“I didn’t know the meaning of stress until I arrived in London.” With these words a Cuban émigré musician and boxer, seated on my right at a friend’s 50th birthday dinner, set me thinking. The political and economic regime of Fidel and now Raúl Castro’s Cuba might have its severe limitations and its longueurs (not least the leader’s own speeches, broadcast at interminable length on state television and quoted in the turgid official newspaper Granma) but it was designed to minimise certain kinds of stress, at least for those who were not vocal critics of the revolution. You would not starve, you would be housed and transported at minimal cost, you would have access to excellent education, albeit of a different ideological stamp from that currently being advocated in the UK, and world-class medical care – not just for home use but exported to many African and Latin American countries. Much of this, of course, was predicated on subsidies from the Soviet Union, which suddenly dried up in 1991.
Hunger, malnutrition and disease were experienced in the “Special Economic Period” of the early 1990s when residents of Havana resorted to eating domestic cats and animals from the Havana zoo. But the system proved resilient, surviving not just the withdrawal of Soviet aid but the decades-long US embargo without the widespread misery seen in many other authoritarian regimes. Life expectancy and child mortality rates in Cuba still compare favourably with those in the vastly richer US, according to the World Bank.
Up in north London, where my conversation with Gonzalo (name changed) was taking place, life even for the relatively fortunate can seem consumed by stresses of one kind or another. These range from finding a place at the right school for your child (so that your child can have a more privileged start in life than other children) to paying the mortgage on your overpriced house, to trying to book an appointment with your GP, whose increased personal wealth and transformation into some kind of entrepreneur has mysteriously made him or her unavailable for consultation.
If Castro’s Cuba has been an exercise in stress-reduction, then the extreme versions of neo-liberalism unleashed over the western world, starting in the US and Britain in the early 1980s, could be seen as experiments in the maximisation of stress, both on people and the environment. Neo-liberals believe, in theory at least, in an unfettered market, with the minimum of regulation and of protections for workers and the environment, both viewed as resources to be exploited.
Neither the Castroist nor the neo-liberal experiment seems to be sustainable in the long term, though zealots on both sides continue to insist that all that is needed is an even more ideologically pure or triple-distilled version of the original medicine. This requires ever more ingenious casuistic contortions. On the neo-liberal side, as far as the environment is concerned, this means denial, or playing-down, of the overwhelming scientific consensus linking climate change to industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. As far as the human cost is concerned, doctrinaire neo-liberals need to turn a blind eye to all the evidence of rising levels of stress-related disease in the workforce, powerfully gathered in Madeleine Bunting’s book Willing Slaves. As a social worker commented to her, “Capitalism doesn’t really have any limits on how much it is prepared to demand of people.”
Some of you may think that in the course of our conversation Gonzalo was able to slip me a special kind of margarita that induces uncritical support of the Cuban regime. But I remained perfectly aware that for all his criticisms of stress in London, he himself had made a decision to leave the revolutionary island, where, according to Human Rights Watch, dissent is still crushed and scores of political prisoners languish in jail.
Talking to him brought back my memories of a trip I made to Cuba a dozen years ago. In particular, I thought of the last night I spent on the island, staying in a private apartment in centro Havana, where my host was a single mother called Laura (name changed), who worked at the National Conservatory of Music and came from a diplomatic family, with mementoes to remind her of bourgeois times. I was sleeping, it turned out, in the only room in the apartment not affected by water leaks from a hole in the roof. There was no money to pay for repairs. Laura’s teenaged son was camped out on the verandah.
No one would want to live like that, under a system that represses free speech, or indeed in a command economy unable to supply decent food. But in my conversations with Laura, a colleague of hers from the Conservatory, and others met during my week in Cuba, including a road cleaner with whom I had an earnest exchange about the advantages and disadvantages of the euro, I found human qualities that I don’t always detect in wealthy, aspirational north London: I can’t think of better words for them than dignity and nobility.
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