Misconceptions about Cuba
by Glen Roberts
editor of iammyownreporter.com

Sep 24 2015: This document, widely reprinted on other websites, was first posted on iammyownreporter.com in the summer of 2004 during my fifth visit to Cuba. It was last thoroughly updated in the spring of 2007, during my seventh and last visit. So most of the present tense references in it relate to 2007. I review Cuban news through other sources linked from this site every day, and a few other certainly valid changes have been made since then. I intended to return to Cuba for an eighth visit this month, September 2015, but old age (I'm 79) and a debilitating condition called post herpetic syndrome following a shingles attack almost a year and a half ago that refuses to go away are keeping me pinned down. When I do return, in spite of the embargo that still technically exists but which I and a lot of other Americans more alert than your local newspaper editor continue to ignore, I will, of course, revise this document, but I'm pretty sure that it is already the most objectively true account of Cuba that you're likely to find on the internet. But, if you're reading this on someone else's site, I advise you to supplement it by going to my site and reading at least "Cubans Choose Socialism" (a 56-page survey of 100 Cubans I questioned in 2002), and "Cuban Notebooks" (the already posted part of a book I've been trying for years now to write on the internet recounting my personal experiences on the island AND in the rest of Latin America from 1989 to 2007).
-Glen Roberts

Misconceptions about Cuba
Posted and revised between 2004 and 2007
The other person included in the word "we" in the first line below was a fellow American I won't name until the embargo is lifted and maybe not then, since I don't trust Barack Obama any more than I ever trusted George Bush.

   The day before we flew out of Tijuana for Havana in 2000, the San Diego Union ran a letter to the editor from a Cuban "exile" who hadn't seen Cuba for 41 years but claimed to still miss the little dog he'd had as a boy and to be very sad that now "there are no dogs or cats in Cuba because the poor starving people have eaten them all." I lay awake the next night in Havana listening to yowling cats. During the next 3 weeks of extensive travel, I saw cats and dogs everywhere I went, but I saw no starving people.
   Thanks to the "exiles," most of whom were born in Florida, many of whom have not seen Cuba since '59, '60, or '61, and almost none of whom have ever taken an objective look at modern Cuba; thanks to politicians who, with zero first hand knowledge of Cuba, regularly use the place and the only one of its leaders whose name they know as a safe whipping boy to demonstrate their "toughness;" thanks to a uniform line of Stepford Republican media chiefs who (being very much into being rich) are nearly as rabidly anti-communist as the "exiles;" and thanks to the willing gullibility of Americans in general, there is more myth than truth about Cuba circulating in America. It's only 90 miles away, but most of what you think you know about it is false.
   In fact, I know that, at this point, some readers will want to ask one or both of two questions which are always asked with near certainty that they're show stopping questions, though (actually because) they're both based on such pervasive propaganda. One is: then why are so many Cubans fleeing in boats? The other is: but what will happen when Castro dies? The answers come under misconception #11 and misconception #14 below.

1. Cubans earn $8 a month. Wrong! Nonsense. Except for some Cubans working in the tourist sector for tips, Cubans aren't paid in dollars at all. In fact, the Cuban minimum salary has just been changed to 225 pesos a month. If they buy dollars, which they don't really need, 225 pesos equals about $9. But so what? If they buy almost anything else, things they need, 225 pesos is worth a little more than $225 is worth in California. Green beans cost almost the same in pesos in Cuba as they cost me in dollars in the town where I live in California. Buying fruits, vegetables, and other basic foods in a mercado, a peso in Cuba is worth a bit more than a dollar is worth in California. Bus fare in the city is 40 centavos, which makes a whole peso worth about $2.50 - compared to any city in America where bus fare is still only a dollar. What pesos are worth on the foreign exchange is irrelevant to most Cubans. In fact, dollars and euros are now irrelevant in Cuba, where tourists must buy and use Convertible Pesos, a unit the value of which the Cuban government sets, and what tourists can buy with their CPU's, which cost them OVER a dollar each (about $1.25 last time I checked), is largely irrelevant, too, since Cubans are often charged less than tourists. Most necessities tourists traveling in Cuba find reasonable for one convertible peso now cost Cubans 1 peso or less. Since house payments in Cuban pesos are usually 10% of a person's salary, any monthly salary, in terms of housing, is equal to $6,000 to $10,000 a month in California. The best or most important things in life are free. I told an insurance salesman the health plan I wanted, describing the ordinary plan every Cuban has, and he estimated I'd pay something over $1,000 a month for it.  In fact, salaries in Cuba are only paid at all as a way to let people eat and dress and recreate according to their individual tastes. Necessities are virtually free or subsidized generously. So a Cuban's salary actually includes all the benefits of the system his participation buys, including all the subsidies, all the free benefits, AND the cash salaries paid. Salaries are, in fact, only for extras, and they are adequate for sensible people.

2. Cubans eat only one meal a day. Wrong! This is an example of typical Miami warp. Because Cuba guarantees every child up to 7 a healthy ration of milk, no matter how tough times are, the "exiles" claim 8-year-old kids aren't "allowed" to drink milk. In fact, free meals are served in schools and on the job, and Cubans get at least enough subsidized food on the ration for one meal a day at home. This can easily be doubled for 20 pesos a month or tripled for 40. This system ensures people can eat enough (I personally get fat on one meal a day; how about you?) and lets them decide what 1/3 to 2/3 of their food will be (it's virtually a saying in Cuba that Cubans eat 3 times a day). They also eat lots of ice cream and cheese, there's plenty of powdered and canned milk, and as the number of dairy cows grows and new breeds are added, there is more milk every year.

3. Cubans live in miserable slums. Wrong! In fact, the only slum in Cuba is Old Havana, foolishly (in my opinion) kept for the tourists. Most Cubans who once lived in shanties now live in institutional apartment buildings, just like most Spaniards. A substantial number live in old houses considered substandard by the government and scheduled to be replaced. But very few of those have dirt floors. Far more live in 50's era homes that are perfectly alright. More and more are living in new apartments and casitas that put the Russian concept Cuba accepted for too long to shame. The only dirt floored shanty towns (actually some small clusters) I have seen in Cuba are the unnecessary, non-systemic result of a minority of refuseniks who abandon good houses in their home towns to come to Havana or Santiago to hustle dollars. One of their scams is to show off their artificial poverty to foolish tourists for donations. Most small cities in Cuba are nice to beautiful places where there's nothing that looks like a slum.

4. The embargo causes intense suffering and many deaths. Wrong! In fact, almost no other country observes the embargo. Certainly, it causes problems, because America should be a closer and cheaper source of many things Cuba, which is an island of limited resources, regularly buys. But Mexico is just as close. Venezuela, a major oil producer, is now very friendly. Cuba makes most of its own medicines; I ask in every pharmacy I pass and they always tell me they fill virtually all prescriptions; and when I went to the Ministry of Health and asked for a list of actually critical medical needs, I got a very short list. Most importantly, the absence of any general suffering in Cuba is dramatically visible to the naked eye.

5. Cuba is guilty of gross human rights abuses. Wrong! Punch up human rights and Cuba on your Computer and read stories in the New York Times about how the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, and the Red Cross all rated Cuba's justice system as normal, i.e. no better or worse than ours. That was before the Bush administration. In the last 4 years, Cuba has been way above the U.S. in the area of human rights. While Cuba was being criticized for executing 3 terrorists and for jailing 75 people proven to be working for and in the pay of a foreign power self proclaimed to be Cuba's enemy for the purpose of sabotaging the Cuban system, the Bush administration was being criticized and protested by millions of people all over the world for killing, maiming, and crippling thousands of people for no acceptable reason, and for jailing nobody even knows how many people for no known reason. Did I make that up?

6. There's a cop on every corner. Wrong! This is a favorite of embedded reporters who haven't been on every corner. In fact, there is a substantial police presence in tourist concentration zones, which means single cops or pairs, with tiny guns or no guns, on foot, whose main function is to makes sure nothing happens to the tourists (including a possible staged incident to justify an attack). Walk one block away from the tourist zone and keep walking and you may not see another cop all day. There is very little police presence in Cuba and almost no military presence.

7. Harsh conditions have given rise to a Cuban sex industry. Wrong! This is a lie spread by Miami. There is no actual sex industry in Cuba. A lot of Cubans say that sex is the national sport. Cuban girls are widely regarded as the world's champion flirters. There's little religion. There's total health care and sex education, and unabashed birth control availability. It's hot and clothing is light. But there are no red light districts, no houses, few pimps, and no real need to sell one's body. There is a tiny amount of professional prostitution, and there's a fair amount of amateurism in tourist centers, and there are gold diggers exploiting foreign boyfriends or girlfriends. But this isn't rampant, and is without the manner or method of a sex industry. More important, it is not motivated by harsh conditions. It is motivated by silly desire for showy clothes and other status symbols glamorized in American movies and TV and further promoted by Miami relatives and the insidious presence of what look like rich tourists to the Cubans, because the government has opted for the wrong kind of tourism (against Fidel's advice I've heard).

8. Oppressed Cubans long to be freed from the yoke of communism. Wrong! On this website, you can read a 56 page report of a survey I conducted in Cuba to verify whether 98% of the Cuban electorate really signed a petition to lock socialism into their constitution. I conducted the survey because I don't believe U.S. media or politicians about Cuba. I found out for myself that Cubans are mostly happy with their system, with their leaders, and with their lives.

9. Cubans are brainwashed. Americans are brainwashed! Almost everyone is brainwashed, and the slickest, most pervasive, most relentless brainwashing machine
in the world is the U.S. mass media. The U.S. brainwashing machine invented the term "brainwashing" to express "our" disapproval of communist "regimes" having the audacity to teach people that their system is the good one and ours the evil one.

10. Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere still not free. Absurdly wrong! I've seen most of the major Latin American countries and Cuba is the one country most clearly not a police state. And yet all of Cuba, including in the old downtowns, is free of the fear of economically desperate people that is common in other countries, because Cuba is free of economic desperation. Free? A lot of things that cost too much elsewhere are free or almost free in Cuba because everything critical is subsidized. Good housing in Cuba is almost free. Pervasive education and health care with nutritional guarantees are truly free and as universal and democratic as the laws of physics, biology, and geography permit.

   In fact, MOST of the people in Latin America who are supposedly blessed with "freedom" are miserably uncomfortable, undignified, ragged, hungry, dirty, sick, and ignorant and live their poor, sad, painful lives in horrible shanties in desperate fear of each other and of the heavily armed cops and soldiers who keep them a safe distance from their rich misleaders and shoot them if they demand higher salaries.

   In fact, ONLY the Cubans have freedom from homelessness or from having to live in nightmare shanties, freedom from wearing rags, freedom from hunger, freedom from being dirty and sick, freedom from ignorance, freedom from fear of soldiers standing all around them with guns, freedom from fear of each other, freedom from indignity, freedom from extreme inequality, and freedom from wage slavery. Unemployment in Cuba is an organizational problem, but Cubans are free from the dread of financial disaster that haunts every single person including the misleaders in every capitalist system in the world. Cuba is uniquely near totally free of racism. And it is famously free from the misleaders who oppress most of the world with their lies.
   In a lot of ways, Americans aren't as free as Cubans. Cuba has laws we don't have. We have laws Cuba doesn't have. There may be no other country where people are more confined to narrow passages between fences than are Americans. We may have more cops per capita and more people in jail per capita than anyone. Anyway, we're close. In most areas of life, Cubans are as free or freer than Americans. Sorted out, the criticisms of Cuban "freedom" boil down to only two solid points. There is only one political party, and the press is entirely government controlled. The first criticism is probably inept. A communist country probably should have only one political party. The second is partly valid. It's OK for the government to be the only publisher. Cuba's flock of newspapers, though too small and too much alike, are actually fairly objective. But space should be provided for all coherent views to be heard. All their friends keep telling them that and they are starting to make changes.
   Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution guarantees "free" press only through state controlled media, but more certainly guarantees free speech and Cubans definitely speak freely, as accounts of my own conversations with Cubans on this website amply document. Article 62 draws a line on all freedoms at the point of agitating against the government, the revolution, or socialism/communism. Intellectuals I talk to clearly see the line as between talk and action. Most Cubans bitch freely and constantly about bureaucracy and about products and services but virtually never about the system itself or its leaders. When I've pointed this out, I've usually been told there's no reason to. Dissidents I meet inevitably pretend it's dangerous to speak freely, but I chalk this up to (1) the universal Cuban love for drama, (2) the obvious likelihood that dissidents will color things to justify their dissidence, and (3) that the things they very freely say are sometimes illegally subversive (which doesn't mean they're true). I tend to discount these people because their lies are so obvious and because there aren't very many of them, though I know that too many tourists oddly assume that only the dissidents, who freely and energetically seek tourists out, are really Cubans. There's an odd myth afoot that Cubans are afraid to speak Fidel Castro's name, but the more interesting truth is that most Cubans speak freely of "Fidel," while only a tiny faction speak sneakily of "Castro."

11. Cubans are constantly fleeing in boats to freedom in Miami. Wrong! In fact, every time a few Cubans paddle a boat to Florida you read about it in the paper, so, as in the case of great white shark attacks, you get the impression of more action than there is. Furthermore, the trickle of boaters aren't necessarily "fleeing." Children, like Elian Gonzalez, are just taken. Some adults, like Elian's mother, are foolishly following their crazy partners. Most are playing a cruel and dangerous game Washington deliberately entices them to play. By refusing to grant many visas but letting it be known that any Cuban who illegally sets foot on a U.S. beach will be welcome, Washington creates the false impression you get. It's called propaganda, it's brutally cynical, and both you and the Cubans are the victims. But, in fact, Cuba is not a police state, Cubans are not oppressed and, compared to other Latin Americans, very few of them want to leave Cuba.

12. Castro (which now means Raul to some and still means Fidel to idiots) makes all the decisions. Wrong! One man couldn't run a small town by himself. But Fidel never ran Cuba alone. And neither does Raul. Neither is a medical expert or an agricultural expert or a building trades specialist. Fidel is amazingly well versed and smarter and more articulate than any American president since Jefferson, which is why it would have been a bad idea to replace him ever and it's too bad he got old. But he never ran Cuba by himself. In Cuba, they know that and everybody still thinks that everything that goes wrong goes wrong because Fidel doesn't know about it.

13. Fidel Castro is one of the bad guys. Wrong! That's in the context of the comic book version of contemporary world history that Americans accept from their mass media. Outside the U.S. bubble, Fidel was the most highly respected chief of state in the world. American presidents avoided contact with him because they knew he would upstage them. This happened to George Bush Sr. in Rio, where (1) the press corps followed Fidel around and ignored Bush, (2) Fidel got a long standing ovation and there was only polite clapping for Bush, and when Fidel said from the platform that capitalism threatens the ecosystem as much as overpopulation, the house monitors caught Bush fidgeting and everyone laughed. * American media stick religiously to the myth that Castro's status was only due to his defiance toward the U.S. But, in fact, he was and still is respected for his intelligence, for his credibility, and for successfully making Cuba a good place for its citizens to live.

14. DO YOU REMEMBER THIS MYTH THAT IS NOW AS ANTIQUE AS CUBA'S 50's MODEL CARS?: Nobody knows, the embedded media experts used to say, what will happen when Fidel Castro dies. Hey! Fidel isn't yet dead, but he's been retired for years and that myth was OBVIOUSLY WRONG!, though please note US media have never admitted that they were wrong, that they either didn't know what they were talking about or were always lying. Below, read, first, what I wrote on January 1, '07, and then what I had already written in March'04.

   January 1 '07: Six months after Fidel called in sick and his vice president took over, the answer to the question, "But what will happen when Fidel is gone?" is not exactly NOTHING but certainly NO PROBLEM. The explanation below was posted over two years ago in the spring or summer of '04. In a mid-December ('06) speech explaining his own standing, Raul Castro could have been reading this website. But I didn't use a crystal ball; I used real research and common sense, very sensibly ignoring Miami, Washington, and the U.S. media, none of whom have acknowledged that their sneering question has been answered and that they now owe the public some red faces. Obviously, as Raul pointed out, Cuba has been run by a lot of people for a long time and that hasn't changed. For a better understanding of the relationship between Cuba and Fidel Castro, read the document Viva y Habla Fidel; also on this website since April '05.

    (What I wrote and posted on this website in 2004 right after taking note of the stupid No. 14 misconception) This is a humorously odd misconception, since the assumption that Cuba so completely depends on Fidel so completely contradicts the other assumption that "Castro" is Cuba's main problem. Pay attention! When Fidel dies or retires, the first vice president (now Raul Castro) or, if the National Assembly so directs, one of the other 5 vice presidents, who are all competent and experienced members of the Council of State, will assume the presidency and notify the President of the National Assembly that the Council is short one member. The Assembly will then elect a replacement probably though not necessarily from the Assembly or maybe just leave the seat open until the National Assembly decides otherwise or until the next election, when the National Assembly will elect a new Council of State. Obviously, Raul Castro's position as first vice president is a public relations error, though he is undoubtedly competent, but only the National Assembly, which is popularly elected by the people of Cuba, has the power to officially realize that and choose a different interim president. All Council members already occupy important posts and are well known in Cuba. Cuba has a very large government including many branches forming a huge pool of potential leaders. The entire apparatus, from the Council of State down to the neighborhood watch committees and including a variety of labor and factional organizations plus the Communist Party and the Juventud (the young communists) all cooperatively run Cuba now. Fidel has been only the most important participant in that huge, very well organized, very efficient organization for several years (see "Viva y Habla Fidel"). Though he and the Communist Party have made lots of mistakes, they're still popular in Cuba, because they've generally done a good job and are still moving in what Cubans consider a good direction. In dramatic contrast to other countries, over 80% want the government and the system they have because they are living a relatively good life and they are justifiably confident it will get better.

Misconceptions from the other side:

15. Cubans are all dancing and singing to the traditional island beat, playing dominoes and digging swell Santeria ceremonies. Wrong! Cuba has both good and bad music, and their best music, old and new, is obviously as good as music gets. But a lot of young Cubans unfortunately share the gross musical tastes of their counterparts everywhere and some of the best musical venues in the bigger cities are relatively neglected. Favorites from the 50's are choices only in places with lots of choices and son competes with salsa and even stupidly amplified rock in too many dance halls. Sidewalk domino games are a common sight in some parts of Havana and some other places. Walking all over Cuba, including Regla and Centro, I've personally never seen any sign of Santeria. I'm not very interested in it, so I'll concede that I'm probably not hip to the clues. I'm sure it's there, but I guarantee that it's a bigger deal to the tourists who find it than it is to most Cubans.

16. Habana Vieja is the real Cuba. Extremely wrong! Hip tourists who think the still existing historic squalor of Old and Centro Havana are funky and wonderful and what makes Cuba tick are wrong. The ugliness they think they cherish is left over from before the revolution when white flight turned downtown Havana into a typical capitalist slum. The government intends to restore all of that area, keeping it historic but making it a beautiful, healthy place to live, and they are making rapid progress. Gusanos who claim their photos and videos of the worst remaining enclaves of Old and Centro Havana show how all poor miserable Cubans live are liars. There are 11.2 million Cubans. Only the .2 (approximately, maybe) live in Old Havana and Centro and a lot of those have from perfectly OK to very nice homes. Most of the other 11 million live in neighborhoods that, to the eye, resemble all the levels of the middle class and sometimes the upper class in the San Joaquin Valley. That's to the eye. A range of free and near free benefits of the developing communist (but still transitional, i.e. socialist) system actually make their lives better than the eye can casually see. Hip tourists are strongly advised to learn Spanish and see the rest of Cuba.

Q: Where was this picture taken?
A: Not in Cuba!   This picture or something like it could have been taken anywhere in Latin America except Cuba. It was taken in Tampico, Mexico, right before now former Mexican President Vicente Fox angered and disgraced the Mexican legislature and the Mexican people by supporting the Bush Administration's annual bid in Geneva to censure Cuba for human rights abuse. This scene is a human rights abuse, and it is a common one in Mexico, because shanties are an integral part of Mexico's typical laissez-faire capitalist system. In Cuba, shanties were abolished in 1959.   Some illegal shanties have been built again during and since the depression of the early 90's, but they are nonsystemic. All substandard homes in Cuba are seriously slated for replacement.
-Glen Roberts

Permission is given to republish or download, copy, and distribute this document, "Misconceptions about Cuba," exactly as it is, complete, with no changes, deletions, or additions, and with credit given to the source: iammyownreporter.com.

* Castro Mystique - Castro's still got it
-by Peter Muello
   Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 13 June 1992: The mystique still surrounds Fidel Castro. The Cuban president got the strongest ovation of the 58 speakers who addressed an audience of more than 100 presidents, prime ministers and kings at the Earth Summit on Friday.
    Later, a rumor that he would hold a news conference drew a crowd of more than 200 outside a room where the 64-year-old graying revolutionary was meeting with Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Leonel Brizola.
    As Castro emerged, the crowd erupted with cheers and shouts of "Viva Fidel" and "Viva the Cuban Revolution." He shook hands but left without talking to reporters.
    The warm reception contrasted with Cuba's isolation from a conservative trend in much of Latin America, including Brazil. Despite a 30-year-old U.S. embargo, Castro has refused to abandon the hard-line communist policy he adopted after overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
    The government of Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, a free market advocate, has urged Cuba to hold free elections. Diplomats say Brazil acted at the request of the United States.
    None of that seemed to matter Friday. Many delegates seemed eager to see Castro tweak Uncle Sam's nose, and he didn't disappoint them.
    With President Bush in the audience, he took the podium to denounce the "luxury and waste" of rich countries and the foreign debt burden of the poor.
    "The ecological debt should be paid, not the foreign debt," he said. "Hunger must disappear, not man."
    Castro blamed capitalist societies as "fundamentally responsible for environmental destruction."
    Developing nations are victims of "export of lifestyles and consumption patterns that destroy the environment," he said.
    "Only yesterday, they were colonies, and they are still plundered by the unjust world economic order," he said.
    Castro proposed what he called a fairer distribution of wealth and technology.
    "When there are no more pretexts for arms races, military expansion and cold wars, what prevents the developed countries from offering funds for environmental protection?" he asked.
    TV cameras showing the proceedings live on two screens at the plenary cut to President Bush, listening to the speech on earphones with the corners of his mouth drawn down. A laugh went up from the audience.
    Castro, famous for speaking for hours when he gets going,. finished in less than his alloted seven minutes. Delegates gave him the loudest ovation of the morning session. Bush clapped weakly three or four times.