When President Fidel Castro attended the Nonaligned Summit in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1976, I was on the roadside watching him from a distance. It was a euphoric moment for a teenager from the rural countryside in Sri Lanka. Some 28 years later in Havana, as an American citizen, I was with him as if it were a surreal encounter of the second kind.
In 2004, President Castro invited a group of faculty members from the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea Program when the ship arrived in Havana. I served as a visiting professor of economics and public policy at SAS. Naturally, my euphoria was rekindled. It was indeed an exhilarating experience.
For my faculty colleagues, it was a few moments of euphoria as well, for different reasons. I had an experience of socialism during my formative years in Sri Lanka so that I could easily connect with the Cuban experiment. For my colleagues, it was a rare opportunity to converse with Castro and to watch him up and close. To me, Castro was a charming speaker, a skillful politician and an indisputably charismatic and likable leader – despite the fact our worldviews differ on a number of issues.
Soul of Cuba
After meeting with Castro on a number of subsequent field trips with American students in Cuba, I observed a new transformation in this Caribbean island of 11 million people. By overthrowing the Batista regime and his capitalistic and authoritarian rule, Castro launched a Marxian approach to human progress through the education and health-care delivery systems. It was a successful socialist experiment until the early 1990s.
With the championing of such socialist policies, Castro had been a role model for many Third World leaders but the glamour of his policies began to fade as he aged. With the collapse of the former Soviet Union and its patron, Mikhail Gorbachev, Cuba could not sustain its subsidized economy. The socialist revolution got a new twist: a silent restructuring process of Castroika.
Despite the U.S. economic sanctions, many other Western countries, including Canada, have developed economic relations and business partnerships with the socialist regime. Cuba’s hotel and hospitality industry is now on partnerships with foreign companies. Hence, the dollarization of Cuba is undermining the peso economy. The gradual freedom for micro-entrepreneurship has also unleashed the taste of capitalism. The birth of Castroika – restructuring and openness – began to blossom especially with the historic visit by Pope John Paul in 1998 when Cubans gained new religious freedom.
Each passing day, the aging Castro might be emerging as a born-again “faithful” (Fidel meant faithful) in associating with his former Catholic identity. Interestingly, during our meeting, he expounded on spirituality and the affinity for religious necessity in human progress. It appeared that Castro has had an enlightening experience for an internal transformation and restructuring of his own soul.
The Cuban leader and his people have developed a romantic relationship with Minnesota. Everyone I talked to knew Minnesota and its Gov. Jesse Ventura, the colorful former professional wrestler. In 2002, Ventura led the Minnesota trade delegation at the U.S. Food and Agriculture Exhibition in Havana.
The Cuban-Minnesota trade relations go back to 1992 when the U.S. Congress allowed the sales of health-care products to the island. The Minnesota-based Medtronic (the leading provider of the pacemaker) and St. Jude Medical began business dealings with Cuba after congressional authorization. The Minnetonka-based giant agribusiness company Cargill had also been trading with Havana.
Ventura and Cargill representatives left a long-lasting, positive impression among the younger generation. I noticed that Cargill left its trademark icon with Cuba’s young and professional communities. Two of my tour guides from the University of Havana, who spoke English fairly well, had Cargill signs either on their T-shirts or on their lanyards. Surprisingly, they were more eager to know more about Minnesota, especially about Jesse “The Body” Ventura and his political ascendance, than educating us on Cuban affairs.
Glocalization of Cuba
With my Cuban encounter and my own cross-cultural living, I began to see a more of the “glocalization” in Cuba than globalization. Castroika is a unique process of glocalization, an interplay of global and local forces to restructure the Cuban society. In my book, “Glocalization: The Human Side of Globalization as If the Washington Consensus Mattered,” I presented my observation as a silent glocalization, which is taking place around each of us and throughout the world.
Cuba is one of these case studies of glocalization. As I traveled with SAS, I observed a number of other case studies: The urban poverty in Brazil, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, the Maasai culture in Tanzania, the yuppieness in India, the Asian holocaust in Cambodia, the Niketown in Vietnam, the Confucian character in China and South Korea, and the Japanization of Buddhism. All of which are experiencing glocalization, not necessarily globalization as we know it.
As Castro fades away day by day, the unfulfilled “socialist dream” might well be a Castroika-type “Cuban dream” which is more likely to be shaped by the way Cuba’s response to global forces – a glocalization of Cuba. The speed of such transformation for a Cuban dream will largely depend on the level of freedom in Havana and the power of Cuban Diaspora in the United States.
Professor Patrick Mendis, a University of Minnesota alumnus and a former American diplomat, is the author of “Glocalization: The Human Side of Globalization as if the Washington Consensus Mattered.” Please send comments to [email protected]