January 1, 1959, was a big day in Havana. President Fulgencio Batista had been overthrown the night before. The victorious rebels under Fidel Castro marched through the streets. Joyful crowds surrounded the marchers. Unfortunately, they could not foresee the misery that would visit them in the future.
Communism Comes to Cuba
However, some people were uneasy. While the Cuban mob was cheering in the streets, those who had something to lose—even small properties—were less enraptured. For someone so public, Fidel Castro was an enigma. The son of a plantation owner and educated by the Jesuits, he was full of fiery rhetoric about freedom but said little specific about his politics or his plans for the future.
He was careful to hide his Marxist convictions. In April 1959, Fidel Castro spent eleven days visiting the United States. He had a three-hour meeting with Vice-President Nixon. He laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial. He spoke to the National Press Club in heavily accented, albeit fluent, English. Less than a year later, he signed a joint trade agreement between Cuba and the U.S.S.R. in February 1960, which set the stage for an eventual alliance with the communists.
The Personal Cost
Like many other Cubans, Felix and Gregorina Alfonso looked on the deteriorating situation with concern and then alarm. Señor Alfonso was a builder. He worked for others, but he had also built a comfortable and spacious home for his large family and an apartment building. Photos show a comfortable stucco house built around a spacious courtyard.
Soon after Castro’s pact with the communists, the government took over his apartment building. Not long after that, the second floor of the Alfonso home was allocated to another family. On August 4, 1961, his recently married daughter, Olga, managed to come to the United States with her husband, Enrique.
Hopefully, readers will pardon this personal reference. Your author knows this story because he married Olga and Enrique’s daughter. My wife never met her grandfather, even though he was still alive at the time of our wedding. Occasionally, my mother-in-law would send her father supplies and medicines, but they never saw each other again.
The Castro regime eventually took over everything. Many Cubans simply left and started their lives over again. For those left behind, life continued under the watchful eyes of members of “The Committee.” One of these civilian watchdogs lived in each block in Havana, reporting on the activities of their neighbours in return for a better ration of food, clothing, and housing.
Thwarted Hopes for an End to Communism
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, many thought that the Castro government would fall quickly. Many Miami-area Cuban exiles went to their safe-deposit boxes and re-examined yellowing deeds, wills, and birth certificates so that they could be ready to reclaim their family property after Castro was removed.
But Castro did not fall. Those who wanted his overthrow most, it appeared, were in Miami. Cunningly, Fidel Castro had managed to export those of his enemies that he did not imprison.
In December 2014, President Obama announced the “normalization” of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The president said that the move would benefit both peoples.
Many were not convinced. The New York Times quoted Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whose parents were Cuban exiles, “This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people.”
The media generally presented such objections as throwbacks to the outdated mentality of the Cold War. The far-left had pushed for such a move for decades. President Obama was determined to give it to them. Since such diplomatic moves are under the executive branch, the President’s will prevailed.
Overnight, Cuban tourism boomed. Historical societies, architecture fanciers, university study groups, antique car clubs, and others rushed to satisfy their curiosity about this isolated country less than ninety miles from Florida. The government and the media guaranteed that such tourism would speed the improvement of life in Cuba. It would create jobs in hotels and restaurants. Cubans would see the prosperity of visiting Americans and demand improvements of their own. Left unsaid was the fact that American tourist dollars only buttressed the communists by propping up their faltering economy.
One Effect of Sixty Years of Socialism
Life in Cuba continues to be wretched. Even the budding American socialists know enough not to point to Cuba as a success story.
A recent article from USA Today shows how bad things are. Havana is falling apart. This last sentence is not hyperbole; it is a literal fact. Thousands of buildings of Havana are actually falling down—sometimes with people inside of them.
The article showed, for example, how the old Hotel Astor that operated in Havana before the revolution is decaying. Today, 28,000 people live in the nine-story building. Inside, daylight can be seen through cracks in the exterior walls. In 2017, a third-floor stairway collapsed, stranding people on the upper floors until a makeshift stairway could be built. In the meantime, the government sent in a truck with a crane to deliver food to residents.
People continue to live in dilapidated buildings. The deterioration is emblematic of why socialism fails everywhere. Without owners, no one takes responsibility to keep housing in good repair. Presumably, the government does this—but no one can hold the government responsible.
People continue to live in dilapidated buildings because the government cannot build more for its expanding population. One estimate is that Havana had some 206,000 people needing homes in 2016.
The deterioration is emblematic of why socialism fails everywhere. Without owners, no one takes responsibility to keep housing in good repair. Presumably, the government does this—but no one can hold the government responsible.
Nobody Is Responsible
Among the 206,000 needing homes is baker Raphael Álvarez. In 2015, he lived in a second-floor apartment of a building that collapsed. Álvarez’s spine was fractured in three places. His wife was in a coma for 22 days after falling headfirst into the rubble. His mother, daughter, and nephew died. The previous day, workers had been using a jackhammer to remove plaster on the first floor. The authorities told Álvarez that there was not enough evidence to prosecute anyone.
Álvarez’s story should concern anyone who favours the socialized “one payer” system of providing healthcare. Huge sectors of the population are living in crowded, substandard housing. People are dying by living in these places. And no one seems to care.
By Edwin Benson