Cuban Revelations is a reporter’s account of the epic shifts that have transpired since an aging, infirm Fidel Castro ceded the reins of power nearly a decade ago. But in the hands of Marc Frank, a veteran journalist in Cuba (Thomson Reuters, ABC, The Financial Times), the story becomes a profound and nearly unrivaled saga of political transition and transformation.
The heart of Frank’s narrative is how Fidel’s brother, President Raúl Castro, in 2006 began easing the harshest police state tactics while steering a Marxist command economy into an accommodation with the market dynamics of capitalism.
The virtue of Frank’s reporting is that he covers Cuba without an ideological agenda, draws on sources in the system for documents and leaked insights, and wields enough irony to enliven a narrative that documents the socioeconomic forces driving political change. Although written before the recent U.S.-Cuba diplomatic breakthrough, this remains one of the best primers about Cuba.
Late in his final term, President George W. Bush relaxed part of the decades-long embargo on trade with Cuba to allow exports of wheat and soybeans. In Havana, on presidential election night 2008, writes Frank, “U.S. politicians and businessmen were in town drumming up agricultural sales under the 2000 exception to the embargo that made their country the island’s fifth largest trading partner at more than $700 million that year, despite the Bush administration’s hostility. The Americans were camped out to watch returns at the famous Hotel Nacional, where Meyer Lansky and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano once lived and the mob gathered for conferences. The U.S. government had invited dissidents to the chief of the U.S. Interests Section’s residence, where they would be given the chance to participate in a mock vote to protest the lack of democracy on the island.”
China and Russia offer varying approaches of how a Communist system, in which the state theoretically owns all property, moves toward incremental stages of private property and enterprise. Russia is a spectacle of corruption under Putin, whose fabulous accumulation of wealth was the subject of a recent Frontline documentary. The Chinese Communist Party is fraught with baroque banking sagas, and scandals involving party potentates, as the country that has become integral to the global financial system still monitors its news media and prosecutes dissenters in an age of free-wheeling social media.
Cuba took a different route under Raúl, who had run the army for decades under Fidel and positioned the military as a powerful economic force, with officers in key positions involving distribution of services. When Raul assumed ultimate power in 2006, “with no fanfare or publicity, [he] began reducing the number of common and political prisoners,” writes Frank. “According to local human rights advocates, between 2006 and July 2010, the number of political prisoners declined from more than 300 to 167, while Amnesty International listed only 53 prisoners of conscience.”
The revolution’s egalitarian promises, particularly in free health care and free education, lost significant ground in the ’90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s major trading partner and patron. In 2000, Venezualan president Hugo Chavez came to Fidel’s rescue, but since his death in 2013 and the slide in oil prices, Venezuelan support has dwindled.
Early in his tenure Raúl Castro conducted two polls of party members to better gauge “inside-the-system battles to come,” writes Frank in an updated conclusion for the softcover edition of his book. “The dual monetary system, the gap between state wages and state prices, bureaucracy, lack of transportation, high food prices, and deteriorating health care, education, and housing were the overwhelming responses, [those surveyed] said, and he began to demand action behind the scenes and in public.”
As Raúl cut more than 500,000 people from state jobs, he loosened the strictures on real estate and allowed people to start small businesses, although they still had to purchase supplies from state-run outlets that charged hefty mark-ups and deal with a dense, top-heavy bureaucracy. One consequence of the incremental shift toward private business was that well-educated Cubans discovered that as guides or chauffeurs for tourists, they could earn much more in a few days of freelance work than they earned from their government-regulated monthly salaries of $40 a month.
Cuba faces a continuing crisis of brain drain, as educated young people leave for America, which has maintained an open-door policy for Cuban emigrés alongside the economic embargo imposed by President Eisenhower in 1960. Since last December, when the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations with a helping hand from Pope Francis and the Vatican, the embargo’s days appear to be numbered. Ironically, whenever Congress does decide to end the embargo for good, the big welcome mat for Cuban emigres will probably disappear.
Near the end of Cuban Revelations, Frank predicts that with the exception of “the bus service, gas stations, large company outlets such as the telephone company, foreign exchange stores and some restaurants,” the rest of the economy “would pass over to private and semiprivate (leasing and cooperative) hands and operate on a market basis. So would the bulk of housing and other minor construction and production. The state would contract out to the private sector more and more maintenance and other minor services and tasks.”
In this scenario, Frank sees the state eventually shedding 1 million jobs, and boosting salaries and pensions. Given the widespread poverty as apparent in cities as in the countryside, Cuba’s time warp milieu, with all of the vintage mid-century American cars, would—the careful verb of our man in Havana—ease into a better future if the revolution-after-the-revolution under Raúl Castro continues bearing fruit. And if it doesn’t, for whatever reason, we can hope that Frank will be on the scene to explain how and why.
Jason Berry’s books include Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.