Berniecrats Should Visit Havana

Havana CubaI recently returned from a trip to Havana, Cuba. Bernie Sanders and all of his young acolytes should visit for the fine cigars, good rum and, most importantly for them, an up close view of socialism in the real world. I brought home legal amounts of the former two commodities, and have re-affirmed that I want no part of the latter.

A romantic notion of Cuba, and Havana in particular, one that I shared before my visit, is that Cuba is stuck in the 1950s. There is a very real nostalgia in modern pictures of those cool now 60 year old cars with vibrant paint jobs, still running on cobblestone streets among old buildings haunted by the likes of Earnest Hemingway and unsavory long-gone underworld figures. To me, at least from the pictures of a Havana so firmly planted in the fifties, it seemed like Hemingway – or decidedly worse, Che Guevara or Fidel Castro himself – might come around a corner at any moment.

But my trip very much changed my mind. The real Havana is quite different, much worse, and socialism is to blame.

Havana is not stuck in a time warp. The fifties ended there, just like they did everywhere else. The difference is, because of socialism, no one has fixed anything in Havana since the fifties. Those sweet old cars? Get in one and all illusions disappears. They ride like they are rolling across railroad tracks. The interiors are gutted. The doors are practically rusted shut, and more rust peaks out from beneath those fancy paint jobs.

Meanwhile, the buildings are dilapidated – those that are not already crumbling to the ground. On a tour bus, my guide informed us that “we are now entering the wealthy part of town.” You would never know it because the “wealthy” neighborhoods are those that were new in the fifties. Today, they are as run down as all the other neighborhoods. From their appearance, virtually nothing has been done to maintain them. Indeed, virtually nothing except hideous sixties-era soviet style blockish apartment housing appears to have been built in Havana since the nineteen-fifties. And then nothing has been done to repair any of it since.

I even had a chance to see Revolution Square, the central spot where Castro would deliver his hours long harangues to the assembled masses. It was eye opening. I expected something like the Mall in Washington, D.C., a vast, well maintained public space and place of pride for Cuba. In fact, it is a parking lot. Literally. With grass and weeds sprouting up through asphalt cracks.

Nothing in Havana is new or maintained, from those photogenic cars to the housing to the public spaces. Time did not stop in the fifties. It soldiered on, leaving a tired, worn out, run down town, with a public spirit seemingly as dead and buried as Hemingway, Guevara and now Fidel.

Again, socialism is to blame.

“How so?” a young Berniecrat might fairly ask.

One of my tour guides explained: Following the “success of the Revolution,” private ownership disappeared. The public – meaning of course, the government – owns everything. Gradually, some private property has returned. For example, it is possible for a Cuban to own his or her own apartment. But, my tour guide continued, the people own the apartment building itself.

Not surprisingly, “the people” are unwilling to pay to maintain “their” buildings. That is socialism. When everyone owns the building, no one fixes the plumbing or heating or the crumbling infrastructure. When everyone owns the park, no one weeds or otherwise cares for the grounds. Havana demonstrates that socialism is a recipe for creeping dilapidation. Even Berniecrats should want no part of that.

It need not be this way. Before the “success of the Revolution,” Havana was by all accounts truly a wealthy, vibrant place. It had money, a functioning economy, and a robust private sector. No one would argue that it was without fault, just as no one would argue that any society anywhere at any time in the history of the world is without fault.  But Havana was not then crumbling into poverty and stale disrepair.

The city has much to offer. The people were friendly and open, the cuisine delicious. Havana’s history could support a vibrant tourist trade, with its commodities of world-class cigars and rum merely leading the list of commercial opportunities to pull this island nation from poverty.

But “success of the Revolution?” Hardly. Poor, tired, old Havana is what you get with what the socialist are selling. Go to Havana and take a look at it in real life, not theory. Bring back cigars if you are so inclined, but leave the ideology there.

Don Wagner is the Mayor of Irvine, a former California State Assembly Member, and attorney with Best Best & Krieger LLP.