Essay

Cuba’s China syndrome

‘VIVA RAUL! VIVA Cuba! Viva la Revolución!' I awoke abruptly, stumbled over bottles at my feet and leaned over the wrought-iron balcony. A group below had emerged from the Confucius Institute, accompanied by a marching band that hit all the right notes at the wrong time. They marched in single file past the derelict El Pacifico restaurant, took little notice of murals of Dr Fu Manchu and swept past waiters plying their trade in silk pyjamas. China's middle class was a new breed. Tourism and solidarity made for a unique mix.

Bleary-eyed I slumped downstairs, sunk a guava batida from a hole-in-the-wall café and exited Barrio Chino. I enjoyed this Caribbean Chinatown, strolling past neo-colonial architecture that wasn't UNESCO-approved.

Tour groups aside, the Chinese in Cuba were declining in number. Arriving in the mid-to-late nineteenth century from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and California, they worked as indentured labourers alongside African slaves in sugar plantations. Possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit that was insufferably bourgeois, they faded once the revolution took power.

In Old Havana, cobblestone alleys led to Plaza de Armas, where I bought the daily papers. A rank smell emanated from Revolución, as well it might, given that it was published in 1959. The bookseller had piled a stack up to his waist; archives sold more copies than the official GranmaRevolución almost crumbled in my hands, but its images preserved authenticity. By all accounts, 1959 was a transitional year. Models with long legs in smooth stockings featured alongside beaches finally opened to the public: Playas Para Todo el Pueblo. Matrons at Society Balls incongruously rubbed shoulders with gun-toting rebels; Olivier's Richard III was advertised besides Fidel Castro's Libertad o Muerte.

With a slanted beret and hair beyond his shoulders, Fidel's brother, Raul, cut a dashing figure. The maligned and underestimated Raul has soft Oriental features with a homoerotic edge. Cuba's new leader is often disparaged as La China (a bastard Chinese and closet homosexual), suggesting racism hasn't entirely disappeared, nor has that most Latin of traits, machismo.

Raul's youth has always been striking. At twenty-seven, he looked fifteen. When Jean-Paul Sartre penned ‘No old men in power!' in 1960, he was smitten by revolutionaries in their early thirties. ‘Everywhere I look they could be my sons,' the philosopher said, beaming in photos taken by Korda. The same heroes shown inGranma are now closer to eighty. Greying, they blend nicely with the dilapidated architecture around them. The passage of time means buildings contain cracks and revolutionaries creases, but others have been renovated (building and revolutionary alike). None more than Raul. ‘The delegator' is not yet ‘the dictator'. Previously the hard man of the army, Raul steered Cuba to Soviet-style communism. Nowadays he's portrayed as a pragmatist, opening up the economy to private enterprise, easing travel restrictions and access to the internet. Perhaps it was inevitable. When the beards were shorn and the long hair cut, Sartre asserted, the revolution ended and administration began.

For the moment I could further reminisce about 1959 by crossing to the seafront. Car names rolled off my tongue as easily as did the vehicles from the assembly line: Buick, Edsel, Studebaker, De Soto, Plymouth, Cadillac. 1948, '55, '57 and '62 paraded by, as if in a retrospective; chrome grilles were polished like mirrors and bench seats upholstered in white leather complemented tail fins piercing pedestrians in reverse. Marxists would call this admiration a fetish. But who reads Marx? Certainly not Cubans, going by the dusty hardbacks at Plaza de Armas.

Beside American cars and the Russian Lada, a third force hurled into picture. Viazul buses ferry tourists in a fleet imported from China. Vehicles chug, rattle or roar along the malecón. Cannons poised across the harbour at La Cabana were ready to explode at 9 pm, and I made sure to synchronise my watch. Cuba still manages to echo the past of fifty years ago, timed precisely.

 

FOREIGN REPORTERS ONCE had their shoes shined at the bar of the Hotel Inglaterra, while downing a gin fizz. This morning they were surfing the net. Signals transmitted via a French satellite made them exceptionally slow, in keeping with Cuba's languid pace. Communism, whatever its faults, was a shield safeguarding the island. A country spared the frenetic pace of consumerism is paradise, or at least a Marxist utopia in the making. But I revised these assumptions once I went online.

I scrolled past bailouts, toxic debts, housing bubbles and sub-prime disasters. Capitalism's fall was on Cuban screens and, unlike Chinese censorship, wasn't stifled. A link to Pope Benedict suggested the Pontiff couldn't bring the c-word to his lips, blaming the crisis on ‘greed'. Fidel's warning in the 1980s that the IMF's ‘Structurally Adjusted Programs' were a new form of economic colonisation was proving true. Baltic States and Eastern Europe, who eagerly complied, were feeling the pinch. Free trade, no tariff barriers and reduced public expenditure didn't make for resilient economies.

With a command economy, no reckless investments by its financial institutions and no rampant speculation by twenty-five-year-old traders, Cuba has maintained a growth of 8-12 per cent of GDP since 2006. But if Cubans were revelling in capitalism's crisis, they weren't showing it. Raul emphasised ‘humility' to commemorate half a century of revolution, in stark contrast to the West's triumphalism at the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Cuba's fall was imminent, the foreign press had editorialised: ‘it was only a matter of time'. Yet Cuba's enforced isolation from capitalism suggested it could sail through the new crisis untouched.

The elephant in the room, though, was the Chinese dragon. Its favoured trading status in South America had a ripple effect through the Caribbean. China's stockpiling of minerals fuelled demand for copper (Chile), soy (Brazil), gas (Bolivia) and oil (Venezuela). It's been said the Chinese plan generations ahead (two hundred years after the French Revolution, Zhou en Lai pondered its success but admitted ‘it was too soon to tell'), and its long-term survival involved markets in Latin America. Global capitalism's crisis enveloped China, and failing prices worldwide ensnared Cuba, which exported nickel and leased arable land to secure China's food supply.

Communism wasn't much of a shield to brothers-in-arms. I had to reconsider the purity of ideology when I read that the US Chamber of Commerce had called for an end to the Cuba embargo, denounced China's ‘exploitation', attacked its human rights and defended the right to work (for Americans, naturally). But surely it's a sign of the times when the biggest communist nation appears solely in the business pages? Take, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald headlines in a single day: ‘China in talks over Pilbara push', ‘China's money mandarins take the hard line', ‘China buys up big'. China's role in the global economy has been heightened by the crisis, with an anxiety uniting Cuba to America, and likewise Australia. What kind of world power will China be in the twenty-first century? If the Dragon sneezes, will we all catch a cold?

 

FOR YEARS I'VE associated vintage cars with pantyhose. Since the 1962 embargo blocking fanbelts and spare parts, pantyhose were an ingenious substitute. Tied together and stretched on pulleys, the fan, generator and water pump functioned, allowing the Oldsmobile to maintain its youth. This was Cuba at its most creative. Mechanics often grafted the motor of one vehicle to the chassis of another, with the skills of a heart surgeon, to maintain life.

I peered under the hood of a 1950 Chevy. A cast-iron motor incorporated crankshaft and carburettor, as though newly minted. Its six-cylinder engine had polished rockers a hand's distance from a shiny radiator. To my regret, a fanbelt meant there was no pantyhose.

Miguel, a former gynaecologist, was happy to be my driver. Normally he'd sell cakes at a stall on Obispo, but a day away from his extended family was preferred. Cranking gears, the two of us lurched in the direction of ‘AUSTRALIA'. The Chevy's shock absorbers were not under us, Miguel declared between puffs, but ‘somewhere in the US'. Each pothole on the autopista reverberated from wheel to steering wheel, a current rippling through us both.

A warm climate and lush countryside made Columbus and Jack Nicholson agree: Cuba was paradise. Swaying palms, sugar plantations and the choo-choo trains that serviced them complemented a landscape free of consumer goods and sexist imagery. Miguel translated propaganda outside half-open windows. Patria es Humanidad! Firm Unity is Victory! Socialismo es Irreversablo! Keep in Line with Fidel!

With so many slogans it's no wonder graffiti is obsolete: the Cuban state is the radical. To call these billboards propaganda seemed harsh, given revolutionary slogans appeal to one's better angels. With an un­disguised idealism aimed at youth, alongside Che's compelling gaze, they're secular versions of romantic poetry (Che Guevara was as much a poet as Byron a revolutionary). Each slogan was tailor-made. Messages bore an ecological theme near the coast, were revolutionary strident in Santiago, and voiced anti-Americanisms near universities. Cuba's government might be schooled by the advertising industry given their reliance on ‘niche-marketing'.

‘CONSEJO POPULAR AUSTRALIA': we had arrived. The ‘Central Australia' sugar mill, constructed in 1916, displayed inactive cogs, dormant vats and timbers stripped away, suggesting it had died only recently. The mill played an important role when Cuba was the sugar bowl of America. Notoriously, even Christmas was banned to get the sugar quota in when Russia paid above market price, reaching a peak of eight million tonnes in 1989.

Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so the economy is too important to be left to economists. A country relying on a single commodity can easily become its slave. Jamaica and bauxite, Chile and copper, Nigeria and oil.

Cuba's planners were reluctant to dismantle the industry when sugar's price fell to a quarter of its peak. Cuba's communists didn't heed the first lesson taught to every small-time investor: diversify portfolios, spread the risk, don't rely on a single buyer. Five hundred years of cane-cutting tradition was pared back at Fidel Castro's insistence; he was disgusted at sentimental economists persisting with an outdated model. The IMF and communist planners are guided by the same instincts: don't jettison a model, even when it has proved disastrous.

In the midst of the rusty shell housing the refinery, I narrowed the incongruity. Was it named because of the combine harvester that greatly assisted Queensland? Or did a sailor shipwrecked at nearby Bay of Pigs settle in the nineteenth century? As Miguel shifted gears, I remembered a notorious advertising campaign with a memorable jingle, ‘Sugar: A Natural Part of Life'. With sugar imported from abroad, and refined near Mackay, CSR sought to mesh the purity of a healthy lifestyle with the sweetener, even if it was a lie. It made complete sense as we passed Matanzas and noticed posters of Fidel in suit and tie celebrating ‘50'. ‘Propaganda' in Spanish is ‘advertising'.

 

ERNESTO STUMBLED AROUND his flat with a pot in his scorched hands. He was dressed in white, as though returned from Wimbledon. Joined by his wife, Natalia, he was preparing a santería ceremony. Carrots, pieces of meat and cobs of corn began boiling on a hotplate. Tall, lean and softly spoken, Ernesto gave instructions to a tough pair under American baseball caps. The Pioneer stereo was disconnected; chairs were moved to an adjacent room. The youths then rolled drums inside: rum kegs made of solid wood, with a steel belt fastened around the portly waist. Natalia created a shrine in the corner of the kitchen: cups with water, others with Tu-Kola, and placed a half-lit cigar across the plastic rim. The ceremony would occur tonight. As with most things Cuban, no invitation was necessary.

I borrowed Ernesto's bike and headed for the beach. At one time all Cubans were on bicycles. In ‘The Special Period in a time of Peace', during the '90s, the government imported more than a million from China due to oil shortages. Ever keen to lead by example, Fidel hopped astride one for a memorable photo. I peddled to Playa d'Este outside Havana and soaked up the winter sun. Frequented by locals, it made for a musical riot. I was thankful that tour groups were corralled at Varadero, a resort peninsula in the north of the island. This was Cuba's Faustian bargain: Fidel deemed tourism a necessary evil in the '90s, thinking it could be controlled. And for the most part it was, with billions filtered annually into government services such as health, education and the arts.

But a distorted job market was created: waiters, cabbies, guides and jineteras (working girls) made more money than surgeons, scientists and cabinet ministers. Varadero has fifty international hotels, one for each year of the revolution, surely a galling thought for hard-liners. Since 2004, Cuba created a second economy beside a local one, by introducing a convertible peso equivalent to the American dollar. But this currency division was highly porous. Cubans in tourism can access ‘convertibles' (and make a monthly wage in an hour), while travellers can eat a three-course meal off the streets at local prices, for a dollar.

Whenever the contradictions of capitalism arise, Marxists note, they show themselves in discontinuity or dissonance. I realised then that Cuba, with its incongruities, couldn't be purely communist, and non-revolutionary tourism surely showed it wasn't. It's a post-communist society, if anything, and I trace its birth to 1998, when Fidel Castro exchanged khaki fatigues for a pinstriped suit. By the time the staunch anti-communist Pope John Paul II visited he'd become critical of the West's faith in the free market. In a marriage made for media studies, he praised Castro to the skies and called for an end to Cuban isolation, while Fidel toned down 
his rhetoric, adjusted his tie and synchronised his Rolex. To indicate ­changing times Fidel reinstated Christmas, having dispensed with the demanding sugar quotas.

 

THE SHIFT BEING consolidated under Raul is evident in youth. The generation that benefited from schools, clinics and sports is distanced from the triumphs of the revolution; they're jaded because they had no part in it, unlike their elders. La generación perdida is a nod to Hemingway's Lost Generation and is applied to the bright young things with mobile phones who see little threat across the Florida Straits.

The question Fidel asked of students continues to echo. Is the revolution ultimately doomed to fail; is communism merely, as the old joke runs, the transition from capitalism to capitalism? The Soviet Union's seamless shift to primitive capitalism haunts Cuba. Fidel Castro, for his part, was never swayed by Che Guevara's liking for the Chinese system, nor did he believe the Chinese possessed a ‘higher socialist morality' than the Soviets. Castro denounced China's betrayal of ideological principle ‘for a pot of western gold' under Deng Xiao Ping, and painfully remembers the humiliating sugar-for-rice barter in 1964, and China's propaganda campaign inside Cuba (Fidel fumed: propaganda was his business).

A crisis comes when the old has died and the new hasn't emerged. Cuba's is as much economic as ideological. If Cuba follows China's authoritarian model to accommodate the demands of global capitalism, will its achievements go the way of China – disparity of wealth, the decline of rural towns, environmental degradation? Will Cuba trade spontaneity and creativity for rigidity and conformity? I suspect Chinese top brass would regard Cuba under Raul as not pragmatic enough.

China is a capitalist motor powering a communist shell. But the Soviet Lada using an outdated American motor doesn't move. The Chevrolet powered by Lada's engine runs, though sluggishly. Gliding into Havana and glancing at idle vintage cars, I had only one thought: whichever model Cuba chooses, I pray they include pantyhose.

 

THE GATHERING GREW in number. Youths in white singlets jostled shoulder to sweaty shoulder in tribute to the Marx Bros. More arrived: jineteras beside Italians with drunken faces. Everyone squished into the dining room and ultimately spilled into my bedroom. All of us queued at an altar draped with the Cuban flag, festooned with flowers. We were chalked three times before giving thanks. An ‘uncle' began whipping himself into a trance. His eyes bulged. A cane connected spirits, coaxing them into Ernesto's second-storey apartment with a thump. A pounding crescendo continued; the drummers numbered six; ancestor spirits were now inside Uncle. Chants circulated in every direction. Women in tight jeans began dancing, and stomped with fury. Ernesto's neighbour led an ecstatic dance. Sweat dripped from her braids in a bundle tied beneath a kerchief. After four hours, the air in the room had changed. Having farewelled spirits over rooftops in Barrio Chino, dissipating into dingily lit streets below, it was time to pause. Soup was handed out, along with sweet bread and rum. An elderly man gave a sermon for a better world, and reminded each of us to fulfil our potential. Cigars were passed around and crumbled in collective hands.

I'd like to join Columbus and Jack Nicholson in declaring Cuba paradise. Swaying palms, blue seas and alluring women construct an illusion of Gauguinesque tranquility. But Cuba is not a paradise, nor its secular equivalent, a Marxist utopia. What Cuba offers in a time of crisis is spontaneity, conversion and reinvention. I tallied contradictions. The Museum of the Revolution is equidistant from Lenin Park and Park John Lennon. The Moncado Barracks, the scene of a bloody uprising, is transformed into a school for juniors. The ‘Australia' sugar mill doubled as military headquarters during the Bay of Pigs debacle. Fanbelts were replaced by pantyhose.

If the grafting of Spanish Catholicism to West African beliefs can work its splendour and enchant tourists as well as locals in Chinatown, then it's worth cultivating. I gazed in the direction of La Cabana. Each evening the cannon blast signalled Habaneros to synchronise their watch. Tourists like me always did, but I can't recall Cubans doing likewise.

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