Through the Wall: A Year in Havana Interview with Author Margot Pepper

By RM Arrieta

Q: You were there when Fidel Castro announced the decriminalization of hard currency. What was the mood of the country at a time when unprecedented economic measures were taken?

The year I lived in Havana, the mood was funereal. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s 8.1 billion dollar economy had been slashed to $2.2 billion. This crisis was known as the Special Period. The legalization of the dollar and effort to integrate into a capitalist global economy in 1993 deferred Che’s dream of a classless Cuba. Before Special Period, Cuba had an arrangement with the Eastern bloc, which protected it from unjust practices such as dumping, tariffs and foreign subsidies. Such trade practices today by treaties and bodies like the WTO and World Bank transfer at least 50-100 billion dollars a year from developing countries to multi-national corporations in the First World, 10-20 times the Soviet subsidy to Cuba. So as Juan Escalona points out in my memoir, the Special Period crisis really should have been labeled “Normal Period”–back to being a poor ‘Third World’ country–a reality all colonized countries have faced, and which Cuba was able to overcome briefly.

Elaborate on your growing feeling of being burned out by the water, food, electricity and gasoline shortages.

I came to realize that ironically my frustration in Cuba was a result of my inflated standard of living back in the U.S,, built on the colonization of the Americas. Before the 1959 revolution, the achievements of U.S and Spanish “democracy” in Cuba were that five million of the six million Cubans lived in shacks or had no housing at all, eighty percent of Havana suffered from hunger and two of three Cuban children didn’t attend school. Since the revolution, Cuba has been able to provide free health care, education and graduate school and to subsidize food, utilities, and housing. There are virtually no homeless people, in part because Cubans don’t rent, they pay mortgages which can’t exceed 12% of their salaries. Imagine, making $2,000 a month and not paying more than $240 for your own housing! This underscores two facts: How inexpensive it is to meet everyone’s basic needs and the audacity of the richest country in the world refusing to provide these things to all its citizens. Thus, if a country like Cuba that is as poor as Haiti chooses to afford all of its citizens what a First World Country like ours is unwilling to grant, there are bound to be privations beyond basic needs. I knew the upside was 30 million people – three times Cuba’s population – weren’t going hungry, as they do in the U.S.

What’s your response to those who think socialist Cuba has been a failure?

It took nearly a decade of research and 323 pages to answer this question. Something I learned in the process is that how one perceives Cuba depends on which lens one is looking through; whether it’s a First World or Third World lens. Through the Wall offers both perspectives. Yet readers should keep in mind that the future of a kinder, more just humanity does not rest on Cuba’s failure or success in creating a democratic society, its survival or collapse, but upon the lessons the world is able to derive from both positive and negative aspects of Cuban society. For if we don’t study how Cuba’s shortcomings have arisen from even the noblest of intentions, how such dreams can go awry like a love affair, giving rise to oppressive outcomes, our future struggles to establish democratic ideals are destined to repeat the same cycle of errors like a Greek tragedy.

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