Take me sailing on the wide sea*

In a land surrounded by water, the sailor is the link to the other side, the bearer of images that the islander cannot leave to see.  In the case of Cuba, someone who works on a ship can also buy abroad many products unavailable in local markets.  A kind of Ulysses who, after months at sea, brings home a suitcase full of trinkets for the family.  The sailor who brings household appliances destined for the black market in the hold of the ship, makes fashions arrive earlier than the bureaucrats of domestic commerce had planned.

For several decades, to be a “merchant sailor” was to belong to a select fraternity who could go beyond the horizon and bring things never seen in these latitudes.  The first jeans, tape recorders, and gum that I ever saw in my life were transported by these lucky crew members.  The same thing happened with digital clocks, color televisions and some cars that bore no resemblance to the unattractive Russian Ladas and Moskoviches.

For the relatives of a sailor, the long months of absence are softened by the economic balm from ports-of-call with cheaper prices and better quality than in Cuban shops.  When they reach the age to retire and drop anchor, then they can live on what they’ve been able to transport, and the images that remain in memory.

I am telling this whole story of boats, masts and the informal market because of Oscar, the husband of the blogger of Sin Evasion, whom they are threatening to expel from his job as a sailor.  The motive: Miriam Celaya’s decision to drop her mask and to continue writing her opinions with her face uncovered.  The punishment: leaving the family without the support it relies on.  For her to navigate freely on the web, he may lose his chance to sail the waters.

*From the children’s song: Little Paper Boat


  1. Good morning everyone. Are you up yet Iain? It seems for a few hours in the morning we have the blog ‘all to ourselves.’ But what shall we do with it?

  2. Not be too repetitive, I think :-))
    On the question of whether communism is possible without terror, that’s precisely the mistake that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet head of state made. Interestingly, it was British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who suggested to Ronnie Regan that we should use our influence over there to get him “elected” as he was “a man we could do business with.” For a while, the reduction in the curtailment of civil liberties made him enormously popular but his continuing support for the command economy fell on increasingly deaf ears. He made no preparations for a well-regulated alternative economy, with the result that, after a few years of chaos, the Komitjet Gosudarstvjennoj Bjezopasnosti thugs are back in charge.
    We have known since, at the latest, “The Road to Serfdom,” the 1944 work by refugee Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, that the command-economy is a recipe for catastrophy. Of course self-appointed Castro grandchild Chavez and his “altar-boy” Morales know this but, to individuals possessed of sufficient depravity, dictatorial power is attractive, whatever the suffering of the people. And I haven’t even mentioned Mugabe, whose agrarian policy Chavez is following closely.

  3. Can we then talk about the human aspect such individuals as Chavez, Morales, Castro, Stalin, Mao?

    What is it that make them tick?

    Is it having the feeling of power?
    Is it been able to control every minute detail of everybody under them?
    Is it been famous and appear in the news?

    What is it that makes them tick? What is their psychology like?

    A while back somewhere else I was proposing a quantitative measure of how bad a regime is.
    I figure if one consider the weighted mean of things like

    what percentage of the population goes into exile?
    what percentage of the population dies under the dictatorship?
    what percentage of the population they place in jail?
    how many books and radio stations and TV stations are block and prohibited?
    How many internet sites are block?
    How many years they stay in power?
    and so on

    if we could compute all that for the Castro regime then we could potentially define the measurement unit of

    a dictator of One Castro

    to mean a dictator that measures up to Fidel Castro.

    If is .5 Castro then it will be a more benig dictator and so on

    Why will this be helpful? It will put a number on this dictators and maybe it will let them know how bad they are doing and maybe other countries will be more sensitive to people from that country etc.

    Iain you are a Physicist? maybe you can help defining the measuring unit to quantify dictatorship?

  4. ***
    The free enterprise system seems to provide a much better life for all people in a country. The socialist / communist systems provide equal poverty for most of the people in a country. Only the rulers live a rich life there. Our President Obama wants a socialist system for the U.S.A.–like Cuba has.
    La sistema de negocio libre parece dar una vida mejor por toda la gente in una pais. La sistema socialista / communista da una pobreza equal por la majoria de la gente en una pais. Solamente los jefes vivan una vida rica alli. Nuestro Presidente Obama quiere una systema socialista por los E.E.U.A.–como tiene Cuba.

  5. Free enterprise without regulation causes the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. Any system at its xtremes is dangerous. I don’t believe that Obama wants socialism. What he wants a system that provides freedom of thought, expression, religion for all. He wants a system that maintains dignity for all people and an economy that supports anyone willing to work hard and dream big. I want the same thing for Cuba, freedom and dignity for its people – a system that they choose, not one chosen by a few powerful people or another country. http://wordpress.com/

  6. #5 The real question is: What is Socialism?

    Fidel says that Cuba is socialist… what Cuba is, really, is Fidelism — strongman rule. State ownership of virtually everything. And oppression of virtually everybody. This is not an economic system. It’s simply a dictator-run prison camp. He even sends the prisoners abroad to slave for foreign governments.

    Others would say that countries like Norway and Sweden are socialist. But they operate with a huge private sector and with basic human rights. At the same time, they guarantee a ‘safety net’ of basic services, such as health care, for all citizens. They are constantly tinkering with the balance between individual and shared services and responsibility.

    To say that Obama wants “socialism” is perhaps to give the United States way too much credit. There are those who say that even having programs like social security, or medicare for the aged, make the US a “socialist” country, and god forbid they should guarantee health care for everyone — my god that would tip them right over the edge to being another Cuba. How ridiculous is that view?! Does anyone really believe the US is already socialist?

    The US is, in the group of nations it considers its ‘peers’ (although of course it really recognizes no peers) — countries like Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Scandinavian countries, etc. (in short, the countries from which ‘white’ people emigrated to the US) — in this group it is far and away the most conservative, right wing country. The “left” in the US barely makes it all the way to the far right in a county like Canada say, where the right to universal health care isn’t even debated.

    So let me ask you this? What IS socialism? Is it government providing for ANYTHING more than the “common defense”?

    How about streets, roads and highways. Is it socialism that the government provides this infrastructure? Should the US sell all of this to the private sector? What about streetlights? Should cities turn off the streetlights and tell citizens they can light their own streets if they want?

    What about education? Should all the schools be privatized? Let the parents pay? If the parents can’t afford to pay, oh well, those children don’t get educated?

    What about the public water supply? Should it be privatized and let those who can afford it buy water from the private sector and those who can’t catch the rain as best they can or drink out of muddy puddles?

    Think about what you’re saying, people. This knee jerk “Obama is a socialist” just doesn’t wash. I know there are still those fighting to turn back the New Deal, end Social Security (its greatest triumph, in my mind)…and everything else that was accomplished. They want to undo every regulation (and we can see how effective all that regulation has been as the economy goes down the tubes thanks to the greed of those who designed new ways to enrich themselves while basically adding no value at all)….

    Their ‘bible’ seems to be Lord of the Flies…

    But in my mind… there’s a whole universe of space between some sensible allocation of private and public responsibilities and murderous totalitarian dictatorships like Cuba’s… and it’s important not to blur those boundaries if we want to have a sensible debate about how to eliminate the rule of psychopaths…

  7. #2 Since I just went on and on in my comment above I’ll be brief… to my way of thinking, speaking not theoretically but only about results — Communism has been a “cover” for terror. A cover for psychopaths to rule.

    Realistically (and theoretically) of course communism is not possible without a dictatorship (and the proletariat can forget it… they ain’t gonna be at the table!) — because what communism does, precisely, is ELIMINATE the “Invisible Hand” in favor of the state’s fist. And of course there is no one clever enough to actually run an entire country’s economy through thought, foresight and planning. Humans don’t work that way. First grade teachers can’t even run their classrooms that way — they got all these little real live human 6-year-olds running around the room laying waste to the best-laid plans which need to be modified in real time every day.

    So, psychopath dictators say “oh aren’t I good… I’m a communist… achieving the highest good humans can aspire to… woops… sorry, your aspirations fall short…. Paredon! To the wall! Bang bang you’re dead! Next!”

  8. #3 — You hit the nail on the head. This is what we really must understand. I’m not that interested in the psychology of psychopaths like Castro…. they are just psychopaths. The world is full of them. What large work place doesn’t have a few would-be Castros? What strata/condo board doesn’t have the unbearable idiot who thinks they know everything and wants to run to building? What community group doesn’t have the one person who drives everyone else crazy? Of course these are pure nits on the rear end of someone like Castro but still…

    I am much more interested in the trajectory of terror, of taking power. Of how people like this can take over a country and effectively silence, kill, crush any opposition. Where are the points where this could be stopped? Reversed? What are the external factors that nurture it?

    I basically believe humans are fundamentally alike. That there is nothing special about the ‘victims’ of these people (although there may be many things special about the circumstances) — they don’t lack something the rest of us have. It is not because of our virtues that we don’t have psychopaths running every country. It is other things. What are they? What keeps the psychopaths relegated to the sidelines and small enterprises and organizations, in some places but not in others.

  9. Regulation is the key to enlightened capitalism and, as I say above, it was failure in this area that proved disastrous at the end of the Soviet Union. Adam Smith noted, for example, that monopolies and cartels are inimical to the “invisible hand of the market” working effectively, so would need regulation, and also that certain projects would require organisation by the state. Some governments in the democratic world see the balance of advantages to the “left” and others, with the consent of the voters, to the “right.” In recent decades, no democratic country has opted for a command economy and even governments that call themselves “socialist” – such as the Spanish PSOE – recognise that the resources needed for public expenditure must be created in the private sector. In the absence of these in Cuba, there is no money for public works, even should the dictators feel so inclined. Of course, Chavez hoped that, after destroying his own economy, he would be propped up by resources created by workers in capitalist countries who bought his oil. He may have been mistaken ….

  10. #14 Good summation Iain. I agree with you. Interestingly, Canada appears to be avoiding the worst of the global crash so far — not that loss of markets won’t ultimately hurt the economy badly. But… the banking and financial sector was well-regulated to prevent the kinds of abuses that have occurred in the US and elsewhere, and the home mortgage system is a somewhat odd approach which only grants five-year mortgages. The mortgage is amortized over a longer period… but has a fixed interest rate only for five years and then a balloon payment comes due, which must be refinanced. This spreads the risk between the lending institution and the homebuyer for future changes in interest rates.

    But back to our friend, Cuba. It would seem to me that creating a post-communist economy has to be enormously tricky because of course none of the structures are in place.

    Aside from the complete disaster that is Russia — of the “captive” communist states, do we have a text book of those who have succeeded and those who have not and what the requirements for success seem to be?

  11. Andy, As I read your last entry, #15, i was nodding my head in agreement until you said that creating a post-communist economy would be difficult because “none of the structures are in place.” There are two things about Cuba that cannot be underestimated. First, the mercado negro, which is in its purest state a capitalistic system that could be the basis for a post communist economy. In essence, you could take the “negro” out of mercado negro. Second, Cubans are accustomed to making things work in “enormously tricky” situations. I think they call it “resolver.” It’s like pouring water on the top of a hill. It will find it’s way down.

  12. #16 Timoteo, I agree completely with what you said as “positives” — having been to Cuba I have no doubt that given the chance, Cubans themselves will solve their own problems and I don’t think it will take them that long.

    BUT… I also think there are 2 huge risks (maybe there are 20, but two come to mind), one semi-unique to Cuba, and one common to former totalitarian states. (And let me add the caveat that I am NO EXPERT in these things… really I’m speaking out of my rear end, to put it politely… and hope others will weigh in.)

    Risk number 1 — the universal one — is that before the structures of any kind of controlled economy (and I don’t mean socialism or capitalism or anything by that… just an economy that has some kind of boundaries on the behavior of individuals, enterprises, and institutions)… before those structures can be put in place, the ‘powerful’ will grab all resources and monopolize them. Whether it be the actual natural resources of the country, or the state enterprises, or the housing stock, or whatever it is. What is called in Russia “the wild west” approach. And who are the powerful? Those in control now. In this worst case scenario the country transitions from a dictatorship to a democracy (the most important step), but the economy remains in a shambles because a few powerful people control the economy… with the motivation of course simply to enrich themselves.

    Risk number 2 — not unique to Cuba in all the annals of human history… but still, a particular concern. There are at least a million actual Cuban exiles (I say “actual” meaning those who once lived in Cuba, even if only as infants), and probably more. In addition, there are at least a million offspring born abroad (probably more). I have read articles quoting adults Yoani’s age who say, “I will never go BACK to Cuba until it is free.” But… they have never been there… their parents have never been there… the last member of the family who actually touched the soil of Cuba was a grandparent… likely now dead. What are the motives of these people? What is the fantasy they are carrying in their heads? What will happen when they CAN “go back”… with their pockets stuffed with dollars or euros? (And I don’t mean as tourists… they could go now if they wanted… I mean with the idea they are “going home.”)

    In fact… I would suspect most of them will quickly come to realize they are actually Americans, or Canadians, or Spaniards or whatever they have been from birth. But in the meantime… are THEY going to try to buy up the country and then, deciding they don’t really want to live there, go home and form some huge cadre of absentee landlords/business owners?

    Overall, I think (maybe I just hope), that the stock of overseas Cubans, with their wealth, could be an enormous force for recovery on the Island, once it is free. But it could work the other way as well.

    And then we have the complete looney tunes… the “presidents-in-waiting” abroad… who think they have a right to go back and claim the top spots… to take over the government like they intended to do 50 years ago… regardless of the plans or desires of the 11 million people who are still living in the prison camp and might have their own ideas about their own future.

    I think one of the most powerful things that Yoani and the other bloggers demonstrate to the world, is that the Island can govern itself if people are allowed to do so. They do not need some foreign ‘big brothers’ coming over to run the place for them…

  13. Just read Sen. Lugar sent a top aid to Cuba the first week of January and he is stating it’s a farce to call the embargo a punishment to the Castro’s, but a punishment to the people, and to hold out until Cuba is bent into submission of a democracy is in itself a farce.Talks will resume in Washington next week in the Senators Committee.

  14. Senator Lugar is always undecided on what side of the fence he should be. Too many years on the job, please retire Senator!

  15. To Andy #17

    Risk number 1-

    If the whole communist machinery is gone and democracy is restored I don’t think there is any reason to worry about it.

    Risk number 2- I believe they will be able to govern themselves. My only concern is that for over 50 years they have not been exposed to free enterprise, therefore they may need some help in this area. There are a great number of “overseas Cubans” with really good intentions who will be able to chip in with their savvy and lend a hand in this regard. Proof of this is the Hotel industry in Cuba is actually run by foreigners.

    I don’t think there is any room for those “wanna be presidents”, waiting in line abroad; they have no chance.

    I don’t know what you are trying to imply when you refer to us living abroad and question our motives when we say “I will never go BACK to Cuba until it is free.”

    Let me explain to you. I don’t criticize those who leave the Island and within six month after they leave, they are back to visit. That is their prerogative, their right.
    I have a different take; I was stripped of my freedom at a young age and the reason for what I left, still there today, yes the monster still there. I left in 1960 and begrudgingly went back 20 years later to see my mother for the last time before she died. I still have family there but decided not to go back until Cuba is free; if it happens fine if not I prefer to remain were I live. I don’t think there is anything wrong with my way of thinking, perhaps my beliefs are shared by many of my fellow Cubans and it should be respected.

  16. #20 Statue of Liberty… I meant no insult with the capitalized “BACK”… and I don’t criticize people’s choice or motives to go or not go… I am not faced with that choice so I wouldn’t judge others — I don’t know what I would do in the same situation. When I went to Cuba I knew one person there… a Canadian with no Cuban ancestry.

    What I meant with the “BACK” is that they speak as if they have been there and they have never been there. It’s not a repeat visit… it would be a first visit.

    As for everything else you say…. I HOPE YOU’RE RIGHT. Because that would be the best possible outcome.

    And with regards to risk #1… hopefully what has happened in Russia won’t happen in Cuba… one of the great differences between them of course… is that Cuba once had capitalism and democracy… however flawed, difficult, problematic and long ago etc… the country didn’t go from a Tsar to a Dictator.

  17. #6: I am sorry but you are completely wrong about Obama. He was raised as a socialist and groomed by a racist minister and Mafia-Chicago politics.

    He has already proven he does not believe in the only economic system in history that has given more people more wealth and opportunities than capitalism. Yes, it has problems in the extreme. But it is still the only system in history that has helped millions upon millions of people realize their dreams, rise out of poverty, and helped the poor and those who are not able to help themselves.

    Socialism is a ideology which destroys creativity, purpose, innovation and the will to take the necessary risks to create companies that create jobs that create wealth. It destroys humanity as well as it forces humanitarianism rather than allowing people to choose to help on their own.

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