The left loves to romanticise Cuba. After all, if you take care not to look too hard, socialism in the sun doesn’t seem so bad.
The softer side of the revolution is epitomised by that quintessentially Cuban institution, the subsidised, state-run ice-cream parlour. ‘Coppelia’ is the best-known chain of outlets – and the subject of a sympathetic, though revealing, report by Jason Motlagh in the Guardian.
The enterprise was created on the orders of Fidel Castro himself:
“Castro decided that Cuba needed to respond on a revolutionary scale by creating something bigger and better than anything his Yankee rivals could muster, yet priced low enough for everyone to enjoy. ¡Helado por el pueblo! Ice-cream, socialised.”
At the equivalent of four US cents a scoop, prices are very low indeed. Then again, they have to be – ordinary working Cubans are locked into a state-sanctioned salary of just $20 a month. A tub of Ben and Jerry’s would therefore set them back a week’s wages, or thereabouts.
Whether Cuba’s socialist ice-cream is as good as Vermont’s finest export isn’t clear (though Motlagh gives the impression that quality has declined over the years). Following standard socialist practice, Cubans also have to join a very long queue to get any.
In a scene to warm any British heart, the author describes Cuban queuing practice:
“Walking up to the end of a line, a patron calls out, ‘¿Ultimo?’, and whoever is last will reply. Now they know whom to follow, freeing them to wait wherever they please. The next arrival may do the same thing, and leave to use the restroom or have a drink. Whenever the line starts to advance, a half-dozen people might materialise out of nowhere, falling into place in precise order.”
It’s amazing how people can spontaneously organise themselves, isn’t it? It’s almost like they don’t need an all-powerful centralised state to tell them what to do.
The author claims that queuing is integral to the experience:
“Coppelia is as much about communion as ice-cream – an enduring touchstone for the revolution’s utopian ideals. Cubans of all ages, black and white, rich and poor, can gather under one roof to share a simple pleasure. The anticipation of getting inside, and getting to know the people standing next to you, is part of the fun.”
Except that if you have access to hard currency you can jump the queue:
“If you were willing (and able) to pay about $1 per scoop in convertible pesos, you could try more flavours and find gratification in an instant…”
I’m also willing to bet a 99 Flake with strawberry topping that senior members of the ruling Communist Party get their ice-cream anytime they like.
It’s worth noting that the regime’s ability to subsidise certain goods and services has always relied on subsidies to the regime:
“Crisis struck in 1990 when communist East Germany, the country’s second-largest trading partner, reunited with West Germany, cutting off millions of dollars’ worth of powdered milk and other essential food shipments. The Soviet Union, on the verge of collapse, stopped sending butter. Lacking hard currency to buy these products outright, and without enough cows to supply milk, Cuban authorities had to make a critical choice: butter or ice-cream.”
Today, Cuba depends on cheap oil imports from its socialist ally, Venezuela. However, with that country’s economy in meltdown, the Castros have little option but to draw closer to the Yankee imperialists across the Florida Straits.
Perhaps the day is coming when ordinary Cubans will be allowed to make their own economic decisions.