In recent months, we’ve seen Time Magazine, or what’s left of it, celebrating the charm and quaintness of poverty in Cuba and worrying that the opening up of relations with the U.S. will bring increasing economic opportunity and with it – gasp! – that dreaded phenomenon known as income inequality. Meaning that at least some people will no longer be dirt poor.
On December 29, the Washington Post joined in the wailing. The focus of Nick Miroff‘s 2000-word piece was on Havana’s Alamar neighborhood, a public-housing project that’s home to some 100,000 people. Miroff made a point of the fact that the buildings are all covered with mildew. To Miroff, the mildew was plainly a feature, not a bug. For the message he wanted to get across was that this slum, this eyesore, is in fact a wonderful place, because it “is arguably Cuba’s most equal place,” where “everyone pretty much has an identical apartment.” And identical mildew.
Miroff quoted a septuagenarian bus driver who fondly recalled helping to build what the old man called a “model city.” “We had everything then,” the busman maintained. “Everyone looked after each other.” In other words, they were rich – not in money, but in Communist solidarity. They were dreaming the dream.
No more. Today, Miroff lamented, “ideological foundations are cracking, and new uncertainties are coming — perhaps none larger than whether the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution will be swept away by rising inequalities and the breakdown of Cuba’s socialist welfare state.”
Let’s pause for a moment over that last line: “the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution.” Note that Miroff wasn’t quoting or paraphrasing somebody here; he was, in his role as a reporter for the Washington Post (not The Nation or The Daily Worker), presenting as an objective fact the notion that Castro’s revolution was, and is, characterized by “egalitarian values.”
Granted, with the obvious exception of the Castro family and perhaps a few people in their immediate circle, pretty much all Cubans are equal in a number of ways. For one thing, they’re all unfree. They’re all living in a totalitarian state. They’re all prohibited from leaving. They’re all in danger of being imprisoned if they criticize the government. In these ways, yes, they’re all equal. Somehow, in Miroff’s mind, all this oppression adds up to something that deserves to be described with the word “values.” Because, you see, everybody’s oppressed. Well, hurrah.
Of course, the main kind of equality Miroff is concerned with is economic equality. Are Cubans really economically equal? Yes, because most of them are dirt-poor. Zero is equal to zero. Then again, a not inconsiderable number of Cubans – namely, those who have positions of power in the government, those who are preachers and enforcers of all that wonderful equality, if not (as in the case of the Castros themselves) living symbols of it – are markedly better off than most of their countrymen. A few are even prosperous by Western standards. And, again, when you get up to the top level, to the Castro clan and a very few others, you’re looking at people who, by any measure, are downright rich.
But fine, let’s forget for the time being about those privileged few and focus instead on the penniless majority. These are, after all, the people whom Miroff was really writing about. And what Miroff was lamenting here, quite plainly, was that, half a century into the revolution, some of these desperately poor people are finally starting to climb up out of poverty – not because Communism has at last proven to work as an economic system, but because, on at least a small scale, the state is introducing free-market reforms.
Most rational people, most decent people who actually cared about the well-being of others, would view this sort of change as positive. Terrifically positive. Not Miroff. “Communist Party elders,” he wrote, “want to keep a lid on market forces, but with every incremental opening, yawning income gaps emerge.”
Yawning income gaps! The horror! If Miroff didn’t agree with those Party bosses, he would never use such a ridiculous term. And note that term “elders.” Whom was Miroff referring to here? He was referring to a bunch of thugs who never were elected to anything by anybody, but who have run Castro’s island prison for decades, keeping a lid not just on market forces but on freedom in all its forms.
“Younger Cubans do not seem too troubled” by these new developments, Miroff admitted. No kidding! Could it be that many of these younger Cubans not only are not “too troubled” by the yawning income gaps, but that they in fact look upon the new spark of economic development in their grim, shabby, garbage-strewn rusted hulk of a country with something that might actually be described as hope? Is it possible that they don’t love being poor as much as slumming American visitors like Miroff enjoy the spectacle of them being poor? The idea seemed alien to Miroff, who was busy wringing his hands, plainly sharing the “fear” of Cuban “authorities” that “these disparities” – that is, the yawning income gaps – “bear the seeds of social tensions, resentments and crime.”
We’re not done with Miroff. More tomorrow.