In his endlessly interesting 1976 book The Russians, then-New York Times Moscow bureau chief Hedrick Smith explained to a largely American audience exasperated by wait-times for gasoline that there were lines for every consumer good in the Soviet Union. Such was life for the typical Soviet citizen back in the days of government control from the Commanding Heights.
Smith’s book came to mind while reading David Ariosto’s fascinating new memoir, This Is Cuba: An American Journalist Under Castro’s Shadow. Ariosto was assigned to CNN’s Havana bureau in 2009, and while he imagined “a crumbling darling of an island,” he soon understood why Havana and Baghdad were the only locales that rated a “monthly hardship stipend” from CNN. As he put it, “Shortages and the near-constant specter of surveillance mingled with red-tape frustrations” on the way to a pretty difficult existence.
Ever been to Miami? In the summertime? Imagine being 70 miles south of Miami in a city where sparse air-conditioning frequently gives out the hotter it gets. Ariosto endured such conditions, and he was comparatively well-to-do as an American journalist in this rather decrepit nation. Imagine then, the living conditions for the typical Cuban. To think about what life would be like is to understand that it’s not just communism that saps the energy of the country's people. Of course, if the profit motive had informed Cuba's existence all these years then it's safe to say the country's interiors would be well cooled. Such is the genius of free markets. Ariosto doesn't hide from the sad truth that market forces in the Cuba he witnessed were largely suffocated, with predictable results.
Early in his time there, Ariosto was contacted by a female neighbor about what seemed like a date. This plainly appealed to the journalist given the isolating nature of the island, but he needed provisions as it were. No problem, just go to the grocery store to pick up beer, milk, cookies, vegetables, and the rest? Not so fast. “This is Cuba,” and it’s a constant refrain in this most dysfunctional of countries.
Ariosto arrived at Supermercado 70 around 1:00 pm on a Saturday, only to find that “the market had been picked clean. Just a scattering of lonely packaged goods in row after row of empty shelves.” When Ariosto asked for chicken, a smiling clerk responded with “No chicken here today.” When he asked about cheese, the clerk “almost laughed.” Shoppers eager to purchase even a portion of what they really needed knew to line up at grocery stores early in the morning. Readers can probably imagine where this story is going. And it’s not as though Ariosto hadn’t been warned.
His housemate had told him that “What takes thirty minutes in the states will take all day here. Sometimes more.” As Ariosto explained it about a grocery excursion that would take all of ten (?) minutes in the U.S. (less time if delivered; delivery a concept that did not exist in Cuba), “Beer, toilet paper, milk, cookies, and a few vegetables were all I had to show for an entire afternoon of shopping.” Spoiled Americans frustrated that Facebook, Google, Amazon et al use their information to help businesses more explicitly target their individual wants and needs would profit from reading about Ariosto’s grocery-store experience as a way of learning what life’s like when alleged service providers don’t care one bit about your likes and dislikes…
To be clear, Cuba was - and still very much is – a disaster. Ariosto doesn’t much pull punches near as this reviewer can tell, with the predictable exception of his treatment of the U.S. embargo. And even there Ariosto at least implicitly acknowledges that the embargo and sanctions are not what hold Cuba back.
What restrains the island is that the people aren’t free, and particularly weren’t free during the years (2009-10) in which Ariosto was in the Havana bureau. The journalist notes that the average monthly salary back then was $24, that Cuba can claim the lowest internet penetration in the western hemisphere (very occasional, very slow access amounted to “a fresh rush of dopamine” to people walled off from so much of the world), and that the extreme poverty forced adolescent girls into forms of work that would horrify those lucky enough to not suffer collectivist leadership. Readers can imagine what the professions alluded to are, and it’s a reminder of just how cruel life is where profits are largely illegal.
Of course, no regime can fully kill off the individual capitalist motive that is natural as breathing. There are black markets in which prosaic goods of the lightbulb, curtain rods, and sink variety are traded. Comical and sad at the same time is that upon departing his temporary living quarters at the Hotel Nacional (Ariosto notes that one night at a hotel reserved strictly for non-Cubans would cost the typical Cuban two years’ worth of earnings), the author moved into a rental house in one of Havana’s better suburbs (Miramar). Not long after, his sink was stolen. On its own that would surprise most any American, but in Cuba there were no quick replacements for most anything. Everything took months. More troubling was whom Ariosto might tell about the theft. As he put it, “What course of action does one have when the people to whom one would report a theft are the very people who allowed it?”
The main thing is that people quite simply had to steal, or had to transact in the black market, to acquire the most basic of things. Otherwise, the waits for everything were endless. A simple spark plug for his motor scooter would take weeks, same for a part necessary to run his home air conditioner in a climate where it was essential, and same for car parts. About cars, it’s seemingly well known that 1950s American automobiles can be found all over the island. Where it gets interesting is what cabdrivers would say to Ariosto as he entered their beaten down monuments to the past: “Suave, suave” they would tell him, which is “gently, gently” close the car door. Much like parts for anything else, those for cars could take a long time to locate. A broken door could keep the drivers off the road for months.
The world Ariosto encountered was quite simply otherworldly, and something Americans wondrously bombarded by the world’s plenty plainly couldn’t fathom. Indeed, imagine there being shortages of everything. Notable here is that despite the longstanding cessation of direct trade between American and Cuban producers, Ariosto alerts the reader to something surprising: there have been exceptions made for agricultural and medical goods over such that the U.S. was Cuba’s 4thlargest trading partner while Ariosto was there. This number would plainly be much higher if packages from Cuban Americans were factored in. More on that in a bit.
With healthcare and medicine it gets interesting mainly because Ariosto once again doesn’t pull punches. While he accepts the dictatorship’s focus on healthcare as perhaps having led to the development of some pretty good doctors, he’s clear that the reality of Cuba’s medical system is “far more nuanced than the rosy portrait Michael Moore conveyed in his 2007 documentary Sicko, in which Cuba is the land of cheap drugs and free doctors.” Ariosto notes that a substantial decline of type 2 diabetes in the 1990s was more an effect of famine-level supplies of food such that Cubans lost enormous amounts of weight, as opposed to a sign of wise doctoring or medicine intake. Regarding access to medicine, “pharmacy shelves were often bare” according to Ariosto, while medical care was rationed to the detriment of Cuba’s poorest (as in it wasn’t much available) despite laws on the books decreeing that “there should be ‘no sick person who does not receive good medical attention.’” Ariosto indicated that the island’s black inhabitants received the least medical attention of all. Equality cannot be decreed contrary to the dreams of politicians, and this is truest in societies built on the cruel mirage of equality.
Interesting about a country defined by a lack of seemingly everything is that there’s one product that’s seen as having predictive qualities (or one could argue that Ariosto was being somewhat ironic) when it comes to future unrest. What we’re talking about here is beer. According to Ariosto, if Bucanero or Cristal beer were “out of stock, it was a sign – indeed a bellwether – for more difficult times ahead.”
Ariosto’s book is amazing, and to see your reviewer’s copy is to see page after page of notes. It’s rare in reading This Is Cuba to open a page and not find information that’s wildly compelling.
If there’s a substantive critique, it’s one that was already alluded to. Throughout This Is Cuba Ariosto references U.S. sanctions, the embargo and other American measures to help explain the lack of credit cards on the island, the lack of food, lack of parts, etc. This is incorrect.
How we know this is that the U.S. was for instance embargoed by the Arab members of OPEC in the 1970s, but the embargo was wholly toothless. Americans still consumed “Arab oil” by virtue of buying it from those not embargoed by the Arab countries. The ‘70s “oil shocks” weren’t oil shocks, rather they were an effect of a falling dollar that was pushing up the prices of all commodities sensitive to the dollar’s movements. Going further back in time to WWI, a U.S. embargo levied on Germany coincided with a surge in U.S. exports to Scandinavian countries. Readers surely get the riddle. Americans were still trading with Germans, albeit through Scandinavian countries not embargoed.
Simply stated, production is an expression of a desire to import. Just the same, there are no “imports” (whether from next door, or from another country) absent production first. Cuba is poor and has been hit by periods of famine-like suffering because per Ariosto the Fidel Castro-led government nationalized private property and ultimately passed legislation that “allowed for the expropriation of all foreign holdings.” No private property, and no investment from outside that enables greater productivity in the workplace. Here’s the problem; as in had there been economic freedom in Cuba then it’s also true that U.S. sanctions wouldn’t have meant a whole lot. Cubans would have been importing en masse from Americans, though indirectly. Finance is global, and because it is credit cards and other forms of finance would be abundant in an economically free nation.
Notable is that Ariosto at least implicitly acknowledges all of the above as true. Though he frequently mentions U.S. sanctions and other supposed American barriers to prosperity, he references throughout the constant inflow of products from the U.S. that included coffeemakers, microwave ovens, wide-screen TVs, plus arguably the greatest symbol of American capitalism at the moment: the iPhone. Crucial here is that if the Cuban people were free, they wouldn’t have to rely on generous relatives. To put it more clearly, countries never have an embargo problem or an import problem; rather they always have a lack of production problem. Cuba’s was rooted in its people not being free.
Which leads to questions about what’s ahead. Regarding what may come, what’s sad is that Cuba was ever an issue. Ariosto notes that as its economy is the size of Delaware’s, seemingly the only modern interest in Cuba is rooted in “nostalgia.” Ariosto nails it. At the same time, why did we ever care? In caring, we gave Fidel Castro global stature that he never could have achieved on his own. One could argue that we’re doing same today with our odd fear of Iran and North Korea.
While Barack Obama is a polarizing figure in the U.S. today (as all presidents generally are), it says here he got it right in aiming to normalize relations with Cuba despite Ariosto’s observation that he got very little in return. If so, so what? The embargo and sanctions never made sense in the first place. Arguably they hurt the Cuban people they were supposed to help by once again elevating Castro to a place his facile droolings about collectivism never could have.
The happy news is that despite President Trump having backtracked somewhat, the genie is out of the bottle. Investment is flowing into Cuba, and the people are discovering capitalism. Though Ariosto is no longer based there, his knowledge of the country brings him on occasion for reporting purposes, and he indicates that the island is improving. Goodness, even Airbnb is there, and helping Cubans realize income on their property; income that comes in at 96 times their normal salaries! It’s a beautiful thing.
Thanks to the internet that the profit motivated turned into a brilliant driver of life-enhancing trade and information sharing, “the world from which Cuba had long been shielded had broken through.” And it’s wonderful. Tyrants can only block out reality for so long. David Ariosto chronicles well this happy truth. Readers shouldn’t miss this most essential of books.