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A Conversation in Havana: Lessons for Armenia?

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#1 Yervant1


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Posted 03 February 2016 - 11:06 AM

A Conversation in Havana: Lessons for Armenia?

14:45, February 2, 2016
By Markar Melkonian

The following is my reconstruction of a recent conversation with an
acquaintance in Havana.

It is not a verbatim report, but I have tried to represent the
conversation accurately from memory. My conversation partner - a man
who looked to be in his thirties - worked as a barista at a coffee bar
near the Havana Zoo. I will call him Ivan.

Ivan wanted to set a naïve visitor straight about trouble in Workers'
Paradise: `Do you know what my paycheck is? Ten pesos! I have no
spending money.'

`That's terrible,' the visitor said.

`If you want to get by in this country,' Ivan said, `you're forced to steal.'

Ivan was well dressed and looked to be over-nourished, if anything.
But ten pesos in the national currency amounts to US 0.40 dollars -
forty cents - in terms of buying power outside of the country. Ivan
did not mention how much he made in tips, nor whether he had a second

The visitor, an Armenian, had heard the `forced to steal' complaint
before. He had heard it in Cuba three years earlier, but he had also
heard it in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic three decades
earlier, in the lead-up to the counter-revolution there: `An honest
man cannot make ends meet in this country.'

But the visitor also knew people in Soviet Armenia who had refused to
accept bribes or to pilfer public coffers. When the
counter-revolutionary tide rolled over Armenia, the new leaders
portrayed their own greed as an eternal feature of human nature, and
the several honest citizens became objects of ridicule.

Still, Ivan had a point: low wages have been a common complaint in
Havana, ever since the advent of the `special period' of the 1990s.

The U.S. embargo on the island, which Cubans call `the blockade' (el
bloqueo), produced its intended economic effects. A quarter of a
century ago, the Yanquis had had no trouble convincing their mascot,
Boris Yeltsin, to break trade agreements with Russia, at a time when
Russia accounted for 70% of Cuba's overall trade. Washington's Cuban
Democracy Act of 1992 `wrecked havoc' on the Island, too, just as the
bill's presenter, Congressman Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), had announced
it would. Then came the Helms-Burton Act, which embarrassed America's
allies (Google keyword: The Godfrey-Milliken Bill), but succeeded in
producing poverty in Cuba.

The Yanquis and the gangsters in Miami were rubbing their hands in
anticipation: `If it turns out that they [the Cubans] are forced to
swim without the Soviet Life preserver,' a U.S. official was quoted as
saying, `there is little doubt that they will drown.' (William M.
Leogrand, Back Channel to Cuba, 2015, p. 265)

Well, twenty-five years have passed, and Cubans are poorer. But they
have yet to drown.

Ivan wiped the counter.

`What to do?' the visitor asked.

`Change the system,' Ivan said.

`Reform it or destroy it?'

`Reform? It'll take more than that.'

The visitor rubbed his neck. `Well, this is your country, and I don't
want to sound like a smart aleck or a know-it-all (un fatuo o un
presuntuoso). But what you're saying reminds me of things I heard
twenty-five years ago in Soviet Armenia.'

`In Iran?'

`No, Armenia¦the smallest of the fifteen Republics that made up the
Soviet Union.'

`Oh, Rumania.'

`No¦ Anyway, back then, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, said he
wanted political and economic reform. People in Armenia went to the
streets demanding reform. They wanted better pay and better jobs, more
personal freedom, and an end to corruption and pollution. But the
leaders of the demonstrations did not share those goals. Most of the
people in the streets wanted reform, but the men with the bullhorns
wanted to destroy the whole system.'

The visitor could have expanded the story, to include the fact that
many of Gorbachev's most powerful supporters, in Russia and in
Armenia, were aspiring capitalists seeking to wipe out the last
remnants of soviet power. But the conversation did not go there. For
one thing, it was not clear at this point that Ivan was listening.

Undeterred, the visitor continued: `Well, they did destroy the system.
And they replaced it with unemployment, poverty, oligarchy, and much
worse corruption. In a few years, one quarter of the population left
the country.'

The visitor drummed his knuckles on the counter for emphasis.

`Here's a lesson you could learn from Armenia: be careful what you
wish for,' the visitor said. `You have affordable housing,
high-quality schools for your children, fee universities, good
healthcare, and low taxes. You have safe streets, the freedom to
express your opinions, a guaranteed basket of basic goods, pensions,
and leisure time to spend with your family and friends. In the course
of chasing after something else, you might end up losing things you
never imagined you could lose.'

Ivan looked at the visitor and shook his head. This particular naïve
foreigner was hopeless.

For decades, Cuban leaders had denounced the U.S. embargo against
their country, and the Yanquis had sworn that they would never lift
the embargo until Cuba was `free,' in the special Yanqui sense of the
word. The revolution, through its several stages, endured attack,
sabotage, invasion, and a fifty-four-year embargo. Meanwhile, Cuba
fought for freedom in Latin America and the Caribbean, and scored
victories against Ronald Reagan's apartheid allies in Africa (`Why
South Africa Loves Cuba').

For decades, Cuban physicians and engineers (30,000 health care
workers in Venezuela alone), have saved tens of thousands of lives on
four continents (`Why Cuba Is So Good at Fighting Ebola,'). And every
step of the way, the Yanquis opposed them.

Today, one hears some Cubans grumbling about how the resources of the
country have been squandered helping other countries overseas. Perhaps
someday we will hear Americans grumble about the hundreds of billions
of dollars their country has spent propping up dictators, overthrowing
elected officials, and subsidizing death squads.

The Cuban Revolution persevered. At long last, on December 17, 2014,
U.S. President Barack Obama reached an agreement with Cuban President
Raul Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations and to remove the
embargo. This, too, was another victory of the revolution.

According to the slogan on the murals, `Socialism in Cuba is
invincible.' One could have found similar slogans in the Soviet Union
thirty years ago. But unlike the Soviet Communist Party under
Gorbachev, the Communist Party of Cuba does not appear to be dominated
by would-be capitalist rulers. At least so far. If in fact this is
true, it is an important difference between the two parties and the
two countries.

Still, if socialism in Cuba is to survive the coming years--and
perhaps emerge stronger--then it will need to raise living standards
for ordinary Cubans. If not, then counter-revolutionaries will lead
Cubans down the same road to `free market' ruin that so many Armenians
now regret having taken.

But even if the Yanquis and the gangsters in Miami were to succeed in
obstructing socialism in Cuba, the achievements of the revolution will
stand undiminished, as an inspiration to future generations in Latin
America and far beyond. Fifty-seven years of the Cuban Revolution
remind us that, every now and then, the bad buys lose and the good
guys win.

And here we have a lesson that a generation of demoralized Armenians
can learn from Cubans.

Markar Melkonian is a philosophy instructor and an author. His books
include Richard Rorty's Politics: Liberalism at the End of the
American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview
Press, 1996), and My Brother's Road (2005).



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