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Explaining Politics: Cuba

When you think of Cuban politics, you think of one man. Fidel Castro.

However, it is more than a decade since the cigar smoking communist ran the island nation, with his brother Raul assuming responsibility in 2006 and Miguel Diaz-Canel recently becoming the first non-Castro leader since before the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

To understand Cuban politics, you must throw out all existing knowledge you have of politics; none of it will apply here. And even then, unlocking the Cuban enigma is an implausible task without spending time in the heart of the country itself.

Firstly, the Cuban economic system must be tackled. Cuba is pretty much the purest socialist system you will find anywhere in the world. Urologists and Neurosurgeons will earn not a peso more than the taxi drivers ferrying the hoards of tourists around in their classic cars, with almost every aspect of Cuban production and commerce coming under the direct control of the state.

In many cases, what we consider high-value professions – teaching and healthcare – will earn a Cuban less money than being a hotel cleaner or a taxi driver. In these jobs much of the tourist money will pass into Cuban hands with little record, allowing them to increase their 80 pesos a month salary quite significantly through tipping.

Although much of this still finds its way to the government, the perks of working in tourist-heavy industries enable some Cubans to get ahead – not that being ahead means much in the streets of Havana. Some workplace bonuses now exist for more high-value professions – with traditionally white-collar jobs still being held in high reverence amongst the Cuban people – but a decade of capitalisation has caused little more than a scratch to the underbelly of the state.

The Cuban system represents almost total government control, with very few private vehicles and almost all homes being allocated by the government. However, unlike the way government control is traditionally understood, Cuba seems strikingly secular and outward looking to the tourist's eye.

Speaking to the locals you will be struck by how much they know about the world beyond Cuba. I was asked by a taxi driver why men in the UK are so weak that we have female Prime Ministers (Cuba appear to have the same misogyny problems as anywhere else) and why this female PM isn’t as strong as Thatcher.

The government clearly curtail certain freedoms, even if a Cuban gets an internet card – a one-hour internet card costs around 10% of a week’s wage – many social media platforms are blocked with many websites slowed to an almost unusable speed.

The outward-looking Cuban citizen presents yet another contrast, that almost no Cuban will ever travel abroad. As an island people, Cubans have a certain rosy view of travelling overseas, but the government rarely permit Cubans to hold passports, with only sports stars and government officials getting regular clearance to leave the country.

Cuba is clearly a country of contrast. Of secular approaches to religion and a relatively free speaking population, free healthcare (and a high life expectancy); curtailed travel and restricted internet along with poor food quality and terribly decrepit buildings.

Much of the negative aspects of Cuban life can be attributed to the United States’ trade embargoes on the island, with almost no trade with outside nations being able to take place. As much as some does inevitably occur (you could still find cans of Coca Cola in some of the hotels) it is almost exclusively for tourist industries, with Cubans often having to hunt for hours to find the ingredients to put a meal together.

Trade embargoes have also largely stunted economic growth in the country, which has inevitably taken its toll on the island. Particularly in Havana, you see this toll, with buildings falling to pieces and held together by sheer willpower more than anything else. Capitolio, an exact replica of the US Capitol building stands like a shining beacon, but you can fail to notice the pothole-ridden road that carpets the approach, or the crumbling tenements that surround the building on four sides. The building stands as the perfect metaphor for modern Cuba.

The metaphor of Capitolio is the inevitable result of stunted growth. With the Cuban government having to place emphasis on certain aspects of the economy over others. Tobacco production and tourism are subject to significant investment as they are the most successful means of bringing wealth into Cuba; healthcare and education to get significant portions of the Cuban income. But this leaves little left to repair the buildings or boost food standards, leaving Cuba as the contrasted nation that it is today.

It is impossible to ‘explain Cuba’ without talking about its government. It will not come as a surprise that Cuba is a one-party state, with the communist party exercising complete control over national affairs.

The government is led by a President, although power technically rests with a 31-member Council of State, largely adhering to the communist ideal of rule by council; a council of ministers also acts as a de facto cabinet, enabling Cuba to respond effectively to international politics with a more traditional governmental approach.

The legislative authority is vested in the national assembly, which acts largely in the same way as a modern parliament would in most western states, except that it is not elected by the people.

With Cuba being united, at least outwardly (many do not agree with the governing system), communism tends to lead the way, with market capitalisation - in an attempt to boost trade and expand their economy – coming about only slowly.

However, since the ascension of Diaz-Canel to the presidency, Cuba has started to quicken the pace. Recent permittance of Wi-Fi routers in the home, alongside some limited home trading, has seen the beginnings of a transformation in Cuba.

Although Trump’s administration has tightened restrictions on the country, likely slowing down this reform once again, Cuba is likely to slowly reduce its contrasting appearance.

As the nation slowly opens up to the outside world, it is primed for capital to flow through its borders and for an economic boom that could see it the wealthiest Caribbean nation by some distance.

But if you really want to understand Cuban politics, you have to go there.

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