Kathryn, I was struck by the point in Austen Ivereigh’s email where he refers to the pope being “concerned with the values and culture of the Cuban people which he sees as being suffocated both by communism and liberal capitalism”.
I spent some time yesterday reading Michael Totten’s excellent City Journal piece on Havana from earlier this year.
By the 1990s, Cuba needed economic reform as much as a gunshot victim needs an ambulance. Castro wasn’t about to reform himself and his ideology out of existence, but he had to open up at least a small piece of the country to the global economy. So the Soviet subsidy was replaced by vacationers, mostly from Europe and Latin America, who brought in much-needed hard currency….
And the regime survived. Hmmm.
In the United States, we have a minimum wage; Cuba has a maximum wage—$20 a month for almost every job in the country. (Professionals such as doctors and lawyers can make a whopping $10 extra a month.) Sure, Cubans get “free” health care and education, but as Cuban exile and Yale historian Carlos Eire says, “All slave owners need to keep their slaves healthy and ensure that they have the skills to perform their tasks.”
Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money. I asked several Cubans in my hotel if that arrangement is really true. All confirmed that it is. The workers don’t get $8–$10 an hour; they get 67 cents a day—a child’s allowance.
The pope recently said that “purchasing is always a moral and not simply an economic act”. He argued that consumers should “feel challenged … when we are tempted to select items which may well have been produced by exploiting others.”
I wonder how the Cuban tourist trade fits into that.
Back to Totten:
The maximum wage is just the beginning. Not only are most Cubans not allowed to have money; they’re hardly allowed to have things. The police expend extraordinary manpower ensuring that everyone required to live miserably at the bottom actually does live miserably at the bottom. Dissident blogger and author Yoani Sánchez describes the harassment sarcastically in her book Havana Real: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”
I also note Mr. Ivereigh’s comment that “like the Cuban bishops [the pope] believes in a government founded on Christian humanist principles rooted in popular values”. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but given what I have read of this pope’s views on economics (essentially a quasi-Peronist take on De Rerum Novarum) I think I can guess….