When I studied economics, a Professor pointed out that the nature of an economic system didn't necessarily determine whether it was a democracy. Think of Sweden, for example, socialist but also democratic with the kinds of freedoms we think of as American.
Fearful of a slide back to the bad old days of domination by the U.S., the Mafia and corrupt banks, the government of Cuba today is still locked into a system that not only forbids basic freedoms but also stifles the enterprise and creativity of the Cuban people.
We saw today an example of both when we visited an art project housed in a former derelict water tank. It had been filled with garbage, a vestige of the days when railroad locomotives used steam and needed water. Fourteen years after the first artist decided to use the space to revitalize a neighborhood and create a space for artists, the Muraliento Community Project is full of young people making crafts, painting, sculpting, making music and dancing. All done without any financial support of the government, just sweat equity and donations.
The restrictions on private enterprise and bans on foreign investment show throughout Havana: crumbling building facades, streets empty of traffic since people can't afford cars, people commuting on foot to work for miles every day because other transportation is so unreliable and scarce. Elevators in many places have human operators, and the insides of the cars have been polished down to the bare metal. Here at the high-end Hotel Nacional, the elevator floor indicators have given up, pointing perpetually, dispiritedly, down at the floor or stuck on a floor number. Our room is spacious, but the tub enamel is peeling and the fixtures need repair. Housing is in short supply. The government after Castro's revolution invested in schools and hospitals, with great results, but there was nothing left to build or renovate housing, so 10 families live in buildings designed for one.
Some of the grandest homes are in the possession of people who used to be a servants to people who left after Fidel deposed Batista, expecting to return. Our guide, Carina, told us about a relative who pays only 20 pesos a month for the privilege of living in and actually owning such a house. The owners told their servants to stay put, with this unexpected result.
The hardest time for the people of Cuba came in the 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been Cuba's principal supporter. Cubans call it "the special time," a euphemism for several years when food was very scarce and everyone struggled. They dealt with it through ingenuity and recycling, and learning, for example, to grow food organically instead of with chemical fertilizers.
Today, thanks in large part to tourism, things are better. And all the people we've met have been cheerful, unfailingly polite and friendly, and bursting with energy. If you don't dance here, there is something wrong with you. But these people deserve better.
There's certainly no question that our continued embargo hurts, but much of Cuba's troubles now stem from the frozen policies of a government still very fearful of change.