A Tale of Two Countries

I began 2003 in Cuba. It's a good practice to launch a new year with fresh insights. Cuba did not disappoint. It was my first visit to the island nation. I did work in economic development and human rights in Latin America for more than a decade, so I had an informed background from which to measure Cuba's social experiment.

But above all, my two weeks in Cuba was like looking into a mirror, forcing me to examine my own values as well as those of U.S. society.

First off, I had to ask myself, what makes for a good society? Most of the positive things I had heard about Cuba's commitment to the poor turned out to be true. I rode a bicycle through the countryside and walked extensively through its towns and cities. Nowhere did I see the shanty shacks I am so accustomed to seeing in the underdeveloped world. Absent as well were malnourished children with distended bellies so common to, say, El Salvador and Honduras. The Cuban revolution has made it a priority to offer a humane lifestyle—literacy and schooling, universal access to health care, and a basic diet—to the impoverished masses. These results are not just propaganda, my investigation showed.

SOME OF THE critiques I have heard voiced about Cuba also proved to be quite true. The government maintains tight control of all legal economic activity. Wages are fixed at a low level for most occupations. I talked at length to a biochemist who now practices massage out of his home. His salary as a biochemist for the state-controlled pharmaceutical industry was around $28 a month. He can make that in a couple of days giving massages. But he lives in fear that he will be caught in an unofficial enterprise. The punishment: a fine and closer vigilance of his future activities.

Cuban people do complain openly, despite the fact that the official means of communication are state-owned. Griping is a national pastime, be it in a cab, at a baseball game, or around the market. Many Cubans, particularly professionals, spoke of their desire to advance beyond a subsistence lifestyle. Thorny obstacles are put in place to frustrate those aspirations. By and large, the Cuban system treats private economic initiative as a threat to social parity—just as the U.S. system treats them as incompatible ends. The freedom to pursue financial advancement is esteemed as a hallowed right in U.S. society. The poor meanwhile are left to fend for themselves. To create a level playing field would demand too many sacrifices for the liking of most Americans.

As I wrestled with the dilemma of social justice and freedom in Cuba and in the United States, two of the most important books of the 20th century came to mind: George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Orwell's novel imagined the terrors of a vast totalitarian regime that centralized social life under the Ministry of Truth and the Ministry of Love. The government banished privacy of every word and act. The good society was what the state mandated it to be.

Huxley's futuristic dystopia is more subtle, yet no less insidious. It is a brave world where everyone gets what he or she wants. As one of the characters says, "The Controllers realized that force was no good." It is much better to seduce citizen-consumers to live peacefully in their ordered society. People are given the means to eliminate loneliness, depression, pain, and conflict, and sex is made to be always enjoyable and readily available; in fact, a government ministry works diligently to limit the length of time between the appearance of a desire and its satisfaction. Religion is made irrelevant, the biological family passé, and the imperfections of human nature are selectively eliminated. No one (bar the book's hero) notices that the society's freedoms are slipping away, for they are too fat, happy, and entertained. Sound familiar? If not, just repeat three times after me, "I want my MTV."

It would be much too simplistic to lay down a summary verdict on the Cuban system, or on U.S. society for that matter. The respective benefits of their systems are apparent, as are the social costs. Above all I am saddened that we have not been capable of imagining a path that leads us beyond the alternative destinations foreseen by Orwell and Huxley. Our own freedom terrifies us; so much more does the freedom of others.

David Batstone, executive editor of Sojourners, is author of the forthcoming book Saving the Corporate Soul & (Who Knows?) Maybe Your Own (Jossey-Bass, March 2003).

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