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A Conversation in Havana: Lessons for Armenia?

By Markar Melkonian

The following is my reconstruction of a recent conversation with an acquaintance in Havana.

It is not a verbatim report, but I have tried to represent the conversation accurately from memory. My conversation partner - a man who looked to be in his thirties - worked as a barista at a coffee bar near the Havana Zoo. I will call him Ivan.

Ivan wanted to set a naïve visitor straight about trouble in Workers’ Paradise:  “Do you know what my paycheck is?  Ten pesos!  I have no spending money.”

“That’s terrible,” the visitor said.

“If you want to get by in this country,” Ivan said, “you’re forced to steal.” 

Ivan was well dressed and looked to be over-nourished, if anything. But ten pesos in the national currency amounts to US 0.40 dollars - forty cents - in terms of buying power outside of the country. Ivan did not mention how much he made in tips, nor whether he had a second job.

The visitor, an Armenian, had heard the “forced to steal” complaint before. He had heard it in Cuba three years earlier, but he had also heard it in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic three decades earlier, in the lead-up to the counter-revolution there: “An honest man cannot make ends meet in this country.” 

But the visitor also knew people in Soviet Armenia who had refused to accept bribes or to pilfer public coffers. When the counter-revolutionary tide rolled over Armenia, the new leaders portrayed their own greed as an eternal feature of human nature, and the several honest citizens became objects of ridicule. 

Still, Ivan had a point: low wages have been a common complaint in Havana, ever since the advent of the “special period” of the 1990s.

The U.S. embargo on the island, which Cubans call “the blockade” (el bloqueo), produced its intended economic effects. A quarter of a century ago, the Yanquis had had no trouble convincing their mascot, Boris Yeltsin, to break trade agreements with Russia, at a time when Russia accounted for 70% of Cuba’s overall trade. Washington’s Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 “wrecked havoc” on the Island, too, just as the bill’s presenter, Congressman Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), had announced it would. Then came the Helms-Burton Act, which embarrassed America’s allies (Google keyword:  The Godfrey-Milliken Bill), but succeeded in producing poverty in Cuba. 

The Yanquis and the gangsters in Miami were rubbing their hands in anticipation: “If it turns out that they [the Cubans] are forced to swim without the Soviet Life preserver,” a U.S. official was quoted as saying, “there is little doubt that they will drown.” (William M. Leogrand, Back Channel to Cuba, 2015, p. 265)

Well, twenty-five years have passed, and Cubans are poorer.  But they have yet to drown.

Ivan wiped the counter.

“What to do?” the visitor asked. 

“Change the system,” Ivan said.

“Reform it or destroy it?”

“Reform?  It’ll take more than that.”

The visitor rubbed his neck. “Well, this is your country, and I don’t want to sound like a smart aleck or a know-it-all (un fatuo o un presuntuoso).  But what you’re saying reminds me of things I heard twenty-five years ago in Soviet Armenia.”

“In Iran?”

“No, Armenia…the smallest of the fifteen Republics that made up the Soviet Union.”

“Oh, Rumania.”

“No… Anyway, back then, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, said he wanted political and economic reform. People in Armenia went to the streets demanding reform. They wanted better pay and better jobs, more personal freedom, and an end to corruption and pollution. But the leaders of the demonstrations did not share those goals. Most of the people in the streets wanted reform, but the men with the bullhorns wanted to destroy the whole system.”  

The visitor could have expanded the story, to include the fact that many of Gorbachev’s most powerful supporters, in Russia and in Armenia, were aspiring capitalists seeking to wipe out the last remnants of soviet power.  But the conversation did not go there.  For one thing, it was not clear at this point that Ivan was listening. 

Undeterred, the visitor continued: “Well, they did destroy the system. And they replaced it with unemployment, poverty, oligarchy, and much worse corruption. In a few years, one quarter of the population left the country.” 

The visitor drummed his knuckles on the counter for emphasis. 

“Here’s a lesson you could learn from Armenia: be careful what you wish for,” the visitor said. “You have affordable housing, high-quality schools for your children, fee universities, good healthcare, and low taxes.  You have safe streets, the freedom to express your opinions, a guaranteed basket of basic goods, pensions, and leisure time to spend with your family and friends. In the course of chasing after something else, you might end up losing things you never imagined you could lose.” 

Ivan looked at the visitor and shook his head.  This particular naïve foreigner was hopeless.

For decades, Cuban leaders had denounced the U.S. embargo against their country, and the Yanquis had sworn that they would never lift the embargo until Cuba was “free,” in the special Yanqui sense of the word. The revolution, through its several stages, endured attack, sabotage, invasion, and a fifty-four-year embargo. Meanwhile, Cuba fought for freedom in Latin America and the Caribbean, and scored victories against Ronald Reagan’s apartheid allies in Africa (“Why South Africa Loves Cuba). 

For decades, Cuban physicians and engineers (30,000 health care workers in Venezuela alone), have saved tens of thousands of lives on four continents (“Why Cuba Is So Good at Fighting Ebola,”).  And every step of the way, the Yanquis opposed them. 

Today, one hears some Cubans grumbling about how the resources of the country have been squandered helping other countries overseas. Perhaps someday we will hear Americans grumble about the hundreds of billions of dollars their country has spent propping up dictators, overthrowing elected officials, and subsidizing death squads. 

The Cuban Revolution persevered.  At long last, on December 17, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama reached an agreement with Cuban President Raul Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations and to remove the embargo. This, too, was another victory of the revolution. 

According to the slogan on the murals, “Socialism in Cuba is invincible.” One could have found similar slogans in the Soviet Union thirty years ago. But unlike the Soviet Communist Party under Gorbachev, the Communist Party of Cuba does not appear to be dominated by would-be capitalist rulers. At least so far.  If in fact this is true, it is an important difference between the two parties and the two countries. 

Still, if socialism in Cuba is to survive the coming years--and perhaps emerge stronger--then it will need to raise living standards for ordinary Cubans. If not, then counter-revolutionaries will lead Cubans down the same road to “free market” ruin that so many Armenians now regret having taken.

But even if the Yanquis and the gangsters in Miami were to succeed in obstructing socialism in Cuba, the achievements of the revolution will stand undiminished, as an inspiration to future generations in Latin America and far beyond. Fifty-seven years of the Cuban Revolution remind us that, every now and then, the bad buys lose and the good guys win. 

And here we have a lesson that a generation of demoralized Armenians can learn from Cubans. 

Markar Melkonian is a philosophy instructor and an author. His books include Richard Rorty’s Politics:  Liberalism at the End of the American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview Press, 1996), and My Brother’s Road (2005). 

Comments (2)

How any Armenian can call Cuba a failure compared to utter corruption and mafia leadership of Armenia is beyond logical comprehension. If the Italian Mafia was running Armenia, the standard of living and political freedom would be much better than the garbage currently destroying this country.
Cuba was an experiment , Castro maintained himself and his regime with the full backing of the USSR. When the USSR disintegrated, it was high noon for Castro. Castro's experiment has been a failure.

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