On my travels in 2010, two of the countries I got to know the best are Guatemala & Cuba. Both had revolutions (Guatemala in 1944, Cuba in 1953) whose effects resonate through history. Both revolutions had similar causes and relationships. But ultimately very very different outcomes.

Guatemalan seller

Today Cuba is practically unique in the world. A socialist economy, largely centrally-planned and state-run, but one that boasts developed-world levels of health, life expectancy, literacy, and, dare I say, equality. Let me say right now that Cuba has problems – big problems. But on many indicators they are doing surprisingly well, especially given their handicaps, which still include being under a trade embargo by the United States.

By contrast, Guatemala is poorer in both absolute and per capita terms, much more unequal, and has a very low ranking on the UN Human Development Index, even worse so when accounting for its inequality.

More noticeable when I was there is the way that indigenous people sometimes turn their heads to look down or look away from you. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed by their own government, well into the 1980s.

Yet I found Cubans to be outgoing, passionate, care-free and confident. It pains me to say it: you could never call Guatemalans care-free. Half of them live in absolute poverty.

The deciding factor in the diverging fate of these two nations was the intervention of the United States of America. And to me, their histories play a key role in understanding what the most powerful country on Earth is, what it does, what it wants, and where this legacy will take us in the future. With Guatemala it’s important to remember which revolution we’re talking about: the revolution in 1944, not the counter-revolution in 1954. The first revolution was the genuine one and led to what Guatemalans still emotionally call “the ten years of eternal Spring”, los diez años de eterna primavera. After the overthrew of General Jorge Ubico, Guatemala enjoyed for the first time free elections, democracy, and a challenge to the old order of the oligarchs: the big landed interests and the Catholic Church (which owned huge tracts of land). For the first time Guatemala gained a modern executive, judiciary and legislature, and devolved power to municipalities. In education there was an extensive literacy campaign, a restoration of educational programmes, the opening of secondary schools and rural primary schools. New laws gave workers new rights including the right to strike. There were health schemes set up analogous to Britain’s National Health Service.

In the second government after the revolution, the left, unions and farmers elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzman with over 80% of the vote. With such overwhelming mainstream support Arbenz instituted an agricultural reform law in 1952, and it was at that time that the powers-that-be decided that democracy had gone too far. The United Fruit Company owned an incredible 80% of the cultivable land in Guatemala. The new law took their unused land, which was extensive, paid them monetary compensation for it at the declared rate of value, and divided it up amongst landless farming families. The next year the government confiscated capital of the International Railways of Central America for their failure to pay taxes. The railways, of course, were there to ship out the bananas, and the bananas were going straight into the mouths of US Americans, with the profits going straight into the pockets of corporate America. The United Fruit Company had a lot of influence. The US Secretary of State, (his brother) the head of the CIA, and the US ambassador to the United Nations all had strong personal and financial stakes in the United Fruit Company, which already had a long history of corruption, monopolisation and manipulation. Even as early as the end of the 19th century the United Fruit Company was known by its critics as “the Octopus” for its ability to penetrate its business tentacles into every aspect of Central American politics and economics. They weren’t going to stand idly by and see American corporate profits harmed by a poor Central American democracy intent on governing itself and feeding its people.

In 1954, the CIA organised and financed something called the “Movimiento de la Liberación Nacional” with 250 men led by two former Guatemalan military officers invading Guatemala from Honduras, with US weapons and CIA aerial bombings. It was a front. There was no real movement of national “liberation”, even if there was great unhappiness in Guatemala’s right-wing. Nevertheless, with the help of radio airwaves filled with propaganda broadcasts scripted in Washington D.C., and an internal refusal to mobilise by right-wing military officers, on the 28th of June 1954 President Arbenz conceded defeat, and so ended Guatemala’s ten years of democracy and eternal spring. An unknown Ernesto “Che” Guevara quietly watched all of this happen, from his post in the Guatemalan agrarian reform institute.

In place of democracy, directly as a result of the US-created counter-revolution, came dictatorship and nearly forty years of bloody civil war. In total around 200,000 Guatemalans were killed. In 1982, one of the most notable villains President General Ríos Montt began a policy of “tierra quemada”, i.e. scorched earth, that resulted in the extermination of the populations of over 400 villages at the hands of the military. Basically his soldiers marched through the countryside from village to village, torching, torturing, raping and murdering whoever and whatever they found. As in El Salvador, the United States, under an enthusiastic Ronald Reagan, happily ploughed US taxpayers’ money into the government military, prolonging the conflict and racking up the death toll. Just in that period an estimated 15,000 people, mostly indigenous Mayan men, mainly farmers, were tortured and massacred. 100,000 refugees fled to Mexico. Eventually even the US was obliged to suspend its military aid. A semblance of democracy and reconciliation finally came to Guatemala only in 1996. The interests of the American fruit corporations, needless to say, were well served throughout, at the expensive of another “banana republic”.

My photo set “Glimpses of Guatemala” on flickr

Today half of Guatemalans live in absolute poverty. Guatemala has a nominal GDP of $37 billion with a population of about 13 million. By contrast Cuba has a GDP of $67 billion with a population of 11 million. Cuba is 51st in the UN Human Development Index, with a score of 8.63… a little above the United Kingdom. Guatemala is ranked 116th at 0.560, which becomes 0.372 when accounting for inequality.

The top 10% of Guatemalans have nearly fifty times the wealth of the bottom 10%, according to the UN. And the top 20% have over twenty times the wealth of the bottom 20%. By contrast, the top 10% of Americans have sixteen times more than the bottom 10%. So if you thought the USA had inequality, Guatemala is nearly four times as bad.

They say there are seven families that own Guatemala. When a national newspaper recently published an article saying as much and mentioning the name Ríos Montt (who despite butchering tens of thousands is still trying to get himself re-elected), an armed gang attacked the publisher’s family within days.

Not all of the economic statistics are available for Cuba because they have been (against their protestations) left out of some of the international processes. But essentially, where Guatemala’s revolution was thwarted by the USA, Cuba’s was ultimately successful.

At the very end of the 19th century, Cuba was Spain’s last colonial possession. The first Cuban revolution, led by José Martí, put the Spanish on the run. Cuba went through a period of civil uprising from 1868 to 1898 as successive rebels (Céspedes, Maceo, Gómez and finally Martí) tested the rule of their Spanish economic masters (including challenging the slavery of Cuban’s black population), but at the expense of a few hundred thousand Cuban dead, scorched earth policies on both sides, and the invention for the first time (by the Spanish) of the concentration camp.

This period of revolution was ended not by victory for either side, but victory for the United States, in what is still called The Spanish-American War (as if Cuba had nothing to do with it). Seeing the opportunity to substitute Spanish influence in Cuba for their own, the USA used the 911-like event of the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbour as a pretext for war with Cuba’s owners. After all, at that time, Cuba (with its sucrose-sweet mono-crop) was the USA’s third-largest trading partner after Britain and Germany).

A 1978 re-investigation by the US military concluded that the explosion of the Maine, with the loss of 260 hands, was almost certainly caused by an onboard accident. The more cynical have postulated that it was intentional self-sabotage. But what is almost certainly the case was that it was not the work of the Spanish. Yet that was exactly what the US navy and media claimed it to be, with William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers whipping the US public up into a pro-war frenzy. Hearst was the Rupert Murdoch of his time, and according to his biographers “routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phoney pictures and distorted real events”. Hearst was Orson Welles’ model for Citizen Kane.

The US defeated the lacklustre Spanish forces and Cuba was given the semblance of independence, but on terms that suited the US. At the signing of the peace treaty that ended the three year Spanish-Cuban-American war, no Cuban representative was even invited. The “Platt Amendment” was, after initial protestations from the Cuban Assembly, adopted into the brand new Cuban Constitution of 1902. Amongst other things it permitted U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs whenever the United States deemed necessary (including militarily), straightjacketed Cuba to essentially conducting foreign policy only with the United States, prevented the country from contracting any debt, and gave the US rights to any land it wanted for coaling or naval purposes. It was this agreement that to this day leads to there being a US military base in Guantánamo Bay. The US had been trying to buy Cuba from Spain for over a century. When the appetite for independence made that impossible, a legal straightjacket was the next best thing.

The Platt Amendment was an insult to any Cuban with more than a sliver of pride, especially after hundreds of thousands of Cubans had died for independence. To the US, their model for Cuba was of a “self-governing colony of the USA”. But this arrogance helped Cuba develop a larger movement for even-more-radical revolution, directed at the Americans.

My photo set “Havana, Cuba” on flickr

For the first half of the 20th century, Cuba’s position was good for the US: by the 1920s US companies owned two-thirds of Cuba’s farmland, and most of its energy and mineral resources. The sugar export industry was in full swing. The Mafia moved into Havana and Al Capone set up a tourist trade based on drinking, gambling and prostitution.

From the Cuban point of view, things were not so good. Cubans endured a succession of weak corrupt governments, military interventions by the US, coups d’états and military dictators. In fact a remarkably similar pattern to that of Guatemala in the 60s, 70s and 80s, or for that matter Nicaragua from 1909 to 1979, or Panamá from 1903 to 1989. Or Chile from 1973 to 1990. Or El Salvador and Honduras for most of the 20th century. What all these countries had in common in these periods is that the United States had gotten what it wanted (access to huge markets, of sugar, coffee, bananas, minerals, energy, land, copper) and then the US just stood back and benefited from them while the populations inside those countries were racked by a consistent lack of respect for human life and livelihoods. In the case of Guatemala it ended with the poor majority admitting defeat after decades of extermination, in Nicaragua the poor majority kind of won but at the expense of militarism and an uneasy accommodation with Western consumer-capitalism. In Panamá the poor thoroughly lost after decades of dictatorship, and only in Cuba did the poor majority really find a unassailable voice, in the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and people such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Unlike in Guatemala, the US never managed to foster a Cuban counter-revolution. The Bay of Pigs invasion and attempted counter-revolution failed miserably. To this day Cuba remains the only country in the world ever to have resisted an attempted counter-revolution by the United States of America.

Yet Cuba is clearly a flawed nation. Only China has more imprisoned journalists, the death penalty still exists, freedom of movement is severely restricted and party political parties (except for the Communist Party) are banned, even though there are elections of sorts.

But my experience of Cuba is that many Cubans get along just fine in that context. It’s vital to give credence to the obvious outrages and tragedies that do happen, to the small fortune needed to ever leave the country, to the dire consequences of speaking out publicly against the government, to the daily snooping and petty bureaucracy, to the constant grind and hypocrisy of ordinary people having to procure essential goods on the black market, but at the same time my overall experience is honestly that Cubans are getting something out of the revolution. What Cuba lacks in fine cuisine it makes up for in fine rum, in cigars, in music that all of Latin America listens to. There is a strong sense of family, of friendship, of neighbourhood, of history, of community. In Cuba, everybody has a home of some sort, however basic. Everybody has access to some basic food. Everybody has access to (decent) healthcare. And everybody has the right to a job. And not just the right, theoretically. Everybody has a job.

At the same time, a Cuban friend told me, the monthly food rations the government gives out are laughable, barely enough to feed someone for a week, let alone a month. Housing in Havana especially is under terrible strain, with some houses holding many families. In the centre of Havana the beautiful historical buildings are so decrepit that many don’t wait for the government bulldozers; they fall down of their own accord, sometimes killing their residents. The education and healthcare are excellent but they have trained so many doctors they’re having to send them abroad to put them to good use (for example in the case of Venezuela, where Cuba sends doctors in return, bizarrely, for oil), and a guaranteed job isn’t necessarily a godsend if you don’t like the one you’re lumped with.

Racism is evident, although to my eyes much less so than in the rest of Latin America. Black Cubans – as well as having a rich cultural heritage that is embedded in mainstream Cuban culture – receive the same state benefits as white or mixed-race Cubans, at the very least. Although, one night walking with some Cuban students, it was our black friends that the police singled out for special hassle and scrutiny.

Yet Cuba’s failings in democracy and economics are a direct result of a government trying to forge a path almost completely different to every other country in the world (and one which couldn’t be much more different from the United States). If statistics such as their enviable life expectancy (slightly better than the United States), free university education and economic figures are anything to go by, after a long period of instability Cuba could be doing a lot worse. Especially as much-abused Caribbean island nations go. And in fact it does seems to be doing quite a lot better, than, say, Guatemala.

One thing stands out above all else: Cuba’s environmental sustainability. Yes, Cuba is still very dependent on imports, on the tourist trade and on foreign remittances sent back by family members abroad. But on a WWF index, Cuba was the only country in the world to fall into the bracket of “sustainable”. Many Cuban cars haven’t been tuned up since the 1950s and Havana traffic will give you a head cold. But overall in terms of environmental sustainability, in their growing of organic food, in their lack of dependence on pesticides and herbicides, Cuba is a worthy example.

Of course Cuba’s low relative dependence on oil was largely forced: with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 almost overnight Cuba’s oil supply dropped from 30 million tonnes to 4 million tonnes. Over the next ten years, Cuba was forced to adapt to this change (see the film “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”). But that doesn’t take away the scale of the achievement, and the people are largely happy despite the small size of their carbon footprint.

In my time in Havana I spent an afternoon with world-renowned Cuban energy and agriculture expert Roberto Pérez. We were in the centre of Havana, in the house of his mother. His wife, Michelle, is an Australian. We ate sandwiches while we talked. He tells me that 25 to 35 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are down to food. It matters. Most of what he tells me is uncontroversial (from my point of view at least): that the world is heavily dependent upon oil, that this is destroying our climate and therefore our own global life-support system, that the rich countries of the world are largely at fault in this, and that the moment of peak extraction of oil is coming in the next few years or has possibly already passed. After that time oil will become more and more scarce, more and more expensive, and all the infrastructure that the world has set up to run on oil, will cease to function, including the global food supply.

No matter, Roberto says, because in his opinion the catastrophic effects of climate change will devastate the world economy before peak oil has the opportunity to do so.

Roberto does not come across to me as a zealous socialist, or a zealous environmentalist either. He is a quiet permaculturalist, a scholar, a gardener; proud of his country, yes, but thoughtful about its challenges. He tells me: “The values of ordinary Cubans even before ’59 were already more socialistic and community-minded: the Afro-Spanish mindset was a lot less individualistic than the Anglo-Saxon mindset. The Revolution helped alot. People adapted, shared, looked out for each other”.

“The situation is very different in Britain. England has 50 million people on a land the size of Cuba. Big crunch. Big problem. For you, at least for the corporations, food has stopped being food, and has become a commodity. That’s not a good idea.

“People in England are not going to react like people in Cuba. The individualistic mindset of British people will hurt them; Cubans are already focussed on basic needs, so in a crisis, we have a big advantage”.

Cuba has been inventive, having little, and making do with less: Roberto tells me that up to the 1990s 30% of Cuba’s electricity came from burning sugar cane waste bagasse.

My photo set “Cuban Countryside” on flickr

Roberto’s praise is not limited to Cuba, and he cites Sweden and Denmark as examples of countries high in environmental intelligence. And there are clearly advantages to state planning: Cuba had an “Energy Revolution” where within six months they had changed every lightbulb in the country, away from incandescent and onto energy-saving fluorescent bulbs. “Australia is doing the same in three years. Britain, the US? Not at all”.

Cuban agriculture became four times more productive after the crash and the withdrawal of fossil fuels.
The government parcelled out land: 13 hectares a piece. People started squatting unused land and farming it. The government allowed them. By contrast, the British government is busy cracking down on any hint of squatting. “The moment you stop struggling”, Roberto advises me “you’re one step closer to death”.

Roberto and Matt

Roberto and Matt

I go into his mother’s kitchen. I tell him that somebody’s left the gas ring on, full blast. He comes in: it’s okay, he tells me, because this (he points to the burning gas) is free, but this (he picks up the box of matches) we have to pay for. “So we just leave it on, in case we want to light something”.

I hope he doesn’t see the stupefied look on my face. After everything we’ve discussed, it’s still clear that the Cuban way of doing things creates some crazy contradictions. They say that Cuba is the country where everything illegal is legal and everything legal is illegal. And sometimes everything insane is sane and everything sane is insane. Such are the contradictions of Cuba.

A different friend, sitting at a bar across town in fashionable Vedado (I’m paying), is more critical. People on “the left” in Britain, in Europe, in America, don’t understand how right-wing the Cuban government is, he tells me, how sexist, how racist, how authoritarian. Education is deteriorating, he feels. Furthermore, he sees elements of “privatisation” and individualism creeping-in to the Cuban socialist system: “Families who can afford it are sending their children to private tutors after school until 8pm”. Houses are sold twice: with one price on the official market and for a completely different price (often many many times higher) under the table.

The Casas Familiares, the registered private homes in which tourists can legally stay, seem fortunate because they get tourist money. But in fact they are heavily taxed whether or not they have paying guests, and are themselves are in competition with the government-run hotels. The risk – which is substantial – is for the individual family. The government wins either way.

He feels the country is riven with laws that don’t make a lot of sense, that punish people unfairly, and that put people in an impossible position. For example every time an unlicensed street vendor gets caught selling a lollipop to a tourist, his offence is registered; get caught three times and he goes to jail for eight months. Yet the black market thrives in Cuba because just so many normally-legitimate channels of income are prohibited, and people are caught in the trap between obeying the law and suffering from severe poverty, or flouting it and gaining enough money to live.

Reform is coming, slowly, with the handover from Fidel to Raoul, but it looks like that reform is in the way of Western individualism and market forces that will entrench Cuba’s remaining inequalities, not help them.

In the end the most remarkable thing for me, the most inspiring thing, and perhaps the most surprising thing is that Cuba exists at all. There has been and still is so much historical and social and economic and political pressure for Cuba to be what the US would have it be. And what would Cuba be like then? A poor export-centered Caribbean island desperately working for US dollars… like the Dominican Republic, or Haiti (the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and not without its own history of brutal repression)?

Or, like Guatemala and most of Central America, with a few hundred thousand extra gravestones to testify to its adherence to market-based US-backed corporate globalisation?

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Some more of my photos of Guatemala are here:

Antigua, Guatemala
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala