BY STEPHEN ZUNES
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
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
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
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
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
GRAPHIC: ILLUSTRATION JAMES MCFARLANE / SEATTLE TIMES: BEHIND A CANE CURTAIN,