Chris Sabatini is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and director of Global Americans, a research institute focused on the foreign policy of human rights and social inclusion.
President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba this past week returned U.S. and world attention to the small Caribbean island of 11 million people and the long, curious history between it and the United States. It’s hard to think of a similarly sized country that has had such a memorable, tumultuous, often romantic hold on U.S. history and imagination. That narrative encapsulates a welter of assumptions — some propagated by the 1959 revolution, others by the Cuban diaspora and the rest by Americans who haven’t seen Cuba up close in more than half a century. Here are some of those myths.
1. Cuba’s free health-care system is great.
In a 2014 visit to Cuba, the director general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, declared Cuba’s health-care system a model for the world: “This is the way to go,” she said. And U.S. documentarian-provocateur Michael Moore, in his movie “Sicko,” favorably contrasted Cuba’s system with the expensive, complicated American arrangement.
Yes, there have been health-care advances in Cuba in the past half-century, especially when compared with some of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. According to UNICEF, life expectancy in Cuba is 79.1 years, the second-highest in Latin America. And the country is famous both for training foreign physicians and dispatching its homegrown ones to nations across the region.
But while Cuba made great gains in primary and preventive care after the revolution, advanced health care is flagging. In the famously closed country, reliable statistics and rigorous studies are impossible to come by, but anecdotally, it appears that the health system used by average Cubans is in crisis. According to a report by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, hospitals “are generally poorly maintained and short of staff and medicines.” The writer visited facilities in Havana such as the Calixto García, 10 de Octubre and Miguel Enrique hospitals and describes them in an advanced state of neglect and deterioration. In the 10 de Octubre, “the floors are stained and surgeries and wards are not disinfected. Doors do not have locks and their frames are coming off. Some bathrooms have no toilets or sinks, and the water supply is erratic. Bat droppings, cockroaches, mosquitos [sic] and mice are all in evidence.”
One reason Cuba still sends doctors abroad despite findings like that: Its foreign medical program is a huge moneymaker, bringing approximately $2.5 billion per year to the cash-strapped government. With more than 50,000 Cuban health professionals working in 68 countries other than Cuba, the doctor export program has created a shortage of medical practitioners in Cuba.
2. Cubans already have plenty of contact with other people, so lifting the U.S. embargo won’t help the country liberalize.
An op-ed in the Miami Herald last year asserted that “international tourism has not brought about political reforms in Cuba,” a sentiment repeated often by Cuban American supporters of the embargo. And it’s true that tourists from Europe, Canada, Latin America and other places (close to 3 million in 2015) have been visiting the island for years with little discernible effect on the regime.
But this doesn’t begin to match the exposure that a U.S. opening to Cuba could bring. Once the ban is fully lifted, some 1.5 million Americans are expected to travel there each year. But the real difference-maker will be Cubans themselves. More than 2 million Cuban Americans live in the United States, and they are likely to return for visits bearing news, goods, cash and ideas. Already, they make 700,000 trips each year since the George W. Bush-era cap on Cuban American travel was lifted in 2009. They are passing out USB drives (called on the island “el paquete”) with U.S. movies and TV series on them — already a huge popular sensation in ways the U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio and TV Marti could never become.
At the same time, by virtue of the limited hotel space and unappetizing state-owned restaurants, U.S. tourism is already helping to support the burgeoning private sector in Cuba. Today there are close to 500,000 private entrepreneurs allowed under the law, many of them serving clients from the United States. More than 3,000 private restaurants (paladares) serve meals in people’s homes and ask clients to review them on Yelp. More than 300 bed-and-breakfasts (casas particulares) are open for tourists and listed on Airbnb. These numbers will explode if and when the embargo dies. And the Bermuda-shorts-wearing, sunscreen-slathered tourists are supporting businesspeople who for once are gaining a measure of economic independence — and with it, a stake in a more democratic future. The Europeans and Canadians who arrive on package tours to all-inclusive tourist traps run by state-sanctioned companies aren’t doing that.
3. Che Guevara was a freedom fighter.
Guevara’s iconic picture by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda is a favorite for T-shirts, flags, coffee cups — even baby onesies — for the international left and the supposedly socially conscious. When students, fashionistas, activists and stars such as Jay Z, Shia LaBeouf and Johnny Depp bear his image, they’re nodding to his struggle for world justice and his early death.
But revolutionary chic comes with a high moral price tag: After the revolution, Guevara oversaw the execution by firing squad of between 55 and several hundred prisoners, including officials from the previous government, whom he lined up after kangaroo-court trials. He also launched a system of labor camps that became home to gay people, AIDS victims and political opponents.
The regime of Fulgencio Batista, which Che helped overthrow, was autocratic, kleptocratic and violently repressive. But what followed the revolution wasn’t an experiment in high-minded ideals; it was a mass slaughter and brutal crackdown.
4. Cuban cigars are the best.
At the time of the revolution, Cuba was the cigar capital of the world, and the brand was so strong that its dominance has persisted. From the iconic images of Fidel Castro puffing away dramatically to attempts to use the stogies in secret diplomacy to a “Seinfeld” episode, Cuban cigars have kept their mystique for more than 50 years, even as their quality has declined.
Shortly after the revolution, many of the large growers took the Cuban seeds to equally fertile soil in other countries, such as the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. At the same time, according to a number of experts, a lack of technology and a lack of competition have decreased the quality of the national product. And no wonder: Tobacco growing and cigar production are controlled by the state.
Since then, the relative quality of Cuban cigars has dropped. According to Bill Shindler, the general manager of Rich’s Cigar Store in Portland, Ore., one of the principal problems is the lack of consistency. And in 2015, Cigar Aficionado named just three Cuban brands among its top 25 smokes. Nicaraguan stogies, by contrast, landed in 13 spots. The Dominican Republic had six, Honduras two, and one was assembled in Miami.
5. Cuba has achieved racial equality.
In his news conference Tuesday with President Obama, Raúl Castro touted Cuba’s record on economic and social rights and racial equality, to which Obama admitted the United States’ shortcoming in “race relations.” The idea that post-revolution Cuba is a racial utopia is a common one that served the revolution well during the 1960s, as American civil rights activists such as Harry Belafonte and members of the Black Panthers flocked to Cuba.
But a few facts and recent developments belie the regime’s claims. Official counts put the country’s black and “mixed” population at about 36 percent, though some Cubans believe those stats are undercounted. Meanwhile, a study published in Socialism and Democracy in May 2011 found that “black and mixed populations, on average, are concentrated in the worst housing conditions” and tend to work in lower-paying, manual-labor jobs.
With the rise of the tourism industry in the 1990s, the emergence of the entrepreneurial sector and an increase in remittances, structural disparities have increased. The Socialism and Democracy study found, based on surveys conducted among approximately 7,000 workers, that blacks and mestizos occupy only 5 percent of the lucrative higher-end jobs (managers and technicians) in the tourism industry but are heavily represented in low-level jobs.
Because the majority of those who have left Cuba are of more European extraction, the transfer of remittances back to the island overwhelmingly goes to its non-black population. According to a report by the North American Congress on Latin America, white Cubans are 2.5 times more likely to receive remittances than their black fellow citizens. Despite Raúl Castro’s description of racial harmony, structural and racial inequality there, like here, is a permanent facet of life.