Thursday, June 6, 2013

'Christmas will not be celebrated this year.'

Is what Jorge Edwards hears Fidel Castro telling Cuba in a speech in December of 1970.  A speech Edwards, newly arrived in Havana as Chile's chargé d'affaires, watches on a Bulgarian television set in his hotel room.  Castro gives as the reason, that Christmas is a European holiday, a colonial celebration that new Cuban man no longer needs.  Oh yeah, it will also interfere with the harvesting of sugar cane, which Castro needs to deliver to the Soviet Union to pay for the petroleum imports.

Edwards was a minor diplomat in Chile's service, who, for some reason, was recommended to Chile's President Salvador Allende, as the best qualified man to re-open the embassy in Havana (closed during the 1960s because of Castro's outrageous behavior toward his fellow Latin Americans; like dispatching Che Guevara to Bolivia to foment revolution).  His mission was necessitated by Allende's first act after inauguration in November 1970, being to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Ironically, Castro sends a turkey to Edwards hotel room on Christmas Eve as a gift.  Which he enjoys with several of Cuba's literati--Edwards was a writer, and a socialist, himself--while the commoners are out in the fields working.  Edwards sees a few other ironies during his stay too.

For one thing, money has no value in Cuba--Cuban money, anyway--since there is nothing to buy with it, as the stores are empty of goods.  People leave Cuban banknotes lying around on table tops, indifferent to them, they're restricted by the ration book system to spending 20-30 pesos per month.
I began to notice the effects of this state of affairs on the economy.  Why bother to work....
A cane-cutter who under this system saved a thousand pesos in notes under his mattress might ask himself if it was worth continuing to cut cane....The official reply was that moral incentives should determine the work done by the new man created by the revolution. But the new man was taking a long time to make his appearance, and the predominance of moral incentives led, paradoxically enough, by way of absenteeism to demoralisation.  The innumerable loafers, the vagrants, sometime had better access than anybody to the black market....
And those vagrants had learned that one way to exist was to indulge in a life of crime.  Havana's streets were not safe at night. 

As Edwards is working toward getting an embassy prepared, other foreign diplomats point out the shortcomings of Cuba to him, the deprivation, the inefficiencies, the crime, and warn him that Chile should be cautious.  That Chile should avoid Castro's mistakes; 'follow a less harsh course'.  Unfortunately for Chile, Allende was driven to emulate Castro...his idol.

Edwards recounts this in Persona Non Grata: A Memoir of Disenchantment with the Cuban Revolution, published in 1973--the year Allende was deposed in a coup.  A coup that would have been avoided if Allende had taken the advice Edwards had been given.

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