A street-level view of Cuba’s economic atrophy

In her evocative 1987 book, “Miami,” Joan Didion strived to understand the peculiar relationship between the United States and Cuba. In particular, she tried to decipher the historical ebb and flow connecting the Cuban exile community in Miami, Havana and the Washington political establishment during the Cold War.”To spend time in Miami is to acquire a certain fluency in cognitive dissonance,” Didion said about the gravitational political and cultural pull Cuba had on Miami and South Florida.Since then, the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall was dismantled. Yet when I recently visited Cuba, I experienced a “certain fluency in cognitive dissonance.” It came from a time warp in which the Cold War still lives (at least for the American and Cuban governments), vintage 1950s American cars roam the streets and the apparent failure of a state-controlled economy (i.e., Communism) that is clearly the proverbial “elephant in the room”.Our youngest, who is rapidly mastering Spanish, joined Barb and me on a “cultural tour” to Cuba. This was not your typical group of tourists, as ours included retired State Department officials and CIA officers who were along for the journey. Of course, there are still many travel restrictions, a legacy of a tight economic embargo that has been American policy for more than five decades, but they are surmountable.Cuba is desperate for currency from international tourists, and the U.S. government has relaxed its restrictions a little in recent years.We stayed in an alleged four-star hotel in which the carpets were worn and the water ran out one night. Internet access was almost non-existent and, remarkably, we saw only three or four cell phones in use in a city of more than 2 million people. While Americans are a rare species to be seen, the same cannot be said of other nationalities. Cuba has become an inexpensive tourist destination for many Europeans and they, along with Chinese, Venezuelans and Canadians were quite evident – in part because they want to be on the ground floor when economic liberalism finally breaks out.Rundown theme parkWhat one quickly encounters in Cuba is a country that is almost totally removed from the 21st century global economy. The people we met were pleasant and very friendly to Americans, but little in Cuba resembles a functioning, much less thriving, economy. It was hard for us to find signs of any economic activity. With the exception of new or significantly renovated hotels and a few other buildings, I suspect Havana looks remarkably similar to the way it did in 1959, when Fidel Castro took control.Havana resembled a rundown theme park, with the feel of a Third World country that has deferred its maintenance for far too long.For a metaphor, one need only look at the large empty capitol building engraved with “Capitolio” built during the Batista era in the 1950s. It’s as grand as the U.S. Capitol, but is now an abandoned building as a protest of capitalism. Likewise, every fountain in Havana was dry.I sensed that Cuba is a country in atrophy, a tragic example of what happens when there are no incentives for hard work, inspiration and innovation. For three decades, the Cuban economy was propped up by the Soviet Union, but that hasn’t been the case for the last two decades, though people are starting to wake up. There is clearly a complicated relationship between the Cuban people and their government. I sense the people are hoping and waiting for the change that everyone knows is coming after the Castro regime passes. The change is necessary, but seems a distant dream except for certain tourist-focused sectors of the economy.Because of the severe political and economic straitjackets Cubans have lived in for generations, we can’t know how much pent-up entrepreneurial energy still exists in the Cuban people. To be sure, keeping thousands of 1950s-era American autos running is a sign of remarkable resourcefulness. The Cubans are also among the most literate in the world. There is a socialized health care system, but little in the form of a pharmaceutical industry, and even simple pain medication is in short supply.As part of our visit, we ventured into the hill country away from Havana and visited a large organic farm that is now a cooperative and separate from the state agricultural system that most Cubans consider to be a disastrous policy. The farm became organic out of necessity when the country was shut off from traditional sources of fertilizer when the Soviet regime fell.The history between Cuba and the United States is very complicated, yet the same could be said of China as well. I think that in many ways America’s relationship with Cuba has essentially remained unchanged since Didion wrote in 1987 – or even as far back as the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. The brutal Castro dictatorship and American economic policy toward Cuba both resemble hardened fossils whose passing we should not mourn.Tom Sedoric, managing director-investments of the Sedoric Group of Wells Fargo Advisors in Portsmouth, can be reached at 603-430-8000.