What Oppression Does To People

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This piece from Harpers about living thirty days as a Cuban is fascinating. The author went to Cuba determined to see if it was possible to live on a Cuban wage. According to the state pay scale, as a journalist his monthly pay should be $15, so that’s what he attempts to live on in Havana. Needless to say, the resulting experience makes the “food stamp diet” look like a walk in the park.

There wasn’t much of me left either. In mid-February I walked one last time to the Riviera, weighing myself in the gym. I was down eleven and a half pounds since my arrival. More than eleven pounds gone in thirty days. I’d missed about 40,000 calories. At this rate I would be as lean as a Cuban by spring. And dead by autumn.

I finished out with a few tiny meals—the last of the ugly rice, a last sweet potato, and the quarter of a cabbage. On the day before my departure I broke into my emergency stash, eat- ing the sesame sticks from the airplane (60 calories), and opening the can of fruit punch I’d smuggled in from the Bahamas (180). The taste of this red liquid was a shock: bitter with ascorbic acid, and flooded with sugar, to imitate the flavors of real juice. It was like drinking plastic.

My total expenditures on food were $15.08 for the month. By the end I’d read nine books, two of them about a thousand pages long, and written much of this article. I’d been living on the wages of a Cuban intellectual, and, indeed, I always write better, or at least faster, when I’m broke.

My final morning: no breakfast, on top of no dinner. I used the prostitute’s coin to catch a bus out toward the airport. I had to walk the last 45 minutes to my terminal, almost fainting on the way. There was a tragicomic moment when I was pulled out of line at the metal detectors by men in uniform because an immigration officer thought I had overstayed my thirty-day visa. It took three people, repeatedly counting it out on their fingers, to prove that I was still on day thirty.

One of the things that struck me most in reading it, however, was not just the hunger and desperation but the moral corrosion of living in an oppressive society. It’s not just that Cuba is poor, the controlled economy means that the only way to make more is to steal or resort to the black market (which is itself mostly dealing in stolen goods.) The author quickly finds himself contemplating theft, but is held back mainly because everyone else is better at it than he is:

Every day I was approached by Cubans who said, in one phrase or another, Give me money. My own options would be grim in the weeks ahead. Should I stand on the street corner, demanding dollars from strangers? How hungry did you have to get before you became like the teenage girl I overtook on a Vedado sidewalk that afternoon, who, holding a baby on her hip, turned to me and said, Deseas una chica sucky sucky?

If I was going to suck something, I knew what it would be. I found myself watching the Ladas as they rolled past, trying to see how many had locking gas caps. With some tubing and a jug, I could get five liters of gasoline and sell it through a friend in Chinatown. But all the cars in Cuba had locking gas caps or were themselves locked behind gates at night. Too many men, harder than I, were already working that line. This was no island for amateur thieves.

Friends are able to give him occasional work, and food, this too based on theft and the black market economy.

Havana was changing, as cities do. The historic zone had been placed under the control of Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city historian. Leal had been given special priority for building supplies, labor, trucks, tools, fuel, pipes, cement, wood, even faucets and toilets. But this was not why the people loved him. Instead, my friend explained, the “privileged” access to supplies simply meant that there was more to steal.

A friend of mine was renovating in hopes of renting rooms to foreigners, and indeed within a few minutes there was a screech of truck brakes and a great horn blast. Her husband signaled to me urgently, and we threw open the front door. A flatbed truck was waiting. In sixty seconds, three of us unloaded 540 pounds of Portland cement bags. The husband passed some wadded bills to the trucker, who promptly roared off. They had made money off cement destined for some construction job. We spent half an hour moving the bags to a dark corner in a back room, covering them with a tarp because they were printed with blue ink, marking them as state property. Green printing was for school construction. Only cement in red-printed bags could be bought by citizens, in state stores, at $6 a bag.

Unlike most Cuban functionaries, Leal had actually made a difference in people’s lives. He rebuilt the old hotels; my friends took 540 pounds of cement for their new tourist bungalow. He restored a museum; they looted tin sheeting for roofs. He sent trucks of lumber into the neighborhood; they made half the wood vanish.

The State owned all. The people appropriated all. A ration system in reverse.

Helping to steal the cement was my first great success. For half an hour of labor, I was paid with a heaping plate of rice and red beans, topped with a banana and a small portion of picadillo. At least 800 calories.

I think this helps to explain why it is so hard for a country which has undergone this kind of repression to recover culturally. Once you’ve ingrained in people for a long period of time that the only way to survive is to steal and cheat, those habits die hard. In this sense, that fact that, in the absence of free markets, an illegal black market that looks a lot like a free market tends to spring up actually makes it harder for a culture to later shift to a free economy.

It’s appalling that, even as people like to pretend that no one really support Stalin and other communist dictators back in the day, there are still plenty of people in our country sympathetic to the Castros. Their regime not only takes away people’s most fundamental human freedoms and condemns them to grinding poverty, it also does everything possible to force them into participating in actions they innately feel to be wrong in order to survive, and it creates in them a set of customs and dispositions that will make it harder for them to later develop a free and functioning society.

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  1. When I was younger I had the opportunity to visit Russia for a week when the wall had fell not but a few years earlier. Besides giving me an even deeper and abiding love of my country, it also taught me the real value of capitalism. It’s these places that always echo in my mind when I hear of people wanting to “make the markets more [compassionate/just/fair/buzzword of the week]” and I end up praying , as I often do spending time with family at holidays, “Lord please save me from people that want to help.”

  2. In other news, on October 23, 2013, Pope Francis beatified 74 Christian Brothers, among 522 other religious murdered, martyrs in the Spanish Civil War. This raises to 165 the total of Christian Brothers beatifed through Spanish CW martyrdom. Nine of these brothers have been canonized as saints.

    That is what Obama and his admiring imbeciles (sons and daughters of ignorance) will make of America.

    yada yada

    The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    Already, the decline may be irreversible.

  3. “Once you’ve ingrained in people for a long period of time that the only way to survive is to steal and cheat, those habits die hard.”

    Economic historian Douglass North has written about this. A society has to develop the institutions, formal and informal, which allow money to be made through production. What separates the successful countries from the unsuccessful is that the gains which can be gotten through production are greater than the gains from non-productive acquisition.

    When you see that a firm can make more money hiring one more lobbyist or lawyer than it can by hiring one more worker, there’s a reason to be afraid.

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