Bread and roses

Hearts starve as well as bodies

Give us bread, but give us roses

– John Denver

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I managed the business operations of an Internet service provider.  I vaguely remember participating in a Point/Counterpoint article in a business magazine where I was asked to argue one side of a topic and the governor’s tech guy the other. The topic was the urgency of bridging the “digital divide.”  

Really, we were not so much on opposite sides of the fence as straddling it.  Both of us wanted more people to have better internet access – me for financial reasons, him for political reasons – but even so, I’ll never forget suddenly finding myself in the bizarre looking-glass position of being the one to point out that in a state where so many people lacked access to decent healthcare, just as one example, faster, better Internet access might not be the first priority.

Fast forward and I find myself, twenty years later in Cuba, where a similar argument is taking place but the intensity of the debate is much louder.  In Utah, in the pre Facebook, Twitter, Instagram era, when everyone’s access was over a dialup modem and DSL was a distant murmur on the horizon, that debate was one that few people followed and even fewer remember. Here, now, with millions of Cubans finally connected to the internet, there’s currently a campaign launched over that same internet, complete with hashtag: #BajenLosPreciosDeInternet (Lower The Internet Prices).  Its promoters are a familiar crew, quick to criticize their own country, somewhat casual in its defense, and overwhelmingly silent when it comes to calculating the role of the greatest drag on the country’s economy: the U.S. blockade.

It is a blockade. I know that the State Department hates the word, and I understand their reasons, but we must agree to disagree. I have lived the Cuban reality and they for the most part, have not.  They do not know what it means to have to acquire the paint from Miami to repair a chalkboard in their child’s classroom because it has deteriorated to the point where the writing is nearly invisible.  They have not stayed in a Cuban hospital where the medicine shortage is severe.  They don’t know how it is to wait hours for a bus with no discernible schedule, in punishing heat, only to have the bus arrive and realize that there is no possible way that another human body can fit inside.  These are far from the worst examples but they are three very ordinary ones with which I am intimately familiar.  They are the daily reflections of a shattered economy, and it is senseless to even talk about it without recognizing how the blockade permeates everything.  But that is something for another day.

Back to that magazine article.  Utah was not by any means a socialist state, and Cuba is very much a socialist state, so it’s a little like apples and oranges.  I could make the argument back then about state priorities because I was debating a state official, and in the United States there is at least a minimal nexus between the state and healthcare, while the provision of internet access has been almost totally controlled by private capital, blissfully free of meaningful state oversight. 

In Cuba though, the state controls both healthcare and telecom, because this is the system the Cubans have designed.  Private capital has made incursions over the last twenty-five years but the state still runs the show.  In fact, Cuba’s national budget includes everything, from food production and imports, to medicine, to the arts, to free education all the way from pre-K to university, to infrastructure, to tourism, to the press, to energy, to manufacturing.  I may have missed some.  

It was not as illogical as it may seem for me to question a state’s priorities and influence in a mixed economy.  It is totally illogical though, for the proponents behind the #LowerInternetPrices campaign to ask why ETECSA (the Cuban telephone company) profits are not reinvested strictly in telecom infrastructure, the better to subsidize internet prices, while simultaneously the country has other huge gaping needs that affect everyone, hitting those without computers or even smartphones especially hard.  

It doesn’t work that way under the Cuban socialist model.  Priorities are set further up the line, where the needs of the majority are considered, not the few.  To put it very bluntly, funds certainly could come in through ETECSA and stay at ETECSA, but are lower internet prices more important than the electricity generation that lights the houses and pumps the water to those without interest or need for internet? Or the electricity that actually runs the internet?  Or the education that made it possible to staff the electric plants that run the electricity that lights the houses and pumps the water and feeds the tourism so critical to the current economy? The medicine that supports the healthy students that study the engineering that teaches them to operate the electric plants that run the electricity that runs the country?  Well, you get my point.  In Cuba, everything is interconnected. There are no silos here.

This is a point that the foreign press working here often miss.  But they miss so much.  A few years ago someone gave me a copy of a book of Cuban cartoons, one of which showed two television cameras focused on a rose.  One camera belonged to the foreign press, the other the Cuban press.  The one for the foreign press was focused on the thorn.  The Cuban camera was focused on the bloom.  

The truth is that the rose has both a blossom and a thorn and the cartoon was an almost perfect characterization of Cuba in the eye of the beholder.  Cubans are fully aware of their country’s defects and its virtues. They gripe plenty about the defects and perhaps they boast less then they should of its virtues.  The conditions that feed the rose are not unimportant, though.  I would argue that without a chilly wind constantly blowing from the north, many more roses would thrive, with fewer thorns, and the Cubans would have fields of them.  Low internet prices would be among them.  

P.S.  I am still waiting for the foreign press to correct their analysis about the tremendous lines at the grocery stores, supposedly caused by additional US sanctions and pressure on Venezuela.  The lines have vanished.  The stores are stocked again, at least to the levels they ever were.  Were the sanctions lifted?  Or was it actually a panic, as I suggested, stoked by the relentless focus on the thorn?