5 myths about Cuba
5 myths about Cuba
President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba this past week returned
U.S. and world attention to the small Caribbean island of 11 million
people and the long, curious history between it and the United States.
It’s hard to think of a similarly sized country that has had such a
memorable, tumultuous, often romantic hold on U.S. history and
imagination. That narrative encapsulates a welter of assumptions – some
propagated by the 1959 revolution, others by the Cuban diaspora and the
rest by Americans who haven’t seen Cuba up close in more than half a
century. Here are some of those myths.
1. Cuba’s free health-care system is great.
In a 2014 visit to Cuba, the director general of the World Health
Organization, Margaret Chan, declared Cuba’s health-care system a model
for the world: “This is the way to go,” she said. And U.S.
documentarian-provocateur Michael Moore, in his movie “Sicko,” favorably
contrasted Cuba’s system with the expensive, complicated American
Yes, there have been health-care advances in Cuba in the past
half-century, especially when compared with some of the poorest
countries in the hemisphere. According to UNICEF, life expectancy in
Cuba is 79.1 years, the second-highest in Latin America. And, of course,
the country is famous both for training foreign physicians and
dispatching its homegrown ones to nations across the region.
But while Cuba made great gains in primary and preventive care after the
revolution, advanced health care is flagging. In the famously closed
country, reliable statistics and rigorous studies are impossible to come
by, but anecdotally, it appears that the health system used by average
Cubans is in crisis. According to a report by the Institute for War &
Peace Reporting, hospitals “are generally poorly maintained and short of
staff and medicines.” The writer visited facilities in Havana such as
the Calixto García, 10 de Octubre and Miguel Enrique hospitals and
describes them in an advanced state of neglect and deterioration. In the
10 de Octubre, “the floors are stained and surgeries and wards are not
disinfected. Doors do not have locks and their frames are coming off.
Some bathrooms have no toilets or sinks, and the water supply is
erratic. Bat droppings, cockroaches, mosquitos [sic] and mice are all in
One reason Cuba still sends doctors abroad despite findings like that:
Its foreign medical program is a huge moneymaker, bringing in
approximately $2.5 billion per year to the cash-strapped government.
With more than 50,000 Cuban health professionals working in 68 countries
other than Cuba, the doctor export program has created a shortage of
medical practitioners in Cuba.
2. Cubans already have plenty of contact with other people, so lifting
the U.S. embargo won’t help the country liberalize.
An op-ed in the Miami Herald last year asserted that “international
tourism has not brought about political reforms in Cuba,” a sentiment
repeated often by Cuban American supporters of the embargo. And it’s
true that tourists from Europe, Canada, Latin America and other places
(close to 3 million in 2015) have been visiting the island for years
with little discernible effect on the regime.
But this doesn’t begin to match the exposure that a U.S. opening to Cuba
could bring. Once the ban is fully lifted, some 1.5 million Americans
are expected to travel there each year. But the real difference-maker
will be Cubans themselves. More than 2 million Cuban Americans live in
the United States, and they are likely to return for visits bearing
news, goods, cash and ideas. Already, they make 700,000 trips each year
since the George W. Bush-era cap on Cuban American travel was lifted in
2009. They are passing out USB drives (called on the island “el
paquete”) with U.S. movies and TV series on them – already a huge
popular sensation in ways the U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio and TV Marti
could never become.
At the same time, by virtue of the limited hotel space and unappetizing
state-owned restaurants, U.S. tourism is already helping to support the
burgeoning private sector in Cuba. Today there are close to
500,000private entrepreneurs allowed under the law, many of them serving
clients from the United States. More than 3,000 private restaurants
(paladares) serve meals in people’s homes and ask clients to review them
on Yelp. More than 300 bed-and-breakfasts (casas particulares) are open
for tourists and listed on Airbnb. These numbers will explode if and
when the embargo dies. And the Bermuda-shorts-wearing,
sunscreen-slathered tourists are supporting businesspeople who for once
are gaining a measure of economic independence – and with it, a stake in
a more democratic future. The Europeans and Canadians who arrive on
package tours to all-inclusive tourist traps run by state-sanctioned
companies aren’t doing that.
3. Che Guevara was a freedom fighter.
Guevara’s iconic picture by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda is a
favorite for T-shirts, flags, coffee cups – even baby onesies – for the
international left and the supposedly socially conscious. When students,
fashionistas, activists, and stars such as Jay Z, Shia LaBeouf and
Johnny Depp bear his image, they’re nodding to his struggle for world
justice and his early death.
But revolutionary chic comes with a high moral price tag: For 11 months
after the revolution, Guevara oversaw the execution by firing squad of
some 220 officials from the previous government, whom he lined up after
kangaroo-court trials. He also launched a system of labor camps that
became home to gay people, AIDS victims and political opponents.
The regime of Fulgencio Batista, which Che helped overthrow, was
autocratic, kleptocratic and violently repressive. But what followed the
revolution wasn’t an experiment in high-minded ideals; it was a mass
slaughter and brutal crackdown.
4. Cuban cigars are the best.
At the time of the revolution, Cuba was the cigar capital of the world,
and the brand was so strong that its dominance has persisted. From the
iconic images of Fidel Castro puffing away dramatically to attempts to
use the stogies in secret diplomacy to a “Seinfeld” episode, Cuban
cigars have kept their mystique for more than 50 years, even as their
quality has declined.
Shortly after the revolution, many of the large growers took the Cuban
seeds to equally fertile soil in other countries, such as the Dominican
Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. At the same time, according to a
number of experts, a lack of technology and a lack of competition has
decreased the quality of the national product. And no wonder: Tobacco
growing and cigar production are controlled by the state.
Since then, the relative quality of Cuban cigars has dropped. According
to Bill Shindler, the general manager of Rich’s Cigar Store in Portland,
Ore., one of the principal problems is the lack of consistency. And in
2015, Cigar Aficionado named just three among its top 25 smokes.
Nicaraguan stogies, by contrast, landed in 13 spots. The Dominican
Republic had six, Honduras two, and one was assembled in Miami.
5. Cuba has achieved racial equality.
In his news conference Tuesday with President Obama, Raúl Castro touted
Cuba’s record on economic and social rights and racial equality, to
which Obama admitted the United States’ shortcoming in “race relations.”
The idea that post-revolution Cuba is a racial utopia is a common one
that served the revolution well during the 1960s, as American civil
rights activists such as Harry Belafonte and members of the Black
Panthers flocked to Cuba.
But a few facts and recent developments belie the regime’s claims.
Official counts put the country’s black and “mixed” population at about
36 percent, though some Cubans believe those stats are undercounted.
Meanwhile,study published in Socialism and Democracy in May 2011 found
that “black and mixed populations, on average, are concentrated in the
worst housing conditions” and tend to work in lower-paying, manual-labor
With the rise of the tourism industry in the 1990s, the emergence of the
entrepreneurial sector and an increase in remittances, structural
disparities have increased. The Socialism and Democracy study found,
based on surveys conducted among approximately 7,000 workers, that
blacks and mestizos occupy only 5 percent of the lucrative higher-end
jobs (managers and technicians) in the tourism industry but are heavily
represented in low-level jobs.
Because the majority of those who have left Cuba are of more European
extraction, the transfer of remittances back to the island
overwhelmingly goes to its non-black population. According to areport by
the North American Congress on Latin America, white Cubans are 2.5 times
more likely to receive remittances than their black fellow citizens.
Despite Raúl Castro’s description of racial harmony, structural and
racial inequality there, like here, is a permanent facet of life.
Sabatini is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of
International and Public Affairs and director of Global Americans, a
research institute focused on the foreign policy of human rights and
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