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Cuba; the high cost and benefits of independence

Ireturn from a week in Holguin province not that far from where Fidel (Castro) went to school and some years later started a revolution.

Ireturn from a week in Holguin province not that far from where Fidel (Castro) went to school and some years later started a revolution. Notwithstanding the regular predictions of collapse (of the revolution that is) all seems to be working reasonably well. The Cubans are getting oil from Chavez (in exchange for doctors), they have survived the disintegration of the Iron Curtain, which destroyed their economy in the early 90’s (known as the special period) and today they ride the crest of 2 million tourists a year prepared to brave the wrath of the American government in search of sun and Mojitos (mint leaves, Cuban rum, lime juice, sugar syrup, more rum and club soda).

Not that the world’s last remaining communist country is on easy street. The people are poor, resources limited, and freedom a relative thing, but there truly does seem to be progress, hope, and tangible improvement in the standard of living.

It’s hard to figure out how things actually work. You can’t move to Cuba on your own, but you can marry a Cuban (not an unthinkable consideration) and commute freely with your new partner anywhere in the world. Apparently, anyone can now leave Cuba, but at 30 pesos a month it could be a bit of wait. And if you work in the tourism industry you are welcome to leave, but if you come back you are no longer welcome in the tourism field.

The government owns or joint ventures with outside partners all restaurants that are larger than four tables with four seats to a table and any hotel larger than two bedrooms. On the other hand, there are a lot of restaurants with four tables and four chairs with a whole bunch more in the back yard behind the curtains and enforcement seems flexible.

Many of the rural areas only get power for a few hours a day, but if you are in a remote school in the mountains you get solar panels to run your junior school and when the kids are older they commute to larger schools and are boarded for the week.

There are ration stores that provide everyone with the bare necessities (rice, beans, milk, etc.) and children and seniors get more than the rest.

There are farmer’s markets where you can buy more food or clothing if you have the money. Farmers can take surplus produce (produce that isn’t sold to the state at a fixed price) to the market. The free enterprise markets can be as much as 10 times more expensive than government pricing.

Education is free and you can go as high as your brain will take you. Everyone gets a job on graduation, but of course the wage is not negotiable.

Dentistry is free. I found myself biking down a back road with a teacher from Edmonton who said he flew to Cuba to have his teeth fixed for 30 pesos, an operation that would have cost thousands in Canada and he could see no difference in the quality of service.

It is a mysterious place. I was at a resort where after paying your fee everything from liquor to lettuce was free, but they charged me three bucks a minute to phone Canada; a distinct relief to my colleagues.

Trying to get an Internet connection took more time than I had available, which lead to a wonderful blackberry and computer free week.

Strange, backward, enlightened, hopeful, hopeless, arbitrary, open, I enjoyed my time in Cuba, including a one hour helicopter ride in a 40-year old Soviet flying ship that looked like it was a death trap. But like the ‘56 Chevs still plying the roads of Cuba, it worked and it worked well.

There is much to learn from this little country with one-third our population and 10 times the heart.

You can rest assured it, will not sell its birthright again (its land and resources) for a song as we seem prepared to do in Ontario. In fact, it has and continues to pay a heavy price to claim its land from the United Fruit Company and others who owned it 50 years ago.

As I sat on the beach, reading Don Tapscott’s Wikinomics, I wondered how these Cubans could possibly survive the speed and sophistication of Web 2.0.

Compared to us they have nothing and yet what they may have is something we cherish. They have sustainability….and mojitos.

Michael Atkins is president of Northern Ontario Business and can be reached