Cuba Libre: An Anarchist in Havana

By Nate Perkins

For a while last year it seemed like the Obama administration would make good on its vehement campaign promises to improve United States – Cuba relations and gradually end the longstanding trade embargo between the two countries. Legislation was proposed that would permit American tourists to legally visit the Caribbean country, although accompanied by the high cost of allowing carbon-monoxide and volatile chemical emitting Archer Daniels Midland and other agro-industrial imperialists to rake in billions from Cuban sources. For better or for worse, the bill fizzled out, and the island that inspired Earnest Hemingway, Federico García Lorca, Compay Segundo and the revolutionaries of 1959 remains off limits to the estimated million-plus cargo shorts-wearing Yankee tourists that would swarm Havana – or more correctly, La Habana – during the potential first year of the trade embargo’s abolition .

From the first floor of the National Museum of the Revolution. The plaque reads, "Thank you, cretin, for helping us to make socialism irrevocable."

George W. Bush called Cuba an “outpost of tyranny,” which, with Barack Obama’s recently strengthened support of what goes on in Guantanamo Bay , seems increasingly accurate, but who can predict what the future will bring for the country? Seeing as how Mr. Bush and I tend not to think about things in quite the same way, the temptation of experiencing Havana’s narrow streets, colonial architecture and world-class jazz before the inevitable political and touristic transformation happens got the better of me last November.

I spent the fall of 2010 writing for an English-language news weekly in San José, Costa Rica. Rather than waste time and resources bickering with the Costa Rican authorities trying to convince them to grant me a work visa and legally justify the $.83 an hour the paper was paying me, I told a half-truth at the airport customs desk when I arrived in Central America, informing the red-eyed officer that I was a student coming to Costa Rica country to surf. He yawned and issued me a 90 day tourist visa. For my status to remain technically legal for the four months I was to be in the country and in order for me to renew my documentation, I had to leave for at least three nights sometime before my 90 day stamp expired. This mandatory trip out of the country, further enhanced by budget cuts making it increasingly difficult for the U.S. Department of the Treasury to prosecute embargo-violating travelers, seemed to be the perfect opportunity to book a cheap flight to Havana. So I did.

Now I won’t defend communism, but Havana was even more striking and impressive than I had imagined. By the time I landed and made it to my hotel – having a place to stay is required and verified by customs officials, and the penalties for camping or dirtbagging are steep – it was getting late, and the only thing to do was wander down the Malecón, the walled sidewalk that hangs above the Straits of Florida and serves as the city’s communal front porch. Families were out walking, looking at the waves and stars; groups of young men and women played and sang music, danced and guzzled cheap rum like water; couples smooched. There were very few streetlights, and though I would have panicked at the thought of walking around any other large city in near blackout conditions, the laid-back and happy atmosphere of the Malecón reassured me.

The narrow streets of downtown Havana.

The next morning I returned to the Malecón as I walked downtown. In the daylight additional differences between Havana and the few other Latin American and Caribbean capitals with which I’m familiar were stark. For example, in San José walking the 12 or so blocks from the office to my apartment every night would lead me past about have a dozen or more of the city’s homeless, sleeping in boxes and under awnings. In Havana, I didn’t see a single homeless person in the four days I was there. Rather, everyone had at least some job that allowed them groceries and living accommodations. The other Latin American cities I’m familiar with are full of offensive, ugly advertising plastered to every available surface, all accented by trash-strewn, torn up sidewalks and streets. Havana’s streets were clean, beautiful and pothole free. Instead of Central and South America’s ever present razor wire, the only eyesore was the exposed rebar in crumbling buildings, which was more charming than anything.

The only advertising you will see in Havana

Walking through the streets and talking to the people I came across, I discovered that in general Cubans are handsome, highly educated people who place great value in literature, music and art. Although most of the population of Montevideo, where I lived from 2007 to 2009, is witty, literate and bright, it was anything but uncommon to run across folks who could barely write their name. In Havana, children as young as four or five years old read perfectly. In fact, the literacy rate in Cuba is higher than it is in the United States.

Education isn’t the only area in which Cuba dominates the U.S. The medical system is far superior as well. The infant mortality rate is lower and the life expectancy is longer. Cuba has the highest doctor to patient ratio in the world, and has exported medical personnel in exchange for Venezuelan oil.

Presented with a new reality of what Cuba actually was – a country filled with aesthetic beauty and strong educational tradition – as opposed to what I had heard it was – an “outpost of tyranny” – I thought immediately of Dr. Paul Farmer’s comparison of Haiti and Cuba, two geographically similar countries that, for various reasons, are very socially different. He exclaimed, “Look! Only ninety miles from Haiti and look!”

A statue of Antonio Maceó (Previously published in The Tico Times)

It seems that Fidel did well to denounce North American imperialism while meanwhile Haiti (and other Latin American countries: Chile, Guatemala, etc.) suffered under the rule of U.S. injected dictators. Cuba’s strengths lie in its rejection of capitalism. In fact, the ugliest part of Cuba is its rampant prostitution, the only capitalist activity that the Castro regime has been unable to eradicate.

Of course, Cuba is far from being perfect. If the country’s strength is a dismissal of capitalism, its weakness is an embrace of communism, which holds onto the people of Cuba with a death grip, severely limiting basic freedoms. Examples of tight state control are everywhere. The two major newspapers run the exact same stories every day, and citizens are required to carry identification that indicates the city or town they come from. If they are stopped outside of the specified area without government permission to be there, then there’s trouble. And they will certainly be stopped. Multiple Cubans told me half seriously, “there are 11 million people in Cuba and 6 million of them are cops,” and when there are that many cops, the only work to do is to perform random identification stops. Sure, Cubans have art, healthcare, education, food and a place to sleep, but is anything worth the fear of living under the black boot?

Cuba's two major newspapers, El Granma and Juventud Rebelde.

What could I, as a budding anarchist, take from my Cuban experience? Simply, I could take the good. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “’That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” We don’t need capitalism, nor do we need communism. We need to responsibly prepare, and develop socially to have that government which governs not at all.