Life under Cuban communism

Michael Totten has an interesting City Journal article on the realities of life under Cuban communism, which are far different from what is claimed by the regime and its admirers in the West:

Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 science-fiction film Elysium… takes place in Los Angeles, circa 2154. The wealthy have moved into an orbiting luxury satellite—the Elysium of the title—while the wretched majority of humans remain in squalor on Earth….

Some critics panned the film for pushing a socialist message. Elysium’s dystopian world, however, is a near-perfect metaphor for an actually existing socialist nation just 90 miles from Florida….

In Cuba, as in Elysium, a small group of economic and political elites live in a rarefied world high above the impoverished masses. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto, would be appalled by the misery endured by Cuba’s ordinary citizens and shocked by the relatively luxurious lifestyles of those who keep the poor down by force….

Initially, I found Havana pleasant, partly because I wasn’t supposed to be there and partly because I felt as though I had journeyed backward in time. But the city wasn’t pleasant for long, and it certainly isn’t pleasant for the people living there. It hasn’t been so for decades.

Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.

Totten explains how Cuba is divided into a small, government-connected elite, with access to hard currency and foreign goods, and the rest of the population, who live in dire poverty and suffer from shortages of even very basic goods such as soap and cooking oil. He points out that the regimes vaunted “free” health care is of very low quality, and still requires patients to purchase their own medicine, iodine, and even bedsheets – items that are usually available only on the black market. Totten also correctly notes that Cuba was actually a fairly affluent nation before the communists seized power in 1959, so its economic failures of the last fifty years cannot be attributed to preexisting economic backwardness.

Much of this information is not new, and is unsurprisingly consistent with experience in other communist regimes. In one important respect, however, Cuba is actually more oppressive than many other communist regimes were:

In the United States, we have a minimum wage; Cuba has a maximum wage—$20 a month for almost every job in the country. (Professionals such as doctors and lawyers can make a whopping $10 extra a month…..

Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble [that serves Western tourists] don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money.

There was no maximum wage in the Soviet Union after some experiments in the early years of the regime, or -as far as I know – in other Soviet bloc nations after 1945.

These and other grim realities of life under Cuban communism explain why so many Cubans are willing to risk their lives to flee.

I do have one beef with Totten’s article It is entitled “The Last Communist City,” implying that Havana fits that description. But as long as North Korea still has a regime that is a real-life version of George Orwell’s 1984, Cuba will not be the last commmunist state, or even the most repressive.

UPDATE: I wrote this post before noticing co-blogger Eugene Volokh’s post on the same subject earlier today. I am going to leave this one up, because it addresses several issues that Eugene’s post does not.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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Eugene Volokh · May 13, 2014