Sunday, April 27, 2008


Something is stirring in Cuba. For now, the locals are allowed to purchase cellphones and dvd players. But then again, so are the Chinese. Is this a moment to get excited about the changes on the Caribbean island, or will Havana follow the increasingly attractive Beijing consensus? Over a year ago, we returned from a trip to Cuba timed to capture the endangered species of Fidelism. A document of an era?


It was a trip with a deadline.

Going to Cuba today is like climbing the slopes of Kilimanjaro to see a disappearing African glacier. It’s like visiting Tibet before it is thoroughly “modernized” by its Eastern neighbors. It’s like lying on a beach in Maldives before ice from Antarctic melts the islands away from human memory.

Cuba too is a species nearing extinction. But unlike in the era of domino-like fall of communist regimes, one can hardly react to the country’s current plight with triumphalism. A large number of Cubans yearn for a change, but it is unlikely to happen on the day the dictator dies. The regime is bound to outlive Castro due to a combination of three factors: the reliability and ubiquity of its repressive security apparatus, the economic and ideological support from Venezuela and the inflow of hard currency from tourism. Through a fallacy of composition I contributed to this last factor by deciding to circumvent US travel restrictions and visit Havana in December.

I had never shared the illusions of revolutionary romanticism so readily espoused by many of my Western European friends. Indeed, my interest in the events of 1950s and 1960s was always of strictly historical nature. Castro and his regime were of marginal relevance to my political interests, of secondary importance for my travel plans and of zero utility for my professional activities. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, I did not pay much attention to Cuba because the future developments seemed just too predictable to rivet my globetrotting mind. And yet, once again, Castro’s political longevity defied expectations. After the disastrous “special period” (1991-1994), the regime embarked on a measure of liberalization, marked by successful tourism promotion and exemplified by orthogonal cultural exports which ranged from poignant films (“Fresa y chocolate”) to son music revival (“Buena Vista Social Club”). Throughout the 1990s, tourist infrastructure improved and numbers of visitors soared. Accounts were invariably positive, not least due to superficial ideological convergence of Western European and Cuban anti-Americanism. Unlike post-Warholian images of Mao, t-shirts and hats emblazoned with images of bearded revolutionaries combine an active political message with chic status of committed Salonsfähigkeit. But beyond this puerile uniformization, visitors spoke of Havana’s legendary wonders, endless fiestas and easy girls (and boys). The waft of Hemingway’s and Carpentier’s shadows beckoned many an intellectual.

My expectations were not so high, but, as it turned out, familiarity with many other Latin American countries prepares one poorly to deal with the shock of the time machine that Cuba is today.

Soon after arrival, one discovers just how different the path of the nation’s socioeconomic development has been. Behind the façades of UNESCO-renovated stately buildings in Havana Vieja, power supply is erratic, water pumps unreliable and services grumpy. Still, the old quarters are a treat. Elsewhere, wide highways never suffer from traffic jams, even though many cars unexpectedly pull over to let their drivers transform themselves into instant engineers. Indeed, the image of an automobile swallowing its driver who seems to plunge into the car’s entrails quickly becomes one of the most enduring images from the island.

But the vintage automobiles have been duly singled out as one of the chief reasons to visit Cuba before the end of the communist rule. The fans of Dodge, Mercury, Plymouth, Studebaker and Nash Rambler will not be disappointed. I would expect, probably mistakenly, that most of the Guevara t-shirted Euro-folk would rather be interested in the 1970s Zhiguli, Lada and Polski Fiat. The difference between the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary cars is not only in their look, but also in the economic value they carry for the drivers. Those who drive the pre-1959 models actually own them and the average value ranges between $7000 and $9000. By contrast, the post-revolutionary cars cannot change ownership. The regime has thus successfully pruned the potential for the development of a secondary market.

And the very term ‘market’ seems to be a bad word in Havana. A port city with a bay and a poetic embankment, it strikes the visitors as entirely devoid of any fish markets. Indeed, there is not a single fishing boat in sight. This does not mean that there is no fish in the sea. Locals do dive in, illegally, to support their families’ daily staples: eggs, rice and plàtanos. Most food is rationed and even cooking oil may be hard to come by. A friend employed in an agency fumigating mosquito-breeding areas needed to borrow a bici-taxi during the day in order to earn extra money and feed his two children on that night. Whatever private restaurants (paladares) were opened in Cuba in 1990s, they have now either closed or have been taxed out of profitability. As a result, they serve food unaffordable except for those tourists who planned a weekend in Bora Bora and just whistle-stopped over in Havana for a couple of hours.

The fact of the matter is that the recent crackdown on the freedoms unleashed by tourism is quickly strangling the industry. The government banned the use of dollars and euro in the circulation. The “convertible” peso seems to be pegged to euro, but if you exchange dollars, the government will take a 10% cut. In addition, all the prices for foreigners have skyrocketed in the last two years. Worse for Americans: since credit cards from US banks are not allowed, you quickly fall back into the local diet of eggs, rice and plàtanos. This is just as well, as you can now sit with the locals and learn more about the glory of the revolution.

Làzaro, one of my rice co-eaters, was quite open about the ultimate objective in his life. At 24 he is resigned to get out. The problem is – it costs about $5000 to leave Cuba. Since the average Cuban earns the equivalent of between $10 and $15, Làzaro will be about 58 when he manages to get out, just by drinking water and eating rice between now and then. Meanwhile, foreigners are expected to pay the equivalent of 15 Euro for a pineapple… The extraordinary endeavor by the regime to prevent wealth accumulation is thus working wonders. Surprisingly however, free accommodation, health services and education have not quite obliterated other economic goals.

Some astute individuals do manage to collect the money and either take the lancha to Florida or risk traveling with Cubana Airlines through Moscow and Madrid, where many of them get stranded. Many Europeans are mystified by Cubans’ willingness to find a way into the United States. Baseball and family links aside, it may simply be that culturally and economically, the US provides more space for poor Hispanic immigrants in search of a support network. I have heard of one individual who continued his odyssey for two years, traveling from Madrid further to Ecuador, then over to Chile, finally ending up arrested in Argentina (his papers expired). He made it to the US, eventually, two years after his initial departure for Moscow. Motorcycle diaries anybody?

Many others would love to experience this sort of adventure, or at least young Guevara’s. The problem is, Cubans are not allowed to leave the country for leisure. Ricardo, another local friend who offered rice and eggs, admitted that seeing “something else” is his ultimate dream. “All we see on TV is just Cuba, Cuba, Cuba”. Later that day I stumbled on a comment in my 2003 version of Lonely Planet. The same guidebook that criticized US travel restrictions to Cuba referred to all-world travel ban that Cuban citizens suffer as a “subtle constraint”. What was that author smoking?

Smoking is one good reason why intrepid Americans try to see Havana. Cigar aficionados may visit as many as three cigar factories and see laborers skillfully pack, roll and press the world-famous brands. It is in one of the cigar factories that I detected a scheme that should somehow allow their originators to accumulate enough wealth to leave the country. Other means include illegal (untaxed) sales of clothes from someone’s apartment and middle-making in tourist activities. But such opportunities were severely curtailed by the Resolution 10, adopted in 2005 and outlawing any tipping by foreigners and limiting any casual contact between Cuban citizens and foreign visitors. Foreigners are not allowed to take bici-taxis (a type of a rickshaw). Prostitution, always a source of parallel wealth, has now effectively disappeared from tourist-frequented areas. Accumulation of tourist and non-tourist-related activities is also considered illegal. Big numbers of uniformed and plain-clothes police watch over the potential transgressors. A system of well-hidden cameras on the corners of Havana Vieja further ensures that locals, chased from the main alleys, do not stray.

Nor should foreigners. These days, with Castro’s survival uncertain, police nervousness begins to eat into tourists’ freedoms too. A walk on the famed Malecon embankment should not be too casual if you’re within a 300m radius of US Interest Section. Stragglers who dare to stare at the azure waves for too long are promptly whistled away by the police. Nor should anyone get too close to Havana University during the school’s holidays. Expect whistles and troop reinforcements. There were some other buildings from which I was turned away, but I could not identify their revolutionary value prior to attracting attention from excitable guards.

An English couple I met in Pinar del Rio province admitted that after three days in Havana they felt it was time to leave. But if you listen to oppressive TV and radio propaganda, three days may seem like an eternity. What the locals refer to as “government”, is known in the official lingo as “revolution”. You protect the revolution, you defend the revolution, and you have a choice: revolution or death (alternatively: homeland or death). Among my favorite slogans was “We Are Doing Fine” (Vamos bien). A close second pick was “Fidel is our fatherland”. It is this suffocating cult of the individual that may make the regime so jittery these days. Many Cubans may still hold a nostalgic deference to Castro, however surreal the slogans. All the other heroes – from Cienfuegos to Guevara are long gone and Raul Castro lacks the charisma of his brother. But the propaganda does not rely uniquely on the cult of individual. It exudes confidence (“we have had another difficult year for Cuba’s development, but the signs are that the coming year will be much better”) and rapacious nationalism (“fight the American aggression”). Since Cuban nationalism was always floating in an ‘internationalist’ semantic soup, it was a potent export to Spanish speaking countries where Castro’s undeniable rhetorical prowess could be transmitted in direct. Meanwhile, close neighbors in the Caribbean who did not share the same linguistic code, from Haiti to Jamaica and Bahamas, hardly even took notice.

Ironically, one of the great beneficiaries of Castro’s ultimate demise is Hugo Chavez. Although never officially anointed by Castro as his ideological successor, Chavez now enjoys a de facto supremacy in Latin America’s left-wing populism. His fiery oratorical skills should not be underestimated and the support he provided for Castro’s struggling regime has been symbolically reciprocated in the streets of Havana, in the offices and on the bici-taxis.

Castro’s clique appears grateful to Chavez for maintaining on life support a regime that graciously offered its citizens free health care and education. Indeed, the self-styled Bolivarian revolution readily espouses some of the chief themes of post-revolutionary Cuba. But these were achievements of 1960s. Today it is Chile’s economic model, and not Cuba’s that has blazed the trail for the most durably successful development avenue in Latin America. Chile’s brutal dictator eventually stepped down. Until physically reduced by a prolonged disease, Castro never contemplated such a step. And even if Cuba’s famed educational system may indeed be superior to many of its neighbors, what is it worth if the academics have to drive bici-taxis? Cuba’s economy cannot absorb all those highly educated people and sending unemployed sugarmill workers back to university simply points to the degree of wastefulness in the resource allocation as determined by the bureaucrats. For all the praise that communists get for such achievements, this structural mismatch may actually have deeper roots than the constraints of the political system. Cuba actually shares the predicament with another country freed from Spanish rule in 1898 – the Philippines. Just like Cubans, Filipinos are today prized workers overseas. The critical differences are that the Filipinos provide their families and their economy with billions of dollars of remittances each year. Cuban doctors and teachers are exported by the government’s decision to ideologically akin destinations, such as Venezuela or Africa. As a result, Cuban families are unlikely to come away enriched from the separation.

On my way back to the airport, the radio propagandist let the words squirt like a spitting cobra. Over 25 minutes, I heard it all again about the American threat, about Bolivia’s fantastic economic prospects in the wake of nationalization of its gas assets, about the unity in the name of the revolution. The driver and other Cubans in the car reacted with cynicism, giggles, and sarcastic requests “for more”. A common propaganda poster in the streets of Havana demands “another 48” years of revolution. I now very much doubt it will happen. The tragedy of Cuba lies not only in Làzaro’s unfulfilled dream of travel, Ricardo’s family’s hunger, Raul’s little tobacco scheme or taxi drivers’ fear of the police. The drama is that the current system is unsustainable and therefore finite. But the country is poorly prepared to deal with the challenges of the future. The deeply seeded nationalism will not make it a comfortable terrain for foreign companies and the country’s educational system, unparalleled in some fields, leaves it unprepared to face the day when Cubans will have to take charge of their own affairs without the big, or the little brother watching.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Olympic news: TIBET 1 CHINA 0

The recent events in Tibet redirected international spotlight on the socio-economic situation on the plateau whose cultural heritage has in recent years attracted passionate interest among Western or Westernized urban elites worldwide. For several convulsive days, international media struggled to provide footage beyond the spotty coverage of the violent riots that occurred in Lhasa on March 14. Reactions of outrage, dismay and exhilaration were mixed with premature hope that the Olympic year would finally force the government in Beijing to take the grievances of the Tibetan population into consideration and open up a more constructive dialogue with Tibetan leaders.

This hope proved to be short-lived. Not only did the PRC government decide to squash any dissent among the “extremist” elements in Tibet and other ethnically Tibetan parts of China. More importantly, Beijing has hijacked the significance of the events and for the domestic audience manufactured a meaning quite distant from message of spiritual enlightenment that the Western world usually associates with the Dalai Lama’s peripatetic mission. Foreigners in China were surprised by the outpouring of xenophobic nationalism, this time directed not at Japan or Taiwan, but at the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Lamaism in general. Egged on by the one-sided, state-controlled propaganda, excitable urban Chinese resorted to threats addressed at the Western media, accused of pro-Tibetan bias.

We visited Tibet several months before the recent tragic events. “We” are a mixed Western/Eastern couple, which gives us often privileged access to a variety of cultural and linguistic contexts. It was no different in Tibet. Everyone who arranged a trip to Tibet in the recent years realizes the difficulties of obtaining entry permits to various parts of the plateau. Chinese officials would eventually yield to your demands, but at a (hefty) price.

The trip had its magic moments. We shall never forget the feeling of being transported to another era when as the only outsiders among hundred of monks in Ramoche Temple, we felt uplifted by our own senses overreacting to the combined forces of regular sutra chanting, pungent smell of butter lamps and dark carmine waves of robed silhouettes. Marooned in our own sense of embarrassment we were somehow carried above the clean-shaven heads, clockwise around the smoky interior until we reappeared through the temple kitchen into the 21st century. This is where the Chinese police greeted us with their saturnine, green uniformed looks.

Through a Taiwanese agent we had found a Tibetan guide. In his teens he had escaped to Dharamsala, but the family in Tibet insisted on his return to marry a local woman. It was not long before we met other Tibetans who with varied levels of English and Mandarin introduced us to the contemporary Tibetan reality.

The situation in Tibet, or more precisely “Tibetan Autonomous Region” had deteriorated quite markedly since 2005, when Chinese Communist Party appointed Zhang Qingli as the head of the Tibetan Regional CCP Committee. Zhang Qingli assumed his role after spending several years in Muslim-dominated Xinjiang, where he “successfully” crushed religious opposition to Beijing’s atheist rule.

Mr Zhang set about introducing a series of policies aimed at strengthening the Chinese character of Tibet. Some of them were of purely symbolic nature. Tibetans building a new family house were obliged to hoist a Chinese national flag on the rooftop. Those Tibetans who wished to pursue a career or study were banned by the authorities from engaging in religious services. This ban extended also to their families.

The Communist Party actively supported stronger links between Tibet and China. The opening of the first train link was hailed as a great technological achievement and broke a 100-year old altitude record for a rail line (the previous record was held by Peru). This connection, shunned by many European tour operators due to potential health risks for non-acclimatized lowlanders, was quickly exploited by the China’s domestic tourism industry. The arrivals from China skyrocketed, but the impact on Tibetan economy has proved mixed.

The Chinese tour agencies control the point-to-point traffic, with all the main facilities in Tibet offering Chinese-style accommodation (complete with karaoke), Chinese food and mainland Chinese tour guides whose knowledge of Tibetan history and culture is spotty at best, and ideologically skewed at worst. We overheard Chinese “tour guides” focusing on a particular piece of jewelry in Potala Palace, but dodging questions about the region itself. In one case the guide confirmed that the “criminal Dalai Lama” was probably already dead. The somewhat unexpected emphasis on jewelry appeared to be a part of a well-known tourist trap ploy – the Chinese tourists were bussed directly from Potala to a Chinese trinket emporium.

Our guide could not enter Potala Palace with us. Any Tibetan who wishes to obtain a license as a tourist guide or a bus driver must pass a complex set of exams, although no such requirements are imposed on the Chinese who operate in Lhasa or Shigatse. Our guide, a former Dharamsala dweller, was not even allowed to sit such an exam.

The monasteries present a particularly acute problem for the authorities. Jiang Zemin, China’s former President outlawed images of the Dalai Lama, who continues to be revered in Tibet. Shortly before our visit to Lhasa, a group of Dutch tourists smuggled the Dalai Lama’s pictures. When a monk in Shigatse approached them to ask if they had any pictures, they readily volunteered the photographs. The “monk” turned out to be a police agent and the Dutch tourists were quickly rounded up and escorted to the Nepalese border with little chance of obtaining a new Tibetan entry permit any time soon. An attempt by other hikers to unfurl the banned Tibetan flag under Mt Everest also attracted a swift sanction – a proof that Chinese police is present in all the areas where foreign visitors are allowed to travel. Meanwhile, Jiang Zemin’s “patriotic” slogan emblazons the main courtyard at Shigatse’s Tashilhunpo Monastery.

Further north on the Plateau we were often reminded of the Chinese occupation. The cavalcades of PLA trucks with disoriented Chinese conscripts would clog the main thoroughfares whenever one of them stopped to allow the young soldiers to relieve themselves by the roadside. It was painfully ironic to spot an occasional Tibetan pilgrim crawling to Lhasa on the other side of the road.

The train link increased the immigration pressure into Tibet’s main cities. Chinese people are generally reluctant wanderers, unless a critical mass of the population from a familiar linguistic group offers a reliable support network. Over the last two years, their numbers have increased in the Tibetan cities and transformed the entire neighborhoods into crass Chinatowns with restaurants, gaudy neon lights, karaoke bars, gambling dens and brothels. There are no more Tibetan taxi drivers in Lhasa and a visitor now has to learn Mandarin names of the various destinations to be able to navigate around. The roads have become so dangerous that the racket of a car crash became commonplace. Woe to a Tibetan who is engaged in a car accident with the Chinese. If a brawl ensues, the Chinese police would always side with the ethnic newcomers, or so the locals claim. The food markets have also now come under control of the immigrants. For example, Chinese Hui Muslims seem to be in control of the yak meat market in Lhasa.

The speed with which the immigrants have taken control of the local economy can only partly be explained by the malignant economic apartheid promoted from within the CCP. Watching the mutual indifference between hard-working Chinese and eternally circumambulating Tibetans one cannot escape the sensation that the economic behavior of the latter group is, and has probably always been, highly dysfunctional. At the very least, it has not functioned particularly well within the system of commercial exchanges aimed at fast capital accumulation. When two weeks later I contemplated the plight of Native Americans in front of their depressing trailer parks in New Mexico, the reflection on maladaptive economic developments returned.

During the trip to Tibet, I was seeking to refute my old preconceptions about the Top of the World. Maybe I felt slightly guilty of the simplistic black/white view I had developed during my years in Western Europe. I could never delete from my memory the effect that Jiang Zemin’s failed visit to Switzerland had on my Chinese friend back in 1999. A large pro-Tibetan crowd blocked the access to the Parliament and Tibetan refugees occupied the rooftops around the main plaza. Ushered through the backdoor, and puzzled by the inability or unwillingness of the Swiss authorities to mow down the crowd Tienanmen style, the Chinese President threw away the prepared speech and stormed out of the formal gala meeting in front of the camera crews. An eminent sinologist who accompanied Jiang Zemin on the trip later recounted amusing stories about his erratic buffoonery. But in front of the unexpected spectacle on the TV screen, my Chinese friend was in tears, her entire body identified with the pangs of the CCP’s loss of face. The same person, a Chicago-educated professional originally from Wuxi, often reacted in tune with nationalistic sound-bites, haplessly translated into fractured English. But her revulsion at “Seven Years in Tibet” seemed genuine. And a comment that the Dalai Lama looked “like Jiang Zemin”, which sounded callous when pronounced in front of a Tibetan refugee, visibly reflected an overgrown collective ego that the Chinese Communist Party may so easily stir among mainland Chinese and their offspring. The myth of “unity with the Motherland” is not some genetic feature of the Chinese people, but rather the outcome of an elaborate colonialist mythology, aiming at persuading impressionable young Chinese students that the two countries were “always” one. The importance of wars between Tibet and Tang China is minimized and the marriage of the 33rd Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo to Nepalese and Chinese consorts is underlined as the proof that Tibet had “always” been under Chinese (but not Nepalese?) influence.

Before leaving Lhasa, I asked our Tibetan hosts about this two-speed society, where the main groups at best seemed to ignore each other and certainly had very little interest in each others’ affairs. Two revelations stunned me. The first was that, according to my hosts, at least 20% of Tibetan population supported Chinese occupation, mostly for economic reasons. This is certainly more than the romantic view of a monolithic nation suffering under the Goliath’s iron fist. The other message was one of hope. Our Tibetan friends told us that among the Chinese visitors there were increasing numbers of young students and intellectuals who were genuinely interested in Tibetan history and culture. Some tinkered with Buddhist religiosity. Others would go as far as to “apologize” to their Tibetan hosts for what the Chinese State had done to them. We are still far away from Australian “SORRY”, but it did strike an unexpectedly optimistic note.

But this is hard to imagine in the current anti-Tibetan and anti-Buddhist frenzy that has convulsed the urban Chinese so keen on reversing their perpetual sense of cultural and technological inferiority. The nationalistic themes at the Olympic were supposed to enhance the feeling of pride and cement the gratitude that some coastal Chinese feel vis-à-vis the government’s economic record. That these objectives have now been hijacked by an un-reformable band of feudalism-supporting, slavery-reviving, splittistly-brainwashed, unthankful ethnic “minority” is unpardonable. The popular overreaction to the Western media’s portrayal of the tragic events in Lhasa tells us less about what happened in Tibet and more about the unreflective frustration that the Chinese have to reconcile with their self-glorified collective identity. It must be unpleasant to be so unpopular.