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Reflections on Cuba: from Communism to Consumerism

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I began writing this short piece on Cuba in December 2012 after I returned home following a conference at the University of Havana. For some reason I took a long time to develop the argument, but, fundamentally, I remain convinced now, as I was then, that Cuba is the new consumer haven for American goods.

No place comes closer to the 1970s at its peak than Cuba does. As a visitor in Havana, I was reminded of the old Hindi movies of the 1940s and '50s, since the city's Batista-era architecture, buildings and old cars give it very much the look of colonial Bombay. To this day I retain the impression that, to experience the world before globalization, you need to go to Cuba. The older parts of Havana city are like those shown in the Buena Vista Social Club video in the Chan Chan song--romantic without being restless. I find that kind of atmosphere appealing, as I love countries where people are not on mobile phones, where nobody is obsessed with Facebook and Twitter, and where nobody gives a damn about the English language. Cuba is simply fabulous on all three counts. I've come to regret not learning Spanish, which is spoken in so many countries of the Third World.

The average Cuban in my view is intensely anti-American. The people are kept together more by nationalism than by communism, and harbor a genuine dislike of the United States as an imperial power. They've also been generously fed on anti-American sentiment by the Castro regime. Yet, who can deny that the U.S. is a pain to have as a neighbor! As Porfirio Diaz prophetically uttered more than a century ago, Poor Mexico (read Cuba), so far from God and so close to the United States!

During my visit to Cuba in 2012, I came to like the Cuban people. Their faces don't look stressed or broken. That sad, tired expression my eyes have seen in New York and Mumbai--you don't see that in the face of any Cuban on the street. At the same time, Cubans are not complacent, as are many small-town Americans or Europeans. Living in a Third World country, they have an intelligent notion of what suffering means. Still, thanks to the way the Cuban revolution has addressed some of the issues that cause suffering, boys and girls in the streets enjoy a great deal of emotional freedom.

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In spite of that freedom, however, there is no visible presence of gays in the country. I suspect that Cuba is in fact a morbidly anti-gay society, grounded in the Latin understanding of masculinity, which is the norm there rather than the exception. The autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls, touches on the deeply heterosexist aspect of the social and political order. In some sense, gays are victims of the vaunted masculinity embodied in the Communist rule of Cuba, which may in fact underlie the anti-gay sentiment throughout the Caribbean region. The feudal mentality of Cuban men shows up in their fairly reactionary attitudes toward women and gays.

Deep down at the subliminal level, I found Cuba to be a Catholic country, with the Spanish influence far more dominant than the African. Yet, I would not say that there is any serious trace of race-related consciousness in how people interact with one another on a daily basis. Issues of race have been more or less addressed as part of the revolutionary program.

Consumerism More Powerful Than Communism

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Interestingly, I found consumerism to be far more powerful than communism in Cuba--showing again that flesh is weaker than spirit and propaganda deadlier than politics. I'm convinced that the spirit of anti-Americanism is what keeps Cuba where it is. The day the American embargo ends, you can be certain that it will signal the end of communism as well. Tourism and YouTube have successfully turned the planet into an array of markets designed for consumption.

In becoming a consumer society relying on tourism and YouTube, and therefore trying to make itself as exotically appealing as possible, it would be very hard for Cuba to sustain its system of health care--probably one of the most humane and pro-poor health-care systems on earth. What would make sustaining such a system difficult is the fact that, apart from pornography and the fashion industry, medicine is the face of big business in the U.S. The cultural occupation of Cuba by American big business would signal the end of welfare-oriented health care, as well. At the same time, because in Cuba the state is the biggest employer, the recruitment of most young men into the army and security apparatus--which is how a system where political dissent is not tolerated functions--might come to an end. That would certainly leave the young with many more options than they have now.

In my view, two things are positively going to work out on the global front in the near future. One is the nuclear deal with Iran, and the other is a new chapter in Cuban/U.S. relations. I won't go into the politics behind these developments. But, as to Iran, I have the impression that the average Iranian is unbelievably pro-American and pro-Western, and feels a strong nostalgia for the regime of the Shah before the revolution. There was then an apparently "free" society--at least freer than the current Mullah regime--in which the young could have as much fun as they wanted. Today, Iran looms as a market ripe for Western goods, and consumers are greedily waiting to come out of the horrendous ennui of a severely controlled system. I mean, seriously, while Iran is certainly another tourist destination, it is also yet another place where Western corporations can happily dump their goods without any worry about incurring losses.

For President Obama, who has been a loyal friend of the bankers and the corporations, this opening of the Iranian and Cuban markets will be a feather in his cap. From the American and European political and economic point of view, that's the subtext of what these deals are in fact all about. In capitalist economies, where the term "liberal democracy" has become a euphemism for ruthless corporate-friendly bureaucracies, the search for markets is imperative, because social welfare is becoming more and more unsustainable.

Since countries such as Cuba and Iran do not have the problem of mass poverty, their middle-class will be the target for U.S. and European exports. The downside is that the bourgeoisfication of the entire social order will make these places banal, uncreative and sickeningly self-centered. That will spell the end of radical transformation in one form or the other. I have seen this on the Turkish side of Cyprus, where prolonged bourgeoisfication made people incapable of thinking in any ways that smacked of radical change. For the common people, houses, incomes, cars and mobile phones became the only things on their mind.

That will eventually also be the fate of the entire Middle East, if the American agenda there succeeds in creating a semblance of order in which it can safely deposit its goods and weapons for a price. I see that agenda succeeding fairly well even now. The corporations and bankers will be eternally thankful to President Obama, who has done a much better job in helping them achieve their goals than did any prior Republican or Democratic U.S. president since Ronald Reagan in 1981.

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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