Last month I spent 10 days in Cuba to see for myself the effects of 55 years of communist rule since the revolution in 1959.
During most of that time Cuba had been presided over by Fidel Castro, despite several alleged attempts by the CIA to have him assassinated. His low-profile brother Raul took over from the increasingly frail Fidel in 2006, and has since April 2011 encouraged imports of cars, Cuban private ownership of real estate, Cubans having small businesses, agrarian reform, and government joint venture agreements with Canadian, European, and Asian corporations.
The US still does not have formal diplomatic relations with Cuba and maintains an embargo that makes it illegal for US corporations to do business with Cuba.
The most obvious signs of communism for the visitor are the lack of advertising, large hoardings with revolutionary messages, excellent - but largely empty - highways, lack of fast food outlets, poor service from government employees, and the government-controlled two currency system - which means that tourists use Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUCs (one is worth $US1), while the locals use national pesos - with one CUC worth around 20 national pesos. Businesses serving Cubans do not use CUCs.
Most consumer goods and hotel services are quoted in CUCs. The cost of goods and services in Cuba for tourists is much the same as it is in Australia.
In terms of governance, government is largely unseen and unnoticed, and seems to work reasonably well, much the same as it was in the ACT before expensive self-government was foisted on us by Bob Hawke in 1989.
There is a large security intelligence building in Havana tucked behind a giant sculpture of Che Guevara, but not as large as the equivalent ASIO building in Canberra. The tourist guides did not seem bothered about their comments being monitored and seemed to be quite candid about the pros and cons of living in Cuba. It is not a democratic system but is probably as representative of the people as the "democratic" systems in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most obvious effects of communism and the American embargo are shortages of most consumer items, including soap and car parts. Fidel stopped car imports after 1959, basically because they could not afford to import such expensive "luxury" items. This has allowed some Cuban expats in the US to prosper by smuggling car parts for Cuba's pre-1959 American vehicles into Cuba via Mexico.
Members of the US Cuban community have also conducted terrorist attacks in Cuba and elsewhere. One of their Miami members is Luis Carriles who has been convicted in absentia in Panama of involvement in various terrorist attacks and plots in the Americas, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 78 people.
Carriles is also wanted by Cuba and Venezuela. On September 28, 2005, a US immigration judge ruled that Carriles could not be deported, finding that he faced the threat of torture.
The US has been tolerant of the excesses of Cuban Americans because the Cuban community in Florida is a key voting bloc. During the disputed 2000 election, the Cuban-American vote in Miami Dade County was the difference in George W. Bush winning Florida, and with it the presidency over Al Gore.
Cuban official flags are not run up to the top of flagpoles, due to what Cuba regards as the continuing illegal US occupation of Guantanamo. Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is located on 120 square kilometres of land and water at the south-eastern end of Cuba. It was leased as a coaling and naval station in the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903 (for $US2000 a year till 1934, and $US4085 a year since 1938).
Since 1959, the Cuban government has consistently protested against the US presence on Cuban soil and called it illegal under modern international law since it was imposed on Cuba by force. It has also declined to accept the lease payments.
Both the UK and Canada have embassies in Havana. The UK looks after some Australian issues, such as Australian visitors in trouble. While the US has no official diplomatic presence, it has a large building housing an "Interests Section" which looks to be far larger than any other diplomatic mission and takes up the whole of a small city block, with lots of rooftop antennas. The area was surrounded by guards every 50 metres. I counted 20 of them. It was not clear whether their remit is to protect American officials, keep them in, or keep Cubans out.
Cubans' main concern is that their salaries do not allow them to exist with any degree of comfort. Our tourist guide officially only earns 25CUC a month. However, his tips for a week guiding tour groups would be around 250CUC. This means that employment serving tourists is very sought after.
Small private retail businesses are encouraged, but in some sectors the government is reluctant to allow free enterprise. I went scuba diving and the dive master told me he wants to set up his own business, but has been blocked from doing so. Most of his equipment had been donated to him by Canadians in exchange for free dives, so he has everything he needs to go private.
Apparently the government does not want to let go of lucrative businesses. His government salary was again only 25CUC a month, so he was dependent on the goodwill of his dive customers to maintain a very basic standard of living.
Cubans have free education and health care, and access to coupon shops which allow them a basic ration of food staples per month. Sometimes, however, the shops run out of some items. As one Cuban told me, "We pretend to work for the government and they pretend to feed us".
Our tour guide told us that Cubans refer to the period since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the COMECON economic assistance program as the "Special Period", because since then life has been tough. But it seemed to me that the situation is improving as the government loosens controls on private enterprise. More Cuban families are seen in restaurants that in the past could only be afforded by foreigners.
Cubans seem to be reasonably happy by disposition and not bitter about US policies towards their country since 1959, saying it is "all politics" and not the same as the amicable people-to-people relationships with visiting Americans. They are also proud of their top baseball players in the US major league.
Americans can visit Cuba with a special permit, and can also slip in unofficially via Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas - but risk a $250,000 fine if found out when they return to the US. While more than a million Canadians visit Cuba each year, I was surprised to run into more Americans there than Canadians. Most of the foreigners are Canadians, Europeans - particularly from Spain - and Chinese.
Cubans still cannot leave Cuba without special permission. Boat travel to outlying islands is controlled. Our tour guide was not allowed to accompany members of our group who went on a snorkelling trip to an offshore island. Fishermen off the Malecon seafront esplanade in Havana use small inflatables to fish from, presumably because they are not trusted with boats.
It is only 176 kilometres from Cuba to Florida. Most Cubans have access to foreign television, but even so, few expressed any interest in leaving permanently.
Much of the charm of Cuba for tourists is the old cars, cheerful and proud people, amazing buildings and lively music. Ironically, one of the benefits of the US embargo has been to help preserve what tourists find most delightful about Cuba.
Clive Williams is an adjunct professor at Macquarie University's Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism (PICT), and a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.