Required Reading: Surviving in Castrogonia
What is it like to live in Cuba as a Cuban?
Back in October 2010 Harper's published an amazing article by Patrick Symmes, "Thirty Days as a Cuban."
Symmes is the author of The Boys From Dolores, a wonderful book that chronicles the childhood years of Fidel and Raul Castro.
He is also the author of Chasing Che, an autobiographical account of his attempt to retrace the Butcher's motorcycle trip through Latrine America.
This Harper's article by Symmes is one of the best reports ever to come out of Castrogonia. Yes, one of the best in 55 years. Everyone in the world should read it.
Of course, only very few have, and very few ever will. It's been out there, available for over three years, and it has been totally ignored.
YOU will read it, of course, if you haven't already. And YOU will thank Symmes for writing it.
Symmes went to Castrogonia with a simple plan: to live there as a Cuban for a whole month. No tourist perks. No extra cash. Nothing. Nada, nada, nada, just like a Cuban. He tried to survive on an allowance of 15 dollars a month, a journalist's salary, or as Symmes puts it, "the wages of an official intellectual."
Even though he cheated by not including the rent on his apartment in the budget, he very quickly discovered that it was impossible to be a Cuban and not starve to death.
He also quickly found out that cheating was the only way to survive.
Never mind the so-called "reforms" of Raul Castro: nothing has really changed since Symmes was there, save for some of the cheating to have been legalized and subjected to crushing taxes and stifling regulations.
Here is a brief excerpt from "Thirty Days as a Cuban: Pinching Pesos and Dropping Pounds in Havana." The entire amazing report can be found HERE, courtesy of Penultimos Dias.
(You can also find a very informative interview that focuses on Symmes' Castrogonian experience HERE.)
Havana was changing, as cities do. The historic zone had been placed under the control of Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city historian. Leal had been given special priority for building supplies, labor, trucks, tools, fuel, pipes, cement, wood, even faucets and toilets. But this was not why the people loved him. Instead, my friend explained, the “privileged” access to supplies simply meant that there was more to steal.
A friend of mine was renovating in hopes of renting rooms to foreigners, and indeed within a few minutes there was a screech of truck brakes and a great horn blast. Her husband signaled to me urgently, and we threw open the front door. A flatbed truck was waiting. In sixty seconds, three of us unloaded 540 pounds of Portland cement bags. The husband passed some wadded bills to the trucker, who promptly roared off. They had made money off cement destined for some construction job. We spent half an hour moving the bags to a dark corner in a back room, covering them with a tarp because they were printed with blue ink, marking them as state property. Green printing was for school construction. Only cement in red-printed bags could be bought by citizens, in state stores, at $6 a bag.
Unlike most Cuban functionaries, Leal had actually made a difference in people’s lives. He rebuilt the old hotels; my friends took 540 pounds of cement for their new tourist bungalow. He restored a museum; they looted tin sheeting for roofs. He sent trucks of lumber into the neighborhood; they made half the wood vanish.
The State owned all. The people appropriated all. A ration system in reverse.
Helping to steal the cement was my first great success. For half an hour of labor, I was paid with a heaping plate of rice and red beans, topped with a banana and a small portion of picadillo. At least 800 calories.
I think this helps to explain why it is so hard for a country which has undergone this kind of repression to recover culturally. Once you’ve ingrained in people for a long period of time that the only way to survive is to steal and cheat, those habits die hard. In this sense, that fact that, in the absence of free markets, an illegal black market that looks a lot like a free market tends to spring up actually makes it harder for a culture to later shift to a free economy.
It’s appalling that, even as people like to pretend that no one really support Stalin and other communist dictators back in the day, there are still plenty of people in our country sympathetic to the Castros. Their regime not only takes away people’s most fundamental human freedoms and condemns them to grinding poverty, it also does everything possible to force them into participating in actions they innately feel to be wrong in order to survive, and it creates in them a set of customs and dispositions that will make it harder for them to later develop a free and functioning society.