The end of the Cuban idyll


Sunset over Havana

The BBC is running a story today that the Cuban government has removed the need for its citizens to have an exit permit to travel abroad. There are many beginnings, even to ends, but this is another because ends the Cuban idyll for all which Castro established when he won power in 1959 and restricted foreign travel.

The restriction’s lifting reminds me of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a stinging critique of Communist government in Czechoslovakia, first published in Czech in 1978 and in English translation in 1980. In the first section of his novel “Lost Letters”, he writes of the idyll for all:

Yes, say what you will, the Communists were more intelligent. They had an imposing program. A plan for an entirely new world where everyone would find a place. The opponents had no great dream, just some tiresome and threadbare principles. … So it’s no surprise that the enthusiasts, the spirited ones, easily won out … and rapidly set about to realize their dream, that idyll of justice for all.

I emphasize: idyll and for all, because human beings have always aspired to an idyll, to that garden where nightingales sing …

There were people who immediately understood that they did not have the right temperament for the idyll and tried to go abroad. But since the idyll is in essence a world for all, that who tried to emigrate showed themselves to be deniers of the idyll, and instead of going abroad they went behind bars.

The Cuban idyll really started to die in 1994, three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when its government introduced the Convertible Peso, a unit of currency set at the value of the US dollar and worth around 25 Cuban Pesos. The Convertible’s main purpose is to force tourists to pay higher prices for Cuban goods and services than locals, and it was an admission that Cuba could not survive without the ‘subsidy’ or ‘import’ of foreign currency, specifically US Dollars.

It’s local effect has been to create a two-tiered economy where those who work in businesses who sell services to tourists – hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and taxi drivers – earn much more than those who do not. A taxi driver who charges tourists five Convertible Pesos off-the-meter for a short trip between the Old City and their hotel in the Vedado, or a waiter who is given a modest 3 Convertible Pesos a night in tips, will take home a month’s wage in a day and a week respectively. Shared wealth is an idyll long gone.

With the most recent decision some travel restrictions remain, such as for athletes and the military, but most Cubans are now free to travel if they can afford to (a passport costs around $US100, or five months wages). And as still recent history shows, removing cross-border travel restrictions is another likely beginning to the end of Castro’s regime: the night an East German Government spokesman, Günter Schabowski,  announced the end of travel restrictions from East to West Germany was the night the Berlin Wall came down. That was a dramatic beginning to the end of the Communist government there, which came 11 months later with German reunification in October 1990. How long will the current Cuban government last?

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