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What Life in Cuba Was Like After Castro's Revolution

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This piece originally appeared at The New Republic on April 13, 1963.

Unless evasive action is taken early, the spirit of any visitor to a country experimenting in socialist methods is liable to be tamed by an organized tour of a collective farm. In Cuba, last month, a couple of other Western correspondents and myself were rescued by a group of Russians from a hot mid-day slog round a state farm in Pinar del Rio. We had tramped over acres of land that looked remarkably like the land outside; we had gazed at pigs that were indubitably pigs and admired chickens that were certainly chickens. The farm was called a cooperative, but this seemed a confusion of terms: the workers did not own any land themselves but were paid regular wages, and although plots had been set aside for individual cultivation, nobody as yet had bothered to cultivate them. Obediently, we thought up other questions, but the men in charge of the farm were nowhere to be found.

Then we came upon the Russians, pottering round their dismantled jeep, and they invited us into their house for guava juice, a rest and conversation. Two of them were agronomists, the third an engineer; they were all three very young and had volunteered to come on Cuba on leaving Leningrad University. They liked it very much, they said. They had their own house, their own cook, lots of work to do and a movie program that changed twice a week. It had been impossible in Havana to tell the precise function of the droves of pink-faced, fair-haired burly young men driving around in Russian trucks; the Cubans I asked probably would not have wanted to tell a Westerner anyhow, but they gave the impression of neither knowing nor caring themselves. But with these young men on the farm it was easy to believe that they were what they seemed: earnest young missionaries doing a useful job.

The compensations for working in Cuba do, after all, outweigh the frustrations. My own work permit allowed me to practice as a correspondent in Havana, the airport and the nearby beaches. If I wanted to go anywhere else, and in the end I traveled the length of the island, I was supposed to apply for permission to the press department of the ministry of foreign relations, which handed out impressive-looking letters of authorization from the ministry of the interior. I never had any trouble getting these authorizations, nor did anyone at any time ask to look at them or at any other of my credentials. The press department was helpful, even to the extent of arranging appointments with some of the people I had asked to see. Feeling discourteous rather than a law-breaker, I would sometimes sneak out of Havana in a friend’s car without asking permission. Once when I was caught out by the ministry through my own indiscretion, I was scolded by a peeved official but it all ended amiably enough.

Looking back, it was probably silly of me to have flouted the rules just because I was bored by the time wasted in getting a permit. The Cuban law does not seem to follow any logical pattern in its treatment of Western correspondents. The day I left, a British colleague, David Holden of The Manchester Guardian (which can be criticized, perhaps, as a dull paper but certainly not as a reactionary or prejudiced one) tried to enter the country, spent four days in a police cell and was then bundled out by the first possible flight. I had luck, but it is clearly a mistake for a Westerner, however well-intentioned he knows himself to be, to rely on the Cubans recognizing his good intentions.

Havana itself is a good place to wander about in. One is not brought up short by the sickening signs of poverty and deformity that are part of the scene in so many Latin American cities. Although the reports say that it is worse in some of the countryside (and no doubt in sections of the cities too) I never saw any children suffering from malnutrition. Cubans are big eaters and the rationed allowance of most foods is large by British wartime or postwar standards. The ration cards are kept by the stores, and everybody, whatever his job or age, is supposed to draw the same amount. The snag up to a short time ago was that the full ration was seldom obtainable; the distribution of food was inefficient and the stocks in some of the cities were badly depleted. The situation now is slightly better. It was possible to find restaurants serving good meals, but the prices were high. Resident foreigners, on the larger expense accounts, regaled themselves on steak, butter, and wine at one of the few exclusive clubs left in Havana; the waiters at this rather improbable place outnumbered the diners and the elevator might have been taking one up to the moon for all the atmosphere had to do with Cuba today.

Down to earth again, my companions and I on a long night drive from Havana to Camagüey found it hard to get a snack to eat on the way, and, more important for a Cuban, could never be sure whether the coffee stalls would still have coffee. In Holguín, the second largest town in the province of Oriente, a correspondent on a Cuban newspaper was tempted by my own decadent yearnings, after seven solid hours of conference, into a town-wide search for rum. We had to record total failure, and our sights lowered, began to look for coffee, which turned out to be almost, although not quite, as difficult. A group of Poles in Havana observed a day of mourning when the vodka they had brought with them ran out.

Cuban girls look remarkably smart compared with the dreariness and scarcity of the clothes on display in the shops. It is early days yet in the consumer goods shortage, but the Cuban women seem to have the gift of the French in keeping themselves chic through all emergencies. Some of the shops had displays of non-rationed household goods or ornaments, most of which looked to me ugly, useless, or expensive, or all three; they were evidently considered precious enough to be guarded at night by the militia. A Cuban housewife spends a lot of her time standing in line for something or other, but except for the dearth of drugs and medicines the lack of consumer goods is not tragic and nobody I spoke to was taking it as such.

Invitation to Learning

One of the most cheering sights in the outskirts and residential areas of Havana are the groups of uniformed scholarship students. At the end of the literacy campaign in 1961, Fidel Castro announced, out of the blue, that any student who had been out teaching the villagers and now wanted secondary education should send a telegram to the ministry of education saying what he or she would like to study. Everything would be free: education, housing, food, uniform and some pocket money too. In the days that followed, the post office was inundated with 60,000 telegrams, and the ministry of education threw up its hands and refused to cope. A new organization was set up to struggle with the problem of feeding and housing the children who flooded hopefully into town. The deserted houses of the Miami exiles came in useful, and somehow food was distributed. The difficulty then was to find something for the children to do, let alone to study. At the time of the October-November crisis last year, many of them were up in the hills having helped to harvest the coffee crop: the military trucks that were supposed to bring them back to town were being otherwise used. Dr. Castro is reported as saying that he was glad; the children would be safer where they were. Eventually the trucks were released by the army, the students returned and the ministry of education, gradually recovering from shock, is organizing their education.

Altogether there are said to be 75,000 students having secondary education. Then, there are 5,000 students in Russia or Eastern Europe (but this includes the adult workers on crash programs to pick up technical skills). In exchange, there are about 100 Russian students in Cuba, mostly studying Spanish. There are also, according to the official figures, 400 students at university level from Latin America and 200 from Asia and Africa. The few foreign students that I spoke to were all seizing the chance to study Marx. There was no evidence, and it would have been naïve to expect to find it, of students studying guerrilla tactics in Cuba.

I was shown round a pre-medical school (formerly an officer’s club) by the two head students, one the leader of the Young Communists, the other the elected head of the Students Union. They were passionately proud of their laboratory equipment (mostly supplied from China, it was sparse but what there was seemed to be first-class) and passionately loyal to Dr. Castro. Khrushchev’s withdrawal of the missiles was interpreted as an insult to Fidel; his Five Points had saved the day for Cuban pride and they were trying, against the grain, to accept the new position. When I asked them whether they were going to cut cane with the other volunteers on Sunday they answered quickly, “No, Fidel has told us we are working hard enough and he doesn’t want us to go.” There was no doubt that whatever Fidel told them to do, they would do it until they dropped.

There is no need in Cuba to stick up Dr. Castro’s photograph on every available wall (as, for instance, General Qassim’s picture was stuck up all over Baghdad). There are a lot of pictures of him, but they take their place with portraits of Lenin, Martí, or whoever is the local hero of the province. The affection for Castro is spontaneous and unforced. Having made a start on pruning the bureaucracy by abandoning his own prime minister’s office, he is permanently on the move, making his decisions impulsively and giving ulcers to his bodyguard. Constantly demanding, and often getting the impossible, he is unquestionably the man in charge.

One of his interests is to encourage and reassure Cuba’s intellectuals. Cuba’s isolation, and her hard currency shortage, cuts her off from books, magazines, and newspapers from outside—except for a few from Communist countries. Cubans who can string words together or are fluent in a foreign language, are being urged to spend their evenings writing on their own, translating a foreign classic, or rewriting a textbook. The cultural center, the Casa de las Americas, pounds on through all the handicaps trying to arrange exchanges of publications, particularly with Spanish-speaking countries. Since what they are able to send out as their part of the exchange is largely propaganda of one sort or another, they are looked at suspiciously; nevertheless, some of the parcels get through and their library has a fairly large, though arbitrary selection of foreign publications. Dickens and Galsworthy are prominent among the English-language books. A beautiful Spanish girl at the center, whose husband works at the state publishing house, said that modern American and European writers were being translated; there was no evidence of this as yet. But there is nothing stodgy or conformist about a lot of the painting and architecture now coming out of Cuba. There has been a burst of abstract and symbolist painting and one large room at the center was reserved for a painter hurling mud-colored stuff at his canvas. A group of architects, two Italian, one Cuban, have had a free hand in turning Havana’s golf course into a new Arts Center. The center is being designed as a series of villages, each village created to represent a particular art form: the result is an extravaganza, but exciting and even poetic.

Planners and Intellectuals

I drove to the province of Pinar del Rio with a group of planners who were inspecting a new irrigation scheme and the construction, with Russian money, of a thermo-electric plant. One of the party was a young poet recently returned from Prague and recruited into planning by his friend, the minister of economics. At the farm, he fingered curiously the young green rice shoots and I wondered if he, like me, was having a moment of wild ignorant doubt about which end of the shoot the rice grains would appear; at the construction plant he watched the sparks of hot steel with the same excitement as the workers who had never seen this sort of enterprise in Cuba before. The economists in the party sighed gently over his qualifications.

Cuba’s pressing need is to rescue its sugar production which through bad luck with the weather and a gross number of economic and social mistakes has collapsed way below its pre-revolutionary level. In a collective effort to raise output, the cane cultivators and the sugar producers have been getting together every month under the chairmanship of either Che Guevara, the minister of industry who controls the sugar mills, or of Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, who controls cane cultivation. I had the chance to be invited to go to Oriente, where the March meeting was being held, by Dr. Rodriguez, a man of powerful intellect, strong purpose and remarkable kindness, who was the first Communist leader to get in touch with Castro’s revolutionary army (we stayed at the hotel in Holguín which was his base when he was acting as go-between, disguised as a commercial traveler). The meetings in Oriente were long and repetitious (a burdensome number of organizations were represented), but they were also revealing. The urgency was to harvest the current crop early so that the land could be ploughed and the new crop planted in time for harvesting next year. As each provincial leader produced his report, he pleaded the shortage of labor, transport and mechanization; again and again he was urged to improvise.

On the afternoon of the second day, the provincial sugar mills held their public emulation contest. The first part of the show was cultural; a rather uneven display of local talent. Then came the result of the monthly contest based on norms, and proud Oriente’s defeat by Pinar del Rio, whose eight little sugar mills altogether only produced as much as one of the Oriente’s giant enterprises. Holguín’s youth and reacted as they might to an unfair umpire at a ball game, and Fidel Castro’s elder brother who runs Oriente’s sugar cultivation with efficiency, energy and knowledge, was cheered to the roof. The meeting was called to some sort of order by the local party organizer. Since Dr. Castro’s attack on sectarianism a year ago, most of the local party caucuses have disintegrated and are only gradually being reformed. But in Oriente, the United Party of the Socialist Revolution has surged ahead and is full-bloodedly behind the production drive. Red Battalions (composed of party members, candidates for membership and selected non-party members) go out into the fields and mills to encourage good work by their example.

Uniformed and Uninformed 

On the drive to Oriente, Dr. Rodriguez’s military bodyguard fussed over me like a group of British Nannies—but more kindly. They saw that I ate and slept and washed; they retrieved me if I strayed from the meeting, and looked anxious if I talked to strangers. The medley of weapons in the car was irrelevant except when I got my feet caught up in them. I felt happily cocooned and was lost when, once more, I was on my own. Perhaps because I have been brought up in the British tradition of asking a policeman (but I would have thought at least twice about doing any such thing in, say, Caracas) I quickly fell into the habit in Havana of looking for somebody in military, police or militia uniform if I wanted help in finding my way, unearthing a cab or sorting out some mix-up. The militia (who are mostly civilians who take on guard duty once or twice a week, but to confuse things often wear their uniform or bits of it all the time) were invariably helpful. The army on one occasion, at least, was almost too helpful.

This particular episode was not only absurd but also reflected badly on my power of making myself understood in simple Spanish. Having tried unsuccessfully to see somebody in the Presidential Palace, I was standing rather disconsolately outside when a soldier came up and asked me where I was going. At the moment I did not particularly want to go anywhere and tried to say so. He fell into step beside me and gently but firmly escorted me to a bus, and paid my fare. I realized there had been some dreadful error and hoped only to escape without too much awkwardness. The soldier firmly pushed me back onto my seat. We arrived at a new suburb to the east of the city and the soldier led me relentlessly into a middle-class apartment block. Like everybody else, he had taken it for granted that I was a Russian and had kindly brought me to the apartments where most of the Russian families lived. The episode dissolved in a babble of suspicious Russian, incredulous Spanish and infinitely embarrassed English.

I liked Havana but I was less sure about the old grand hotels, their design and their routine linked to a crumbled way of life. The Hotel Riviera, where I stayed, has an incomparable position on the seafront, but my spirit quailed before its ghostly acres of tarnished splendor. The enormous empty casino with its oversize chandeliers, dingy velvet and dusty smell; the too many bars too often closed; the pre-revolutionary notices, telephone directories and beauty parlors. Nobody ever seemed to get any letters; the switchboard operators would sometimes deny one’s existence. The food was plain but served with style; my room service breakfast was weak black coffee and plain rolls with no butter or jam, but they were delivered on a tremendous great trolley and the waiter whipped off the lid of the dish containing (cold) rolls with the aplomb of a maître d’hotel. The vast main lobby held people sitting on benches back to back in suspended time, like the dazed, unearthly travelers in an airport transit lounge. Apart from the Russians and the East Europeans, who generally looked as if they were actually going somewhere, and the Cuban honeymoon couples who obviously knew what they were about, there were Canadian businessmen, fussing about the delays and black market eggs for their breakfasts; a Belgian filmmaker, talking travel and culture; an American cameraman who was recalled by his Los Angeles television station just as he managed to break through the barrier of permits; Brazilian left-wingers snubbing each other; a Southern Rhodesian studying political science; a British Guianan making whoopee.

Why is it that what might not be tolerable in another country, turns out to be tolerable in Cuba? Partly, it is a matter of expecting something worse, and of making allowances for a society in swift and difficult transition. More important, it is the disarmingly gentle manners and excitingly high hopes of most Cubans. In the middle of a depressed wait for something in which one has already lost hope, a coffee seller will materialize and graciously offer one a tiny paper cocked hat of his brew. Misdirected for the umpteenth time, I might crossly hail a cab only to have coals of fire showered on my head when the driver decides, for some such reason as that he has not practiced English for a while, that the ride is on him. The economic muddles and catastrophes are obvious; the infringement on personal liberties is no less serious for being under the surface. It might have been possible to have done everything in a less destructive way. But even as things are, Cuba’s stride towards social and racial equality is real and lasting. “And what do you think of the Cuban revolution?” shyly asked the pretty militia girl when she interviewed me for my entry permit. If I had been asked the same question on leaving, I would have been able to answer more enthusiastically and more honestly.