Is Cuba proof that socialism works?

The big question

- Havana, Miramar district, a colonial villa on Avenida 41. Professor Juan Triana is sitting in a conference room on the ground floor, leafing through a pile of papers. It is a hot day, not a breath of wind penetrates the open window. Triana, a friendly man in her mid-50s, sighs. He receives visitors all the time. He should explain the Cuban economy to foreign politicians, business people, journalists, and everyone. Triana has been working for the Centro de Estudios de la Economia Cubana (CEEC), which resides in the colonial villa, for 25 years; For 30 years he has lectured at the Universidad de la Habana: "And I still don't understand it."

The Cuban Economy. What should he say Perhaps that, unlike the socialist planned economy in the USSR, China or Eastern Europe, it "was never really socialist". And that despite current, thoroughly capitalist traits, it "has never become capitalist". Triana says: "The Cuban economy is sui generis." More concrete? "It has never lost its 'cubism', it is tropicalized." There is nothing to explain, one can only describe it: "1962, rocket crisis: The whole country is armed. It is clear to everyone: When there is war, we are the first spot on the planet to be erased. But it is carnival. What do the Cubans do? They celebrate, drink and dance the conga. "

Bienvenidos in the real existing model experiment, which is often described as socialism under palm trees. Welcome to a country that is 110,860 square kilometers smaller than Eritrea and not even half the size of Laos, has only eleven million inhabitants and "seen from a great height looks like a badly fitting valve on the round steam pot of the Gulf of Mexico" ("Merian", 1979).

This is it, the island that has seen world history for half a century. 1959 with Fidel, Ché and the Revolution. 1961 with the failed, CIA-sponsored invasion of the Bay of Pigs. 1962 with the boycott by the USA. After that, Cuba becomes an exotic outpost of the Kremlin in the Cold War, Moscow's sugar bowl in the Caribbean. Later South Africa's opponent of war in Angola, Latin America's country with the most academics per capita, an exemplary health system, no illiterate people and always one of the ten most successful teams at the Olympic Games. And when the Soviet Union imploded in 1989 and three-quarters of trade collapsed almost overnight, it became a laboratory for the art of survival; this difficult phase is called "Periodo Especial" in Cuba.

"Fortunately, the news," says Triana, "is better again." In 2006, the tourism industry had a turnover of 2.5 billion euros with 2.22 million visitors. As the fourth largest producer of nickel (73,000 tons annually), the country benefits from the boom on the commodity exchanges. And then there are the 30,000 skilled workers deployed internationally, most of them in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. Mostly doctors, but also nurses, teachers and engineers provide six million euros in foreign exchange and deliveries of goods, mainly oil from Venezuela. In addition, there are 170 million cigars as traditional exports and drugs from the biotech industry as contemporary export hits. In short: gross domestic product of 31.3 billion euros, most recently eleven percent growth. And under the Gulf of Mexico there are said to be 4.6 billion barrels of crude oil and even more natural gas.

The good news, however, cannot mask the fact that the country has suffered lasting damage. Agriculture is down; 84 percent of staple food has to be imported. Industrial production is 48 percent of the value in 1989. Both are also a consequence of the Cuban education offensive: what the country urgently needs are farm workers and workers. And even the success reports can be interpreted differently. The tourism industry has recently stagnated. Without Venezuelan oil, the country would probably collapse, as in the Periodo Especial. Without foreign capital and know-how, Cuba would neither be able to mine nickel nor develop oil reserves. No wonder that imports from China doubled in 2006 - Beijing also granted the loans for them.

A stable economy looks different. Ultimately, it is like the CEEC colonial villa. Seen from a distance, a stately building. Elegant shape, the facade in pastel colors, the wrought iron on the windows ornate. If you look up close, you can see that the roots of the surrounding Ceiba trees have dug themselves under the foundation, and the paint is peeling off the outer walls. Finally inside: the desk at the reception is empty, the shelves are half empty, the air conditioning doesn't work, and when Triana tries to show where Cuba's enormous nickel deposits are on a large map, she falls apart. In short: a property with character, a promising location, exotic charm. There is potential, but everything is in great need of renovation and repair.

Not that you have to travel to Cuba specifically to find out. Hardly any other country has shone the spotlights of the world public better; Reinforced for more than a year since President Fidel Castro, 81, grappled with death. But if you land at the José Martí airport in Havana these days, you will bring one question along with the clichés. It's not about how the Cubans manage to keep their joie de vivre despite the US embargo, a shortage economy and food rations (each Cuban is entitled to a pound of chicken, ten eggs and a bar of soap every month). And the question is also not whether the economic malaise, despite the embargo, is mainly due to a worldview that has long since passed its expiry date. The question that everyone brings with them is: what comes after Fidel?

A country with potential, but in great need of renovation

There is a rolling mill halfway between the airport and the city center. It's a monstrous, dark box. In front of it is a huge plaque with the red inscription SOCIALISMO O MUERTE and the likeness of young Fidel. Green military outfit, dark beard, stern look. The hero, the myth. A man who is said to have survived 638 assassination attempts, including by the CIA; who overthrew a dictator with a handful of companions and twelve rifles. Long time ago.

On July 1, 2006, the Máximo Líder handed over the official business to his five years younger brother and Minister of Defense Raúl. The background has not yet been clarified. Does the comandante suffer from stomach cancer? Has he been operated on on the bowel? In any case, after his retirement he was no longer seen in public, barely recognizable in some television appearances. A rickety, hollow-cheeked man in a tracksuit. Sick, gray, old. His "Reflecciones" are still published in the central organ of the Communist Party, Granma. But a return to his official desk seems impossible, even if he claims that he will continue to be consulted before "every important decision".

It is difficult to say whether he is still being listened to. The latest developments cast doubt on this. The mass marches with which he liked to celebrate the revolution hardly take place; Dissidents have been released and are increasingly speaking more openly about the state of the nation; Workers in larger state-owned companies and members of trade unions are encouraged to submit suggestions for improvement. Suddenly there seems to be more construction going on in Havana, the supply of food and optimism seem to have increased. "When Fidel handed over to Raúl, we felt like we were in the middle of a hurricane," says Juan Jacomino, economist and correspondent for a British radio station. "Everything is quiet, but you know that the storm is about to break out again. Now we know: the change came without any turbulence."

Public confirmation took place on July 26, 2007. Raúl Castro spoke to 100,000 people in Camaguey. In contrast to his older brother, the more objective and practical Raúl does not particularly appreciate such occasions. And unlike him, it would never occur to him to philosophize for two hours about the benefits of a Chinese rice cooker. Raúl's appearance did not turn out to be a fluffy revolutionary operetta, but a tough criticism of the system. He called the wages, which averaged around 15 euros per month, "clearly not sufficient to meet daily needs". The result is "social indiscipline" such as the black market and the shadow economy (Fidel had always attributed these to individual weaknesses in character).

"To have more, we have to produce more," said Raúl, calling for "structural and conceptual changes". He called the centralized planned economy "absurd" using the example of milk production. At the same time he invited the US to speak to Cuba in a "civilized way". The only thing missing was that he would have denounced the absurdity of the money market. In addition to the Cuban peso (CUP), a parallel currency has existed since 2004, the convertible peso (CUC), which is linked to the exchange rate of the US dollar.

The head of government admits problems. A revolution!

"Raúl spoke to the people from the heart," says the dissident Oscar Espinosa, "and found a lot of popular support." Now the government is puzzled over the next steps. The obvious solution would be to transform the island into a mini-China or a Caribbean version of Vietnam - opening with more or less strict state control. The economist Juan Triana, on the other hand, believes in comprehensive liberalization: "We need enormous investments in all areas: agriculture, technology, the service sector." The money for this must come from abroad, foreign companies must be able to move more freely, majority holdings, one hundred percent profit-taking are necessary as an incentive.

Under Fidel, such ideas would have been denounced as blasphemy; in the meantime, among other things, they are debated in the government. Espinosa says: "There are many indications of a power struggle." On the one hand: Raúl Castro and a reform-friendly group around the economic expert Carlos Lage, who already developed a program for the temporary liberalization of the economy during the Periodo Especial; this included licenses for small business owners and the introduction of the US dollar as a means of payment. On the other hand: Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 42, who was Fidel's private secretary for seven years and is supported by Francisco Sóberon, president of the central bank, a hard-line socialist who was responsible for lifting Lage's reforms.

Today there are only around 90,000 small private businesses, mostly restaurants or guest houses, while during the Periodo Especial there were once 240,000.

Propaganda with photo wallpaper: Cuba is beautiful, USA is bad

Appointment at the Ministry of Foreign Relations, a press conference with Felipe Perez Roque. The minister stands in front of a photo wallpaper. Bright sky with the silhouette of a palm tree. He is wearing a short-sleeved summer shirt. He brought a brochure with him, the 2006 annual report on the consequences and damage of the US embargo. 56 pages of evidence, according to Perez Roque, for state terrorism in the United States. He is an eloquent man with a penchant for loud sayings and theatrical gestures. After all, he calls people to the front who give state terrorism a face. Including a surgeon who says that because he cannot use drugs and heart valves made in the United States, children may have to die.

So much for perfect propaganda. Every element is right, every detail is a message. An innocent paradise, says the photo wallpaper. No martial party soldier, a jovial, passionate patriot, tell the shirt and attitudes of the minister. It starts with the choice of words. Perez Roque does not speak of an embargo. Like all Cubans, he calls it "el bloqueo", the blockade. Embargoes hit the bad guys in the international community. But Cuba does not see itself as a perpetrator, in line with Iran, Serbia or Myanmar. That is one of the reasons why, cries Perez Roque with defiant pathos, they will not let themselves get down: "We will fight against the blockade for another thousand years."

You can call it what you want. Embargo or blockade - without the consequences, Cuba would be a different story. When John F. Kennedy approved the measure, it was a presidential decree. But in 1996, in the midst of Cuba's worst economic hardship, the US Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, which turned the decree into a law with more far-reaching prohibitions on contact with Cuba or Cubans. The maximum penalties for violations: ten years in prison and / or a million dollar fine. As if that weren't enough, not so long ago President George W. Bush granted $ 80 million to fund opponents of the revolution.

Cuba's dilemma is that it is being bullied by a superpower that is economically entangled with half the world and traditionally pretends to have ownership of the Caribbean island. Even when Cuba was still a Spanish colony, the USA controlled more than half of the trade; during the wars of independence it intervened militarily, blackmailed the young state, and later installed willing despots for political and economic reasons. Helms-Burton now states that the US Congress will decide when and why Cuba should be viewed as a democracy - the prerequisite for an end to the blockade. Add to that the pending ownership claims of Cubans in exile as well as US corporations suing for their pre-1958 latifundia; estimated value: nine billion dollars.

You have to know that to understand why encounters with Cuban officials are more like lectures than interviews and always have the same connotation. Ramón Ripoll from the Ministry for Foreign Investment, who was in the diplomatic service in Germany, tells the story of a German pharmaceutical company that is not involved in Cuba for fear of repression from US politics. What can be done to make Cuba more economically successful? "You can use our land, but you can't buy it," he says, "and our investment laws are only applied where we have a use."

Juan Manuel Presa, director of the Department of Basic Industries, which is all about mining, raw materials and energy, says he likes nothing more than technology for drilling oil in the Gulf of Mexico. "Nobody can do this better than the USA." And of course he would like to have a strong trading partner. "Imagine Cuba as an oil exporting country - which would be the most natural market?" But if he looks at the USA, where 50 million people live without health insurance and good education has to be paid dearly, then he guarantees: "The Cuban people are not ready to take over capitalist structures if they mean social cuts."

After all, you're sitting with Miguel Alejandro Figueras in the Ministry of Tourism. Figueras, a well-groomed, gray-haired gentleman, is an advisor to the minister and gives a Powerpoint lecture on dream beaches, mountains and colonial architecture. 23 million people come to the Caribbean, he says, 11 million of them are Americans. Cuba, with its 2.2 million tourists so far, has half the area in the Caribbean. You can count the rule of three yourself to the end while he says: "We would like to welcome Americans as guests, but they would not be welcome if they brought the mafia, gambling and drugs with them, as they did in the past."

The Cubans, says the dissident Espinosa, longed for change, something, just not so further. At the same time, they are afraid. For decades they have been told that "capitalism is a system governed by blind, destructive and tyrannical laws imposed on the human species" (Fidel Castro). They were taught that before the revolution a third of the working population had no or irregular work, that only 55 percent of the children went to school, only 56 percent of all Cubans had electricity, that 75 percent of the country belonged to only eight percent of the population and there were more prostitutes than miners. That is why the Cuban should become the "hombre nuevo", the new person for whom ideals are more important than money, and pride is more important than property. Big plan. "Cuba," said a friend of Fidel's, the writer Pablo Armando Fernandéz, "is a ship on a long journey."

Sunday early afternoon. A mouse-gray Moskvich 1500, built in 1979, drives through Havana's southern suburbs. Past rotten apartment blocks, past factories that look like laboratories of the past. Maria and Carlos take a trip to Parque Lenin. She, 22, an industrial designer, is currently completing a two-year internship at the Ministry of Mechanical Industry, which is mandatory for university graduates. He, 23, a trained car mechanic, is studying mechanical engineering. The Moskvich is from his grandfather, who got it when he was a member of the planning committee in the sugar industry. As private property? Isn't that forbidden? Carlos: "In theory no, in practice it is."

The rattling vehicle has now reached its destination.Parque Lenin is an imposing piece of no man's land on which a museum, an aquarium, an overgrown water theater, a scout school for young pioneers and of course a Lenin monument are lost. A pork chop at one of the few snack bars costs 40 CUP. "We really don't want much," says Maria, "going out to eat without having to survive on the food allotments for the rest of the month." A mobile phone would be a dream. In the ministry she earns 200 CUP a month, the equivalent of ten CUC. That Carlos has a cell phone is due to his cousin. Like Carlos' brother, he lives in Florida. Every third Cuban receives foreign currency from abroad. The other day, when Carlos' cousin was visiting, he bought his cell phone and calling card for 250 CUC. "If I could," says Carlos, "I would be gone."

Everyone wants something new. Just not a very old man

Who knows whether Carlos is representative, but he has little to gain from the achievements of socialism. It does not make him proud that his country has been willing to provide humanitarian aid for decades, whether with the free training of doctors from third world countries in Cuba, a program of free eye operations (Operación Milagro) all over Latin America or the 2006 earthquake in Kashmir. Carlos says: " What do I get from my education if I am an engineer and then have to become a taxi driver? " And the medical wonderland of Cuba has long been a myth; There are more Cuban doctors in Venezuela than in Cuba, and without a bar of soap as a small reward, there is only minimal service in the hospital. Carlos asks: "Why do we give so much away when we hardly have anything ourselves?"

On the way back to Havana, Carlos makes a detour through the small town of Managua. At some point the Moskvich overtakes a horse-drawn vehicle that overtakes a cyclist. They all drive past an overgrown sugar cane field.

Socialism, says Ángel Santiesteban, "ceases to function the moment it loses its democratic character". Socialism in Cuba, says the writer, who is no longer published in his country, has not been able to overcome the social and racist class differences, and now he is producing them himself. Without C UCs, there is almost nothing to get of value. That is why the cigar turner sells his daily ration to tourists in the alleys of the old town; therefore the woman with classical training fiddles in the Bar Floridita, where the tips are generous; that's why the coffee-brown beauty strolls with pale men. Necessity makes you inventive, foreign exchange makes you hardworking, and a university degree never hurts. Santiesteban says: "Man is hungry in two ways, spiritually and materially."

May everyone talk about the blockade, it is not to blame for anything. One could have asked Señor Figueras why the former world’s largest sugar exporter now has to import sugar, and why around 60 percent of its sugar mills have been closed since 2003. Figueras was once the vice-chairman of the sugar industry's planning committee. He promised us to make an appointment for the next day in a luxury resort in Varadero. When we arrived, after almost two hours by bus, no one knew. The manager: "We don't talk to tourists." Nor did the Centro de Prensa Internacional manage to arrange an appointment for us with the Ministry of Economics and Planning. One possible explanation is a Cuban joke: the government pretends to pay us; we pretend we're working.

There are examples that not only small businesses but also large-scale commerce work under socialism, provided that the concept and management are right. Like Habaguanex, which was founded in 1993 by Oswaldo Leal Spengler, the historian of the city of Havana. Habaguanex, named after a chief of the indigenous people of Cuba, is a conglomerate that now includes 16 hotels and 186 bars, restaurants and shops in the historic old town, Habana viejo. In 2006 it generated sales of 107 million euros. Habaguanex employees are mostly at home in the old town and emotionally connected to the company's goals. The profit goes into the redevelopment of Habana viejo and the equally grandiose and ailing Malecón waterfront (cf. brand eins 10/2005, "The Dollar Oasis").

One last time in a taxi across the Malecón. On the right the rough sea, on the left the palaces with the high column arches. They shine in colors like in an ice cream parlor. The wind whips spray over the quay wall and the road. We are on our way to see Pedro Alvarez, the boss of Alimport. We met him at the Perez Roques press conference. "Of course we can talk," he said, "just not here: wrong place, wrong moment."

Alimport, six departments, 300 employees, imports Cuba's food. Alvarez is their boss. He's sitting in an office on the third floor of the Foreign Trade Department, surrounded by desk clippings: a plexiglass cube labeled "Texas Farm Bureau," the plastic of a bald eagle from Cargill. Cargill Inc. of Minnesota, agricultural-pharmaceutical mega-corporation, isn't that a prime example of capitalism?

"Okay," says Alvarez, "let's talk about doing business with the US." Alimport has been buying corn, wheat, cattle, soy flour, but also fodder, cotton and paper since 2001. So far, deals have been carried out with 164 companies in 35 US states, and in 2007 they are expected to spend 410 million US dollars. In November, the business friends come again to the trade show in Havana. Blockage or not. "So far I've shaken hands with around 5,000 US business people," says Alvarez, "they weren't afraid of me." The same thing happened to the governors from Nebraska and Idaho, who allegedly complained to Alvarez that Washington was destroying their lucrative business opportunities. Alvarez: "The governors said they hadn't understood their government's policies for a long time."

410 million US dollars may not be much, not even when measured against Cuba's gross domestic product. In addition, the transactions are complicated: the sellers need a special permit for every fruit crate and every sack of flour. The Americans are not allowed to give Alimport a line of credit, and the US Treasury Department often blocks the payment. Then the goods will not be unloaded in Cuba and will rot in the port. The US government is not making it easy for them. Kirby Jones of the U.S. Cuba Trade Association has had only positive experiences. He told USA Today, "This is not the old Cuba that was under total control of the USSR, this is a brand new version, a mixture of capitalism and socialism." Alvarez depends on the gesture: "It is important to show that we want to buy. The ranchers and farmers from the USA want to sell."

Fidel was on television that same evening, for the first time since early June. He had brought back books by Alan Greenspan and Maggie Thatcher. He commented on the galloping oil price and globalization. And one remembers that in one of his Reflecciones Raul's speech on July 26th he attacked Raul: "Nobody should be under the illusion that the USA is negotiating with Cuba ... What do they prescribe for the revolution, the super-revolutionaries: pure poison .. . You cannot flood a country with money without selling sovereignty. " The old man and the struggle. "If I were told that I was the last person to believe in the revolution," Castro once said, "I would go on." Now, when he spoke, you saw a very old man with deep-set eyes, a white beard, and waxy skin. And he was wearing that tracksuit again, which was too big for him.

The question of how to proceed has still not been answered. Nobody can answer it, says Alvarez. "One thing is certain," says the writer Santiesteban, "you cannot govern a country like your own company." According to a survey, Americans no longer understand why their government does business with communist countries like China and Vietnam but harasses Cuba. According to the survey, the majority of Americans would have no objection to bilateral relations. And if Alvarez had their way, they shouldn't depend on politicians or ideologies. "It's not about Castro or socialism, it's not about Bush or capitalism." Then what is it about? Alvarez: "We should benefit from each other and each keep his system." -