The sanctioned, sleeping beauties awake
(Written for Gateway House on June 2nd, 2016)
There is something about American sanctions on countries. They are thorough. They are brutal. They strangle the financial system and beggar the population, demonise the leadership, provoke capital and elite flight, and entrench the very regimes they are trying to punish.
Yet, they do something else too: they keep countries intact. The populations, though chafing under the heavy hand that holds them back, are largely patriotic. They learn the art of jugaad, i.e., making do with what’s available and making products last, way beyond their expiration date, often leading to local innovation. Under pressure to prove their worth, the blacklisted regimes do provide more than the bare necessities to maintain legitimacy with their people. Infrastructure usually improves, and the basics of life— most notably, education and healthcare—are provided to all.
As revenue generation and global trade are restrained, there is no extra money for much else. The preservation of high culture is encouraged and supported by the state, but public expenditure on architecture, and similar aesthetics that have little to do with regime survival, is not. So, unlike the internal revolutions of the Soviet Union and China (and more recently, of the Islamic State, or ISIS) which deliberately destroyed their nation’s heritage, the architecture of sanctioned countries typically stays in place, frozen in time and well preserved.
This is true of all three countries sanctioned by the United States for decades, which have been released from its iron grip by President Obama: Iran, Cuba, and Myanmar. It means that once they emerge from sanctions, they are not entirely crippled but have something valuable to offer the world.
A visitor to any of these nations will be struck by the presence of these elements that act as the glue for a sanctions-oppressed people. Most visible are the educated population: doctors, engineers, administrators (save for Mynamar). Literacy in Cuba is 98%; in Myanmar, 92%; and in Iran, 82%. Cuba’s healthcare is enviable; the World Health Organization (WHO) says, it is an example for the world. In fact, Cuba exports its doctors regionally, and to Africa, where it has set up hospitals in places only western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Doctors Without Borders will go.
Iran has a similarly impressive healthcare system: so advanced, Shiraz is one of the leading centres of cosmetic surgery—especially for rhinoplasty, or ‘nose jobs’ —in West Asia. Only Myanmar lags behind in healthcare.
Not only do these societies have education and healthcare, they also enjoy remittances and culture. Restricted from global financial exchanges and, like Cuba, deprived of funding from a benefactor like Russia once the latter began to decline, people in these nations are heavily dependent on remittances. In 2013, over 1.2 million Cuban émigrés, a majority of them now living as U.S. citizens in the sanction imposing nation, sent home over $3.5 billion. In 2015, an estimated 5 million overseas Burmese informally remitted an estimated $10 billion home while the over 5 million-strong Iranian diaspora sent home an estimated $2 billion.
What these societies lack as they emerge from the era of sanctions are jobs and disposable income. This is where expatriates play an important role: remittances keep their families from a dull state-directed life, providing them with the extra income they need to live beyond the basics.
Expatriates also keep their culture alive outside their home countries: crafts by Burmese are found next door in Thailand; classical and modern ballet and jazz is performed by Cubans in America and Europe; and high art and film is produced and showcased by Iranians living in the West.
Expatriates will also be the first to invest back home, and provide those much-needed jobs and services that will get these economies going. Till then, though their existence in a time warp, there is much that is attractive for the world to explore. Tourists and scholars are pouring into Cuba, Iran, and Myanmar, to observe and analyse these nations’ transitions into normalcy. What is readily available for display is the talent, culture, and architecture of these rich cultures, and their vintage cars.
The cars in all three countries are old and still running, thanks to local ingenuity. Cuba has the majority of American 1950s models—like the Dodge, Cadillac, Chevy—and even the boxy Russian Lada. These are kept functional by the genius of local mechanics and regularly make 500km drives around the country. Tehran has Mustangs and Chevys, but also plenty of old Peugeots plying the city’s European-style streets, spewing a storm of pollution. Then, there is, of course, the majestic collection of Rolls Royce’s, Lamborghinis, and Jaguars of the former Shah of Iran, most of which are now nearly 50 years old.
Myanmar has mostly old Japanese cars and, unlike Iran and Cuba, a population that mostly walks. Yet, it makes up for it in its architecture. Yangon’s best buildings are not just those of the Shwedegon Pagoda, but its old institutions, homes, and hotels as well, now in the process of preservation. Yangon resembles old Calcutta, with its tall-columned structures, and is, ironically, far better preserved. Across Mynamar, old buildings that can be saved are being turned into boutique hotels, as in Iran and Cuba, where long drives into the interiors are usually via excellent roads and terminate at well-appointed abodes, each with an interesting history.
All three countries have begun to realise the value of their structures, and their capital cities now have a guardian, official or self-appointed, who is motivated to show the best face of the city to the world. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the powerful mayor of Tehran (who ran in presidential elections twice) manages a robust, roaring city of 25 million with old and new buildings, museums, and plazas. The showpiece of this collection is the deposed Shah’s palace and possessions, especially his cars and his jewels. Art is given much prominence: European museum art is highlighted on hoardings across Tehran, as is Revolution or American Embassy-takeover art, on office and government buildings.
Author and private citizen U Thant Mynt is the Yangon’s fierce guardian, working tirelessly to restore whatever is possible. While in Havana, it is Eusebio Leal Spengler who is in charge of its restoration as the Historian of the City. This position was created in the 1990s by the Castro government as it was faced with crumbling, but valuable buildings and no revenue from tourism. Eusebio Leal has been restoring the city, bit by bit, and that effort is ongoing and visible.
Old Havana and New Havana sit side by side, the magnificence of their architecture popularised by Cuban émigré authors like Hermes Mallea, whose book on the old homes of Havana is a guide to the beauty and glamour of the country’s mansions and theatres built by the sugarcane fortunes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the most spectacular restorations credited to Leal in Havana is the Gran Teatro, which can compete with the Lincoln Centre in New York City and National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai. Havana’s restoration brought Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld to the city on May 4, where he launched his 2016-17 Caribbean fashion collection right out in the city’s magnificent, mosaic-tiled Paseo el Prado.
Soon, these countries will join the global economies and become indistinguishable from any other. Till then, it is best to take in the art and culture, and keep a lookout for investment opportunities as they present themselves.