Archive for August, 2016
A while back, I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba for 6 days, and I wrote this blog post then but did not publish it until now, for reasons I won’t go into.
Cuba is not a time machine or a time capsule. Just because there are old 50s American cars still being driven, you’re not slipping back in time. In reality, those 50s American cars share the same roads as 80s Russian Ladas, 2000s Korean cars, 2010s Chinese busses, and of course animals pulling carts, human and non-human. The architecture is not frozen in time. There are new buildings along side dilapidating colonial style buildings. You definitely won’t feel that you’re experiencing the glory days of Havana you see in gangster movies set in the 20s.
But Cuba is not another underdeveloped Latin American country either.
Instead of going back in time, Cuba makes you feel that you’re living in many different decades at the same time. The mishmash of vehicles on the road along with the architecture are obvious indicators, but look deeper and you find many idiosyncrasies.
Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining socialist countries following the Marxist-Leninist ideology, but that does not mean the dynamics of capitalism is missing. Cuba has a two currency system, where tourists are technically supposed to use the Convertible Pesos (CUC) and locals to use the Cuban Pesos (CUP or MN). In reality, with the fixed exchange rate of 24 CUPs per CUC, the two currencies confusingly intermingle. While there are people who unenthusiastically work at their fixed income government jobs, there are also those who work in the tourism industry trying to score as many CUCs as possible from tourists, both legitimately and dubiously. Go to the right parts of Havana and you’ll encounter the usual touts trying to get you to their “cheap, local” restaurants or buy some random trinkets. Overcharging and confusing tourists is another national past time, something travelers to Southeast Asia are used to.
However, while tourists are burdened with the realities of capitalism, there are many elements missing from the cityscape. Advertisement is basically non-existent, so are signs for stores. Without motivation to attract the locals to products, services, or stores, there is very little information to guide them. Since most people get rations of basic necessities, the notion of supermarkets is missing. The locals on government income do have disposable income, but that hovers around 20~30 CUC (roughly 20~30 USD) per month which is negligible compared to what tourists can bring in. On one hand, there are fancy restaurants with faux live music catering to tourists who pay 10-20 CUCs for the meal. On the other hand, the spartan local restaurants offer pizzas for half a CUC and a full functional meal for one CUC. The local restaurants also have long menus, but normally, only few dishes are available because of the ingredients available on that day.
If you think Cuba is some kind of ideological socialist nation with equality for all, you’re in for a rude awakening. With the country opening up to tourism in the mid-90s, the good and bad of capitalism have invaded Cuba, and as a tourist, you can’t easily escape entrepreneuring locals who can do much more with your money.
The same with technology. Smartphones are everywhere, even though there are no cellular data connections in the country. Instead, people go to WiFi hotspots (public hotspots and big hotel lobbies) to connect to the internet for few CUCs per hour (which is incredibly expensive considering what you could buy for a CUC). This is a rather surreal sight, seeing hordes of locals in a city park, all glued to their screens in one specific area. On the flip side, people are not on their phones at all elsewhere. Socializing and playing games with or without a bottle of rum is a common sight. A lot of the travelers I came across worry that once Cubans get access to data anywhere including their homes, their fabric of culture will be destroyed. I wonder though, has it destroyed ours?
One night I joined some travelers and went clubbing. If that conjures images of the Buena Vista Social Club, you’re sorely mistaken. The rows of clubs all spilled music heavy on bass and beat, and Reggaeton was the local favorite. You could easily mistake the scene for Miami or LA, though all the clubs were much smaller in scale. There are more “traditional” music clubs, but most people warned me that they are really just tourist traps. Even the stereotypical Cuban cigars weren’t that prevalent with the locals preferring cigarettes instead.
Many people think Cuba will drastically change now that their relationship with the US is being normalized. The common belief is that the hordes of American tourists will ruin the isolationist island with a pristinely kept relic from the past. Many tourists are inundated with the narrative and already flooding the island “before it’s too late,” but Cuba is no time capsule and I doubt the island will change so fast. For one, American tourists and the money they spend won’t be able to change the island. Millions of tourists have already been coming to the island, and besides making the locals more entrepreneurial, it hasn’t had that much impact on the infrastructure. Even if American cars and computers become available, most people aren’t rich enough to buy them, and they already find a way to get the music and movies.
For Cuba to truly change, there needs to be significant amounts of foreign investment that will build up both the local and tourist infrastructure. This means significantly altering their economic system to something more capitalistic, and I doubt this change will happen all night. Nevertheless it will probably happen, slowly but surely, as every living person on the Earth gets pulled into the giant economic machine that spearheaded by America and the OECD.
Should we lament to loss of Cuban uniqueness? No, just as we should not lament the days when we tilled land with oxen and lit the house with candle light. The quality of life by most measures (but not all) will go up for Cubans as they plug themselves into the world economy. Nevertheless, this will take time.
To want Cuba to remain as some kind of socialist relic is selfish, countries aren’t museums and people don’t live in museums. Do go to Cuba, but don’t go expecting some kind of movie scene. Enjoy what Cuba has to offer now, and the changes that are coming ahead. Personally, I look forward to revisiting the island in couple decades to see how the country changes, and how it doesn’t.
I don’t like where the world is going right now, and as an eternal optimist, this is hard for me to say.
For a long time, I’ve been thinking that we are in the midst of a generational war, and the most recent Brexit voting data clearly shows the generational divide that is happening.
This is not an isolated incident. In Japan last year, there was a major referendum to combine the city and prefecture of Osaka in order to reduce the waste from duplicated services provided by each government. Spearheading the initiative was a young politician by the name of Hashimoto, a brass but charismatic lawyer who put his political life on the referendum. When the referendum didn’t pass, he put an end to his political career as promised.
While the generational split wasn’t as pronounced, the effect was very much there. The older generation did not resonate with the young leader and did not want the status quo changed. Twitterverse attributed the loss as another case of the social phenomenon that has come to be known as rougai (老害) which can be best translated as harm brought forth by the elderly.
Japan is the oldest society in the world, with more than third of people over 60. They represent a huge voting block and wield a large amount of influence. In a span of two days in December last year, the government both cut child benefits and approved an one time benefit payment to the elderly. The benefits that the boomer generation will reap from the national pension system versus Gen Y has been discussed, but the notion of generational war hasn’t entered the mainstream media here.
I’m sure similar phenomena are happening around the world in advanced societies, places like Spain where the youth unemployment rate is well over 40%.
It’s easy to take an us versus them attitude, to blame the other side for their ignorance, complacency, and/or malice. However, this will never be constructive.
What distraught me about the entire Brexit conversation was how irrational it was. To say that Europe is in an economic rut would be an understatement, and in such times, people want to find something to blame that’s not themselves. In the case of this campaign, it became the EU and their regulations and immigrants. It became so bad that the UK stat office had called out Leave Campaign’s use of facts and figures. Some people are starting to call this the post-factual democracy.
Americans are now seeing their own version with Donald Trump, a presidential candidate who caters to people’s emotions rather than facts and truths. This may not be surprising to many countries in Europe where right wing nationalist parties have risen in the last decade.
Many believe and worry that such rise of irrational nationalism, especially in Europe will lead to another world war, although I don’t think (and hope) it will go that far. We are too capable of destruction to actually cause it.
I do worry that we are becoming more polarized however.
While mostly ignored by the mainstream media and general public, Pew Research Center has done fantastic research to show that the American public is becoming more polarized in their political beliefs.
Polarization is bad. Polarization ultimately leads to violence, to revolutions. Many of the social institutions that we’ve created were in response to the inequalities. Democracy replaced monarchy, aristocracy, and dictatorships, sometimes in violent overthrow. Many of the social safety nets, regulations, and redistribution of wealth was in response to the collection of wealth (and dissatisfactions) that resulted from the industrial revolution and the first phase of capitalism. Neither of the institutions are doing enough in this day and age.
What’s ironic about the Internet is that while it’s polarizing the world, it’s also making the world a smaller place and the inequality more apparent. One could argue that the Arab Spring would not have started without the internet, without pirated videos of Hollywood lives and mundane Facebook posts of Western youths that highlighted how antiquated the Arab society was. The arrival of Perry’s Black Ships and the subsequent opening of then isolationist Japan to the global market showed how far behind Japan was and caused the rapid modernization of the country as well as the overthrow of many existing institutions.
We are at a turning point in our history. I don’t want a generational war. It’s too easy to blame them and not us, but it’s not us versus them, we are in this together. Our technologies are separating us further and further, both economically and socially, but the solution is not to rid them like a Luddite. Instead, we need to create a new system that will bring us closer, put us on the same page, have us walking the same path again.
I don’t know what that will look like, but we invented democracy, social security, international commerce, (ironically) the Nobel Peace Prize winning EU, and more. I’m sure that we will find something, but first we need to recognize that WE have a problem.
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