Cuba’s trade-off: sacrificing free expression and WiFi for universal, quality education, and healthcare

HAVANA – Anyone who spends hours walking around popular neighbourhoods of this sprawling city of more than two million, as I did recently, will notice something unusual and surprising: Apart from pro-government slogans, there is no unauthorized graffiti.

This is unusual, since Cubans are very expressive and there is every reason for signs expressing protest. There is widespread discontent with the worsening economic situation, and many Cubans who can leave the country do so. The net migration rate for 2016 – the excess of Cubans leaving compared to those entering with the intention of living there – was estimated at -5.3 per thousand. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, 56,406 Cubans entered the U.S. via ports of entry in fiscal 2016, or an increase of almost one-third compared to fiscal 2015 when 43,159 Cubans entered that way.

We asked our Cuban friend, who monitors the media and public documents for a major client, about this seeming dichotomy, and he replied that graffiti does spring up here and there, but is quickly removed, presumably reported by the Committees to Defend the Revolution (CDR) implanted in every neighbourhood – the eyes and ears of the Communist Party.

Anyone caught writing graffiti faces a charge of damage to social property, but for a first offence will receive a “scolding,” then released after a short detention, our friend said.

Such leniency did not apply to the dissident graffiti artist known as El Sexto, who on the day of Fidel Castro’s death, spray-painted his street name on a Havana hotel wall, along with the message, “He’s Gone” (Se Fue). El Sexto, whose real name is Danilo Maldonado, is in prison, and complains he’s been beaten. As of last month had yet to be charged.

His most famous attempted exploit was on Christmas Day, 2014, when he painted two pigs with the first names of Raul and Fidel Castro in red on their flanks, over a green background, and took them by rented auto to the crowded Parque Centrale. He was arrested before he could get there to display his protest art, and spent the next 10 months in jail.

El Sexto was never charged, but Cuban law, as reported by Amnesty International, provides for a penalty of three months to one year’s loss of liberty or a fine for anyone who “slanders, insults, harms or in any way outrages or offends, orally or in writing, the dignity or honour of an authority, public official, or their agents or auxiliaries, in the exercise of their functions.”

Continuing my walk in central Havana, I strolled in the leafy Vedado district, passing fine old mansions that now serve as schools – and watched parents picking up their smiling children, with red or blue bandanas around their necks, discussing what they did in school that day.

Free education for all, and the eradication of illiteracy, are among the great achievements of the revolution, and even the poorest of the poor, if they have the ability and the desire, can get as much education as someone from a privileged background.

This emphasis on education has allowed Cuba to train two generations of doctors, engineers, other professionals and teachers, and reach a level of excellence that attracts medical tourists in growing numbers. Cuba generates major income from the estimated 50,000 health workers it sends to more in some 60 countries, helping raise funds that support sophisticated healthcare at home. The professionals get bonus pay, but in many cases it imposes additional stress on family life. When an overseas assignment is offered, a doctor cannot refuse and retain his or her professional standing.

I passed Havana’s specialist hospitals, for orthopedics, maternity and post-natal care, and the recently expanded and modernized cardiovascular facility. It dawned on me that the imposition of restrictions on free expression, severe limitations on Internet access, and a tightly controlled media environment, is the price Cubans are forced to pay for these achievements and the values that the Communist Party has adopted for the country. The problem is, more and more Cubans are no longer willing to pay that price.

Reacting to popular pressure, in January, 2013, Cuba lifted restrictions on foreign travel, as long as citizens were able to get visas to visit countries of their choice. Doctors and other professionals were among those who took immediate advantage of this new opportunity, and some chose to emigrate for good. New rules in effect in the U.S. demanding visas from Cubans may well stem the tide, at least for a while.

According to friends in the medical community, Cuba’s liberalized emigration rules led to the sudden departure of skilled professionals.

Approximately one quarter of the medical staff at the cardiovascular hospital suddenly emigrated, creating a serious challenge to its operation. A similar exodus affected other medical specialties, these friends report.

As a result, in December, 2015, Cuba clamped down and reinstated limits on medical specialists leaving the country, arguing, according to a Reuters report, that the departure of medical specialists was having a serious effect on its universal and free healthcare programs. The new restriction extends to third-year residents, who along with their fully trained colleagues must seek Health Ministry approval before they can leave the country.

The drain was exacerbated by the American policy, known as the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which existed since 2006. In January this policy was cancelled.

Supporters of the regime argue that Cuba has every reason to prevent the mass exodus of expensively trained medical specialists, and asking them to serve five years or so before they can leave, as a way of repaying the country for that investment. According to my Cuban observer friend, the exodus is mainly for economic reasons, but it has obvious political connotations and impact.

“People who did not live during the heyday of the revolution have become more pragmatic,” he observed.

Dissatisfaction reigns among many professionals, even when the government doubled the monthly wage of many doctors, who complained during the belt-tightening years of the 1990s – euphemistically called “the special period” – of earning not much more than unskilled workers, and a lot less than those who receive tips in the tourist industry.

“I could spend half my salary of $60 just on vegetables,” complained one doctor friend, noting that when the subsidized shops have little to offer, shoppers have to buy more expensive produce in the non-subsidized markets.

Some professionals, including university professors, will moonlight as guides in the tourist industry, earning more in tips in a day or two than they earn for a full month in their day jobs. Some doctors who can do so arrange to work only a few hours a day so they can work elsewhere, or not at all – a form of protest reflecting widespread dissatisfaction. To be fair, even among those who complain there is tremendous pride that Cuba has asserted its independence and carved its own path, resisting U.S. neo-colonialism in its various forms.

Meanwhile, Cuban society is ageing. Combined with the brain drain of people in their most productive years, families are having fewer children. Cooperative farming is not attracting the numbers, since, according to friends, people in the provinces want to use their education for less physically demanding occupations than farming, and want to live in Havana.

These issues are absent from the media. Although it recently allowed internet hotspots to open at various locations in Havana, they can be used only for emails, and the $3 or more cost of an Internet access card for most Cubans who earn as little as $15 a month is prohibitive. Turn on the government-run TV, or read the party newspaper, Granma, and there is little beyond bland declarations and blatant agit-prop.

Says my observer/friend: “In a society that is supposed to be about solidarity, based on ideas and values, not business and profit, it’s disturbing when the official discussion is aloof from what people are thinking and talking about, and this works against real unity.” But in spite of this realization, there is no sign of any fundamental change.

“The party will not accept open discussion of real issues, and won’t encourage or allow discussion in the media,” our observer friend stressed. There is no equivalent, at least outside party circles, of a movement to replicate the glasnost and perestroika policies – openness and political and economic reforms – introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, which paved the way for Soviet Communism to implode.

A pilot program was underway in Old Havana offering free home Internet to some 2,000 residents for two months before the start of billing for the service.

However, the elites in the party and army, who according to friends, are the only segments of society that are doing well enough economically to be comfortable with the status quo, show no signs of relenting from hard-line positions that would allow substantive change when it comes to Internet access and enable Cubans to join most of the world in the free exchange of ideas and opinions.

The Raul Castro government’s priority is maintaining a strong Cuban culture and a socialist society and preserving and strengthening values of sharing and building a society of cooperation that is at the heart of
the revolution.

The ruling elite is committed to resisting major changes that could mean a return of American cultural, political, and economic imperialism. And much of this will play out in any future talks on ending the crippling U.S. economic boycott.

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