Most journalists who travel to Cuba write about how awesome the tourist bubble is.
Jonathan Ray, for instance, summed it up this way in The Spectator last year: “By the end, Havana had me in her spell. She was like a brash and vulgar party girl whom everyone adores and you can’t think why. Ten minutes in her company, though, and you too are smitten. My three nights passed in a flash and I long to return to discover more about this edgy but thrilling city.”
These kinds of articles are a genre unto themselves. They've appeared in our media for decades for a handful of reasons. Some reporters are lazy and incurious. Many, like the Spectator writer, don't stick around long enough to see past the mystique of the forbidden. A good number think they're poking “American propaganda” in the eye by being contrarian. A handful might even be true believers.
Others are concerned—with good reason—that publishing anything critical of the government or even everyday living conditions will get them arrested, deported and blacklisted. When the Wall Street Journal publishes pieces from Cuba, they often omit the reporter's name for that very reason.
Once in a while, though, journalists say to hell with all that and expose Cuba as the miserable place that it is.
Nick Miroff just did that for the Washington Post.
As one of Havana’s largest state-run retail hubs, the Supermercado 3ra y 70 is the communist government equivalent of a Target or Wal-Mart, created as a one-stop shopping center. It was designed, quite possibly, by sadists.
Customers with long shopping lists face no fewer than seven places to stand in line. One for butter. Another for cooking oil. A third for toothpaste. And so on.
He quotes a guy whose friend managed to visit the United States and misses two things above all: freedom and Home Depot.
Why Home Depot? For one thing, the lines are short. There may be seven or more lines at the checkout registers, but you only have to stand in one of them.
It's not about the lines, though, not really. They're just a symptom. Scarcity is the disease. And if you think Cuba's chronic shortages are because of American sanctions, think again. The guy that mentioned Home Depot? He makes a living selling screws and nails on the black market. He'll be sentenced to prison if he's caught, so Miroff left his last name out of the article.
Sentenced to prison. For selling nails and screws.
You'll also go to prison if you sell cooking oil or cheese. You'll go to prison if you're found in possession of a lobster whether or not you bought or sold it. Only tourists get to eat lobster, not because it's an endangered species but because the government sells them at state-run restaurants for foreigners and won't tolerate anyone challenging its monopoly.
Communism fails just as dismally in Cuba as it failed everywhere else, and for the same reasons. If you ban economic behavior, you won't have much of an economy.
That, along with the fact that the state-imposed Maximum Wage is a ration card plus a paltry twenty dollars a month, is why Cuba is poor.
It's one of the oddities of our time that most articles written about Cuba describe the island as an awesome place that's misunderstood. (Imagine if the bulk of written material about the Soviet Union during the Cold War described Moscow as though it were Prague circa the late 1990s.)
The army isn't out in the streets pointing guns at everyone's heads, but even lazy and incurious journalists must get at least a whiff of the island's oppression.
James Kirchick recently returned from there and opened his piece this way:
I've visited more than my fair share of dictatorships, but Cuba is the only one where travelers at the airport must pass through a metal detector upon entering, in addition to leaving, the country. Immediately after clearing customs at José Marti International Airport, visitors line up for a security check. Anyone found carrying contraband — counterrevolutionary books, say, or a spare laptop that might be given to a Cuban citizen — could find himself susceptible to deportation.
He spent much of his time interviewing dissidents—a risky move, for both reporter and dissident—but he also sprinkled his essay with the sort of fun facts most journalists who visit the island don't feel like communicating to the rest of us.
Few visitors bother to visit an actual Cuban home, and so you won't hear them coo about the "classic" 1950s-era refrigerators — that is, if the house is lucky enough to have one. Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I imagined. Walking down its narrow streets, I was reminded of bombed-out sections of Beirut, heaps of rubble and trash strewn about the decaying buildings. Steps from a billboard splayed with Castro's visage and some revolutionary verbiage, a woman picked through garbage. At a pharmacy, I watched a man purchase Band-Aids — individually, not by the package.
"Sometimes when you have money you want to go to the market and buy meat and there's nothing there," Berta Soler told me. "If you're able to find it, it's bad quality. We wake up every day thinking, 'What am I going to eat today?' and go to sleep thinking 'What am I going to eat tomorrow?'" I dined at a variety of Cuban establishments, from the restaurant of a moderately priced tourist hotel to a relatively upmarket café to a canteen in a small, extremely poor provincial city. Across the board, the quality of food was horrendous, and never before have I been more eager to consume airplane cuisine.
Cuba's current president Raul Castro is a little less severe than his brother, and he's reforming Fidel's imbecilic economic system one tiny rule at a time. At the current rate of change, Havana will be the Prague of the Western Hemisphere sometime around the year 2200.
In the meantime, more American tourists than ever are visiting the island now that diplomatic relations are beginning to normalize. Hopefully, some of the more curious among them will wander outside the tourist bubble for at least a couple of hours and get a glimpse of what actually existing communism looks like while it's still with us.