A few months ago I decided to travel to Cuba. I wanted to see the country’s immense natural beauty, learn more about its rich history and experience its unique brand of ‘Tropical Socialism.’ People told me many things before I went, but the one that stuck the most was that now is the time to go before Cuba is corrupted by the outside world.

Opening the Floodgates

The country is slowly opening up. It has a new President who is seen as a reformer, increased tourism, and the beginnings of private business and outside investment. Since the late ’50s, Cuba has been a Socialist Republic sitting defiantly less than 100 miles from the US. It has been the centre of numerous crises and punched well above its weight on international issues. As other socialist states have reformed or collapsed, Cuba has maintained its commitment to revolution. But, how much longer can this last? Will it be better for the Cuban people to have access to capitalist policies? Or should the small Caribbean island stick to its guns, come what may?

‘History will absolve me’

The Cuban revolution, and its leader Fidel Castro, achieved many things. The most important areas of progress were education, health, housing, and social equality. This is not to say that it was perfect or without wrongdoing and controversy — no revolution is. However, it is important to recognise the good that was achieved for the Cuban people.

‘Today, the entire country is an immense University’

One of the first actions of the revolutionary government was to create a free, nationalized school system. In 1961, Castro declared Cuba free from illiteracy after a huge and highly successful campaign to teach all citizens to read. Today, the government commits over 14 per cent of its budget to education and has a literacy rate of nearly 100 per cent as well as a school enrolment level of 99.8 per cent for primary education and a net enrolment rate of 84 per cent for secondary. Cuba places value on education with universities in every major town and city being free and accessible. The state also provides childcare for parents who wish to enrol in adult education.

Viva Cuba Libre

Cuba’s universal healthcare service is world renowned. It boasts the highest number of doctors per citizen in the world, cutting-edge medical research and a life expectancy and infant mortality rate closer to developed Western nations than its Caribbean and South American neighbours. It also partakes in ‘Medical Diplomacy,’ sending its doctors to crisis zones across the world to help out. As Julie Feinsilver writes:

‘(Medical diplomacy) has helped Cuba garner symbolic capital (goodwill, influence, and prestige) well beyond what would have been possible for a small, developing country, and it has contributed to making Cuba a player on the world stage.’

Homelessness in Cuba is practically non-existent. You simply do not see people sleeping rough in the way you do in almost every other country in the world. As our guide explained, if you are poor or sick or your house is destroyed, the state will simply find you a home, or build you a new one. Our guide, herself black, also explained that racism simply isn’t an issue in Cuba. The revolutionary government passed over 1,500 new laws banning racial discrimination and introduced policies to lift many black Cubans out of poverty and give them equal access to education and healthcare. I do not pretend that all is perfect for black Cubans; there is ongoing debate over race relations in the county. However, it is clear that Cuba is much further ahead than many other places. Whether or not history will absolve Fidel Castro is a very difficult question, but what is evident is that his socialist government achieved a great deal. This is why, perhaps, many Cubans see any deviation from his views as a direct threat to these successes.

The freer the market …

In early 2021, Cuba’s Labour Minister Marta Elena Feito announced that private businesses would be allowed to operate in most parts of the economy for the first time. Until then very few people worked for a private company, with almost the entire workforce employed by the state. In the past, many Cubans relied on black markets for access to items such as clothing, cigarettes and children’s toys. This change will allow Cubans to start doing business with one another, theoretically driving innovation and giving consumers more choice. Foreign businesses will also find it easier to operate, exposing Cubans to a much wider range of products than before.

However, this change is not risk-free. Although Cubans currently have limited access to ‘Western luxuries’ they are guaranteed a monthly food allowance, and government wages are reliable and just enough to live on. Embracing a mixed economy could put these guarantees at risk and drive inequality between different employment sectors. Moving towards liberalisation and reform could prove useful in the wake of Covid and Trump’s re-introduction of sanctions. Still, the government must continue to ensure a minimum standard of living and protect the Cuban people from foreign exploitation.

Dancing Socialism

One of the first things you notice about Cubans is how happy they are. As our guide told us:

‘Nothing is perfect, but we still have a smile.’

In every town we visited in the evening, people would come out onto the streets and sing and drink and dance with one another. The squares are full of colour and music and joy, in a way which is hard to imagine in any other socialist/communist state, or Western Liberal Democracy for that matter. With increased tourism a fear for some is that Cuba will lose this unique part of its culture, focusing instead on driving commercialism. Internet access is still very hard to find in the country but is becoming more available as Cuba modernises. This is another threat to the Cuban unique way of life — it is one of the few places in the world where you don’t see people constantly staring at devices. Internet access may bring a large number of opportunities for people, but it would be a great shame if Cuba lost the important social aspects of its heritage.

‘… on which side duty lies’

The most valid criticism of Cuba is that it is not a democracy. From 1959 until 2008 Fidel Castro was its dictator before he gave way to his brother Raul — effectively creating a dynasty. There is no defending authoritarianism, and the fact that President Diaz-Canel is no Castro is probably for the best. Diaz has introduced constitutional reforms to offer greater equality for LGBTQ+ Cubans and opened up the economy. What he has not done is introduce democratic reforms, but has instead led a harsh crackdown on the 2021 protests against government repression and economic mismanagement. It is clear that if Cuba is to be respected as a modern nation on the international stage it must commit itself to free and fair elections. It is already on the right track. Criticism of the government is, to an extent, permitted — as is open discussion about Cuba’s history and political heroes. But it must go further in liberalising its political system and civil rights legislation if reform is to continue.

‘Hasta la Victoria Siempre’

A revolution is a dynamic thing. Cuba has continued to evolve and progress since the 1950s, adapting to deal with the political and economic conditions of the rest of the world. As things stand, Cuba cannot carry on with business as usual. As our guide told us:

‘It is impossible to maintain a country and an economy in this way. It has to change.’

Things have become too expensive, and many are forced to work two jobs. If the government wants to continue to raise people out of poverty and offer Cubans a better life, change is necessary. Economic reforms should be welcomed, so long as they benefit the people. What must be demanded is real democratic change, to allow everyday Cubans a say in their country’s future. As Castro once said:

‘A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past.’

Cuba cannot afford to continue living in the past. It should be proud of its history and protect its heritage, whilst evolving to meet the challenges of the modern world. Only then will it edge closer to the victory Che dreamt of.

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