Outside View: 'Crumbling elegance'? Do me a favour. Let's get real about Cuba

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The Independent Online

I must admit, I greeted the news that Fidel Castro was stepping down with great pleasure. It is amazing how so many of us on the liberal wing of politics have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by his mad regime. It is cruel and oppressive and has reduced his people to misery.

Cuba is a textbook example of how political mismanagement can push entire nations to the breadline. Economic statistics are wrapped up in propaganda. Thus we are told the economy surged 12 per cent last year, and wage growth was 5 per cent. The reality is that average incomes are estimated at $15 (£7.60) a month and the population live close to poverty. More than 50 per cent of housing is unsanitary.

Supposed achievements of Castro's Cuba are cleverly put out for external consumption – mainly the high level of literacy and the very low level of infant mortality. But given the absence of a free press in Cuba, it is hard to be sure that even these achievements are real. Talk of doctors begging tourists for aspirins hardly equates with a thriving health system.

Too often the darker side of Cuba is hidden by the lack of free reporting. There was a famous mass trial in 2003 of dissidents and journalists which saw 75 condemned to imprisonment. Some were found guilty for the thought crime of "lending books".

One conference now under way is seeking to highlight Cuba's treatment of gays, who continue to be hounded out of homes and jobs, and in some cases are actually incarcerated. The notorious UMAP labour camps set up by Castro included "re-education" of gays in their remit.

It is worth pausing to quantify the repression. The list of crimes, imprisonments and hardships is a long one, but the number of politically motivated executions is powerful enough in its own right: 30,000.

It is against this background that I get a bit irritated by friends who plan holidays in the "roman- tic, crumbling elegance of old Havana". Western tourists have been cleverly manipulated – their hard currency is now the single biggest factor in Cuba's ramshackle economy. The pursuit of crumbling elegance sounds dangerously like poverty tourism.

Now, we may at last have some grounds for hope. The Cuban economy has never really worked since the revolution. It was propped up for years by relatively massive Soviet subsidies that disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed. It is estimated that something like 80 per cent of Cuban industry shut down in the ensuing years.

More recently a new paymaster has been found: Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, has been pouring economic aid into the country – estimated at more than $10bn. The Chinese have also played their part, rising fast to become Cuba's second major trading partner.

Of course, the US's continuing trade embargo hasn't helped. Is it now time to end this? I'm torn on this one, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that any crack in the repressive regime can only be widened by a more free exchange of commerce. And there are plenty of businessmen chomping at the bit to do this. The Rice Growers Association of America even went as far as citing the "fabulous $300m market just waiting to be opened up".

I think we've got a little further to go on the income side before that happens. In the meantime, let's get real about Cuba.