Fancy straws and the Cuban command economy

By Joy Mulhollan

Neon orange, green, yellow, hot pink. Not the colors of fruity cereal or a fever dream, but what Communism looks like.

Coming back from Cuba, after making sure I didn’t get thrown in jail or contract some rare disease, because that’s what happens to everyone who survives travel to such a foreign, dangerous land (eye roll), the first thing that people ask is, “What was it like?” And of course no one actually wants to know what it was really like, so I usually respond, “It was great, really interesting.” And it was, but it was also more, and at the same time, less, than that.

One of the main things that has stuck with me even a few weeks after touching down again in as they say, North America, is the Cuban straws. This isn’t a euphemism for cigars or anything else; I mean the actual straws that are served with mojitos soda or bottled water. The reason is that they’re all the same. I expected one brand of ice cream or one type of third grade uniform for every third grader in the country, but seeing the same wild straws in every restaurant, whether state-run or privately owned paladar, shocked me in a way that I did not expect.

Fancy straws, as they came to be known in our group (I preferred the pink ones), were not only ubiquitous, they represented something greater. They were the nationalization of private enterprise that occurred in the 1960s, the bright-façaded, crumbling buildings, and the young student diplomats-in-training we met with, who were all very clearly different from each other, yet all conveyed the same shiny, propagandist message.

Don’t get me wrong, the fancy straws were great. Their five neon colors meant that the straws were always ready for a party, and plus they were the bendy kind, too, making drinking out of a straw even that much easier. All in all it was obvious that a lot of R&D went into the design of these perfect straws, but at the same time, what if I wanted a clear straw, or a black one? Those weren’t available, because in a command economy there is no competition. There is one kind of cola, one kind of tour company, one brand of toilet paper. And if you don’t like the strawberry ice cream? Get vanilla or do without.

That is what the straws taught me. They were great, really interesting, but at times maybe a little bit less than that.

¿Embargo o Bloqueo?

By Hawley Harrigan

Cuba 010

When I went to Cuba I was aware of what we call in the United States an embargo, which made it difficult, and in recent years nearly impossible, for a citizen of the United States to travel legally to Cuba.  Upon arrival, I stopped hearing the word embargo as it was quickly replaced by the Cuban’s word, bloqueo.  Whereas an embargo can be defined as “a legal prohibition on commerce,” a blockade is “the isolating, closing off or surrounding of a place, as a port, harbor, or city by hostile ships or troops to prevent entrance or exit.”  Regrettably, these two definitions do not make the issue of US sanctions against Cuba much clearer.  The United States does not have a physical presence preventing other countries from importing goods into Cuba. There is no blockade in the physical sense.  The United States, however, through the Helm-Burton Act does claim the right to cut negotiations with companies that also conduct business within Cuba.  This claim exceeds the bounds of stated U.S.foreign policy free trade goals and therefore affects the international trade of other sovereign nations.  The United States is a huge market from which no growth-minded company wants to be excluded.  Cuba, by contrast, is a tiny and unequal market player.  International businesses are likely to choose to the United States, and ignore Cuba.  In this sense the embargo functions much like a blockade.

Nevertheless, whatever you decide to call it, el bloqueo has made life difficult for the Cuban people.  The United Nations (UN) estimates that the blockade (The United Nations refers to it as a blockade in their publications) exceeds $975 Billion in economic damages and has even led to the restriction of humanitarian aid.  The UN General Assembly has called for the end of blockade in 20 consecutive resolutions.  In 2011, 186 countries voted to end the blockade with just 2 – The United States and Israel – voting for its continuation.   The United States continues to insist, over 50 years after imposing this antiquated, cold-war era policy, that it will lift the embargo when the Cuban government comes to respect its peoples’ human rights.  The United Nations rejects this argument, calling it “stale rhetoric…designed to confuse and obscure the real relationship between the United States and Cuba” (U.N. General Assembly 11162).

After visiting Cuba, I have come to side with the United Nations and the rest of the world.  Cuba is an interesting, beautiful island that has pursued education, health care, and food security through a system that is different from that of the United States.  This should not be considered a crime, and the Cubans should not be punished for it.  As such, the embargo/blockade has no place in today’s global economy, and indeed works to counter act the very principles of free trade and self-determination on which the United States has built its economic power.

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