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Cuba today: Communism is a failure

POSTED: May 16, 2010 12:30 a.m.
Courtesy Frank Norton Jr./

Frank Norton Jr. and his wife, Nancy, stand along a street in Cuba.

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Today the people of Cuba are living under a form of the Stockholm Syndrome: Smiling contentedly, living day to day on the government babble and the food dole.

Just as kidnappers shape the long-term victim's relationship with the captor, Cuban leadership has used starvation, deprivation and indoctrination, to forge an alliance with its citizens. Any thought of running away is buried deep in the dark recesses of the victims' mind.

Today, the Cuban people have lost all personal freedom, lost all personal property and now occupy government-owned, rotting, worn-out buildings that are crumbling around them. There is no pride of ownership, little pride of country; the communist government has taken much of this away from the once thriving Garden of Eden. Alas, poor Babylon.

Recently my wife, Nancy, and I took a the trip of a lifetime and had an eyewitness experience with 21st century communism. I think it's important to know your history, where you came from. For me, it's been a 54-year journey surrounded by the barbed-wire fence that is a political embargo.

People always say that things aren't like you remember them. In my case, I was 2 the last time I visited Cuba. (My mother is from Cuba having gone to Brenau College and settling in Gainesville after meeting and marrying my Gainesville-born father).

We got the chance of a lifetime to travel two weeks with a United Methodist mission team — to walk into the house my great-grandfather built for his family, the house my mother considered her home; to see what's left of the family business; and to see a private school spanning six city blocks. This trip was very personal, filling a whole hole in my legacy, making family stories real.

The story of the Methodist Church in Cuba is powerful statement to Christian discipleship. The church began sending missionaries in the 1800s establishing a network of churches and a growing membership. After Castro and communism took over and outlawed the official teaching of religion, we are told the Methodist Church did not close any of their churches but continued to worship under the piercing eyes of the military.

After Russia pulled its financial and military support in 1992, Fidel Castro modified his policies, opened up the country to foreign investment, European tourism and limited religious freedom.

In 1996, the Methodist church created a mission center in downtown Havana as a central support center, dormitory, dining and fellowship area. The church also received permission to bring a 12-person mission team from the U.S. monthly.

Since that time, the visiting teams have built churches, a 600-person Christian retreat center, nursing homes and have added pastor housing. Our team was responsible for completing two classrooms in the new Methodist seminary.

Yes, in this communist, socialist, atheist country, the Methodists have created a seminary to teach Cuban ministers who will go out into the countryside and preach the word of God, minister to the struggling people and strengthen the faith of its congregation.

Our perceived notions of strong-fisted military rule, blaring pro-Castro, anti-U.S. propaganda and limited visitor access were all wrong. There seemed to be little to no formalized government structure. Military were seen but only in casual situations absent of guns, and we had total freedom and comfort traveling, walking and asking the thousands of questions that filled our minds.

Some observations from our daily journals:

Underground capitalism: Throughout our visit, we've seen small flares of capitalism: the man selling pizzas out of his basement; an elderly gentleman dressing three dachshunds in hats, coats and sunglasses charging $1 per picture; the Cuban Coco cabs that charged $6 a trip; vendors in the crafts shops selling carved ebony statues or colorful canvases.

Capitalism is alive, thriving actually, in the deep bowels of Cuban life. Capitalism may even be the dark underbelly of successful communism. In a totalitarian state, the underground microeconomy keeps the engine running and the populous content and fed.

Visual stimulus: No signs, no American-style advertising blaring 24-7. The Cuban landscape is deprived of advertising and mass media messages. Yes, there is the occasional billboard of propaganda or the rough sketch of hero Che Guevara, but it is almost a pleasant relief from the American media overload.

The greatest marketing idea I came across was an old tire on a pole in the middle of the street in the dark slums of old Havana, pointing to the tire repair in the garage next door. The next day we noticed the owner had added a bicycle tire, expanding his product line.

Cuban Baroque: In the 1800s, the European influences on Cuban architecture were profound: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Beaux Arts, Regency, Renaissance style, pilasters, friezes, corbels, columns, garlands on stone, lobster keystones, fruit, curved shell pediments, wonderful illuminated colored glass transoms, mahogany balconies, iron, caryatids, carved elaborate lintels and massive porches. They called it Cuban Baroque, a highly defined Italian-French influenced architectural style. Now it's simply crumbling and worn out — Cuban "broke."

The nondisposable society: Cuba is a nation of usability — everything is precious, nothing is wasted. Clothes are handed down for generations, and at the point of shreds, they become rags. Broom bristles are sold at the stores but no handles are to be found. Our assistant, Larry, uses a needle and thread to repair the soles of his ancient tennis shoes.

Cuba has learned to recycle, out of embargo necessity. And they have perfected the practice. A broken mirror thrown in the trash by of one of our mission team is quickly retrieved and spread to a dozen hands to shine once again.

Black market: Everyday life is pelted with the need for the basics. Outside or inside (we can't decide — it is hard to tell which) of watchful eyes are the black markets. One such market is set up in an abandoned shoe store. Inside is the hustle of vendors and shoppers peering in one glass case after another. The contents are a mishmash of plumbing parts, glimmering gold earrings, square camera flash bulbs, vintage 78 records and motorcycle parts. The air is abuzz, the prices are within reach. Markets like this play a vital part in Cuban everyday existence.

The embargo: Our days passed and our opinion of the anti-Castro embargo has changed. It does not hurt Castro or his oblivious government; it hurts the children, old men and women and everyone in between.

Cubans have become adaptable, compliant and resilient. Everyone seems well fed but at the same time starving for basic needs: toilet paper, toothpaste, medicine, clothes, light bulbs, meat and eggs. Despite the great minds in Washington, Cubans will not rise up from within and overthrow Castro. They are too beaten down, unknowing, too tired to overthrow anyone.

La Revolution: The museum of La Revolution paints an interesting portrait of American involvement in Cuba. This sanitized vision of how things happened and why presents the Cubans and foreign visitors a distinctive message: "La Revolution good, America terrible."

But it's the strong emphasis on current President Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, throughout the museum that was the greatest surprise. While we in America see Fidel Castro as the linchpin leader, he has lost his local luster and his image is almost invisible, being expunged in the government public propaganda.

Hero, Che's picture is painted everywhere, and when asking our guides the reason we are quietly told, "Castro is considered a failure."

Grumpy old men: Today's Cuba is run by a small band of grumpy old men, distant and out of touch with the modern world and modern civilizations. These men, victorious in their waltz (not fight) into Havana on New Year's Eve 1959, continue to celebrate their victory 51 years later while the spoils (Cuba) crumble around them.

Victorious yes; winners no! The past is past. Today's reality is underemployment for 11 million people, living in huts, widespread poverty, rolling shortages and economic collapse. This Garden of Eden is overgrown with tangled twisted jungle and the biggest jungles are in the tangled minds of grumpy old men.

Independence will be difficult.

Is Cuba lost? Time has perhaps passed by Cuban independence; the generation that fled Cuba to America is 50 years older, the passionate revolutionaries, future liberators of a communist Cuba, are now dead.

Will their children have the same passion and drive to liberate, the desire to reclaim their country? Or will they, as American citizens, see their heritage as just a sidebar to their lives in their adopted country?

Who will lead Cuba back to the promised land? Who will be passionate enough to liberate Cuba? And bring it back into the 20th century, much less the 21st?

In the museum La Revolution, we saw a quote by a 1959 Castro that is a haunting message even for today: "For the first time in the history of this country, the people and the government have left aside the rich side and have joined the poor side."

Alas, poor Babylon.

Frank Norton Jr. is a Gainesville real estate executive.



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