Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Guest Author Libby FIscher Hellmann: The Depression America Doesn't Know About.

Libby Fischer Hellmann, while DC born has deep roots and keeps her heart in Chicago. Most of the time. Libby's an award nominated writer, former President of the Sisters in Crime, killer tour traveling companion who I call my friend. She's also a killer writer - not only does she write two series but standalones and her new book, Havana Lost, is the third in what she calls her 'Revolution Trilogy'. In Havana Lost, she gets the smells, the textures, the politics and those tiny cups of Cuban espresso just perfect. Please welcome Libby, who's the Thelma to my Louise, and give her a warm MurderisEverywhere welcome!

As I’ve been out and about promoting Havana Lost, I’m struck by how little Americans really know about Cuba. Pretty much all the information over the past 30 years has been filtered through the lens of the Cuban-American exile community, who, although they’re dying out, are still bitter and don’t have a kind word to say about Cuba or Fidel Castro. But since their allies continue to be a powerful lobby in Congress, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by the vitriol.

Btw, just to set the record straight, I’m not here to defend Fidel or what he’s done. He decimated the middle class that had been thriving in the 1950’s. And he turned out to be just as cruel and dictatorial and territorial as Fulgencio Batista, his predecessor.

In fact, there are persistent rumors that Castro was responsible for the death of both his revolutionary comrades Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. It wouldn’t surprise me if the rumors were true.

What does surprise me, though, is how little Americans know about Cuba’s “Special Period” in the 1990’s. It was so dire that I wonder why the exile community didn’t jump on it for propaganda purposes. Or the pretext for another invasion attempt. But apparently, they didn’t, so the Special Period remains the depression nobody knows about.

A little history here: you probably remember the collapse of Berlin wall in 1989. That was followed by the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. What you might not know, however, was the impact on Cuba. In a word, it was catastrophic. Cuba sank into a depression so severe it makes our “Great Recession” look like a walk in the park.

The reason? Cuba had been one of the Soviet Union’s largest trading partners, and when it collapsed, so did Cuba’s economy. They lost 90% of their petroleum imports, including oil, gasoline, diesel, fertilizers, and insecticides. With no fuel to power cars, buses, and tractors, the Cuban transportation system collapsed. So did their agriculture and farming. There were severe food shortages, and the average Cuban lost twenty pounds. Industry slowed to a crawl, and Cubans had to do without many consumer goods, including medicines. Eventually, even Fidel had to acknowledge the truth, and, in a move worthy of Joseph Goebbels, labeled it the “Special Period.”  (I describe much more about the Special Period and its impact in Part Two of Havana Lost.)

Cuba has clawed its way out of the harshest parts of the Special Period by adopting organic farming methods, using bicycles and horses as the primary mode of transportation, and bartering goods and services. But there is still desperate poverty.

Outside Havana you see fields being plowed by oxen, people driving horse-drawn wagons, and thatched huts huddled together on muddy roads. Even in Havana, you see people on the streets charging a few Cucs (Cuban currency) to have their photos taken with tourists. And in Havana neighborhoods like Regla and Lawton, you see abandoned factories, dilapidated buildings, and a total absence of commerce.

The government is trying to boost the economy; over the past two decades they’ve amped up tourism, and it has become the number one industry in Cuba—for everyone except Americans. And recently Raoul, Fidel’s brother, has loosened restrictions on buying and selling cars, property, and small businesses. Unfortunately, those businesses are still heavily taxed, and most of the investment cash for those activities is reportedly coming from Cuban- American relatives.

I suppose we could analyze why most Americans don’t know about Cuba’s woes, but I suspect a third of the US population would think it’s the result of a conspiracy; another third wouldn’t care; and still others might feel the Cubans got what was coming to them.  But how can the suffering of innocent people ever be justified?

It’s hard to admit this, but Cuba’s economy was more stable back in the 1950’s when the Mafia ran Cuba. I’m certainly not advocating for a return to that era, and I’m wary of what’s going to happen when the US finally does lift the embargo (which they will undoubtedly do after Fidel dies). The last thing Cuba needs is another super-power trying to exploit whatever resources it still has.

At the same time, though, almost sixty years has passed, and Americans need to know more about one of their closest neighbors. The right kind of investment in a country 90 miles from us might yield more tangible benefits than a military strike in the Middle East, don’t you think?

Libby for Cara—Tuesday


  1. Libby, as a foreigner (now American) living in the USA since 1971, I have never understood the attitudes towards Cuba. The blind spot regarding Cuba must have been totally shaped by the Cuban American community because, as you say, the levels of ignorance are astonishing. Cuba has provided excellent doctors to many parts of Africa for many years - one of the many things you do not hear about in the US press.

  2. Great post Libby. Thanks for illuminating this time, which I had no clue about.

  3. If the exiles had gone to Texas or some other "uncontested" state instead of one so crucial to US presidential elections, I think the story has a lot to do with Florida as a swing state.

  4. Here is a message from Libby (who opened my eyes to a lot of things about this close-by island we know far too little about). Jeff:

    I've been trying to leave a comment all day, but the blog beasts keep eating them. Stan, you're absolutely right. Cuba has sent doctors, teachers, and social workers not only to Africa but to Haiti and other Latin American countries for years. And that doesn't include the soldiers they sent to Angola. But that's a different story.

    Marianna, the exiles have been a powerful constituency before Florida became such an important state, electorally speaking. But you make a good point. It will be interesting to see what happens after Fidel and his brother are gone. There is still so much bitterness it has probably derailed any effort to lift the embargo in Obama's second term.

    Thank you, MIE, for the opportunity to write about an island we know far too little about.

  5. Glad to see that the Cuban doctors point has been made, as Cuban medical teams went to Haiti to help with the cholera epidemic very early on and brought antibiotics and set up treatment centers. Even the New York Times wrote about their contributions in a huge article on the epidemic sometime last year.

    And they do send doctors and teachers to Africa and Latin America, and they give their services freely.

    In fact, after the Katrina crisis, hundreds of Cuban medical workers, including doctors, volunteered to come to the U.S. and help, but this government wouldn't let them in.

    Also, I know so many people who have traveled to Cuba in the last few years. Several tour agencies organize tours there.

    As many economic problems exist there, the government has implemented many programs and changes to help the people. Under Batista, nothing was done to help the majority of poor people. Photograph books showing women and babies starving in Havana's alleys.

    Many women had no options at all for education or careers, and now women are in every profession, well represented as doctors, judges, heads of agencies, etc.

    Much of it is due to the Cuban Women's Federation, founded in 1960, which has brought women into education and professions, and has gotten codified into laws, many laws on women's equality and benefits for them.

    1. This is a brilliant post. Thanks Kathy. You are so correct. If only some other, richer countries would adopt similar attitudes.

  6. Thank you, John. Having so many friends, colleagues and even relatives who've traveled to Cuba in the last few years, and are quite impressed adds to my knowledge and inspiration.

    And having seen and heard women representing the Cuban Women's Federation speak in my city and answer questions thoroughly and honestly -- with intelligence, charm and wit has only added to my respect and knowledge.