Reflections on Cuba…..

I spent the last 26 days in Cuba; travelling through Havana, Trinidad, Santiago, Baracoa and Vinales. A fascinating place to say the least. The landscape in both urban towns and rural villages was amazing. Not a single advertisement and consumer culture non existent (with the exception of built up tourist locations).  The people extraordinarily friendly. The weather unbearably hot. It is a society (and system) remarkably different to any other country I have visited. There is practically no capitalist exchange and popular support for the ‘revolution’ (short hand for socialist way of life) appears to hold strong (although most Cubans want specific changes detailed below).

Cubans tend to be aware of the positive aspects of their regime, and broadly support egalitarian policies (security, health and education) but critical (if they open up) of not being allowed to think and feel what they want. Either you are a communist or not. If you are on the outside, you wont make very many friends, or progress in your career, or if you are very vocal; end up in prison.  No one we met talked about the need for more ‘choice’ via ‘competitive’ elections. This ‘democratic’ question appears to be an external rather than an internal concern for Cuban people. Throughout the trip we stayed and ate with Cuban families in ‘casa da la particulars’. These are houses where the government has allowed the family to rent out a room to tourists. It is a great way to meet and chat to Cuban people. The food is also much better than what you get in state restaurants. Whilst they generate a lot of money for the government, it is obvious that the families renting out rooms are emerging as a new ‘middle class’ in Cuban society. An emergence which is causing some tension.

I finished reading ‘The Spirit Level, Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’ during the trip, and the content was directly relevant to my experience of Cuban society. The average Cuban earns €10 a month. Skilled professionals (doctors, university professors, engineers) earn €30 a month. The economy,when compared to western economies is in dire straits, the cause of which is more directly relevant to the trade embargo than the communist system. Tourism has become essential to the Cuban economy. Since the collapse of the ex Soviet states, Cuba has had no trading partners. But, in recent years, with the rise of popular socialism across Latin America this has gradually changed. Chavez has been giving oil to Cuba for little or nothing and trade relations between the two countries gradually increasing. Most Cubans know what is happening outside their country, and have wide access to Latin American TV (but no Internet). Literacy levels are higher than many places in Europe, and the people acutely aware of social and economic issues effecting both them and the global world.

Most Cubans we met wanted more growth in the economy. They also want to get rid of the dual currency (Tourists use the Cuban dollar, 1 dollar  = €0.80) which is driving prices up for the average Cuban. It also means that everyone wants to access the dollar in order to buy commodities non available in the national peso. Everywhere we went people asked us for pens which are in short supply. By the end of the trip we had given away almost half of our clothes. It is not that people need clothes out of poverty, but that such simple commodities are not available. And, if they are, you would need access to the Cuban dollar to purchase them. In Trinidad, we went walking in the hills and came across a young girl studying in the university. She asked politely (and embarrassingly) for my shirt. I gave it to her (I had two more in the house we were staying in). Two nights later, whilst sitting on the steps of ‘Casa da la Musique’, my partner nudged me “look over there she said”, I looked up, and there was a young man standing proud as punch wearing my shirt. It was certainly worth more to him than to me.

Due to the lack of available commodity goods, Cubans tend to have a much greater appreciation of the few posessions they own. They fix everything. Everywhere you go you will see men/women with tables on street corners fixing old watches, radios and televisions. They do not have a disposable consumer mentality. We spent a couple of days with a Cuban guy from Trinidad. During this time I dropped my camera in the sea. The next day I went to the house of our Cuban friend. He invited everyone from the town into his house to try fix the camera. They literally spent eight hours taking the camera apart, drying it and re-configuring it. At the end of the day it could not be fixed. The Cubans were extremely upset by this fact. For them, if you own an expensive digital camera, and break it, you are not likely to own another one. Expensive commodities cannot be replaced. The same applies to clothes. They mend, sew and tapper everything rather than dispose and replace.

But, back to the dual currency; to put the effects of this in context; an english speaking tour guide with access to the dollar can have a higher standard of living (materially) than a university professor who does not. This is creating a new class structure that most Cubans resent. However, outside these two primary problems (dual currency and weak economy), most Cubans appear content. This is probably a crude generalisation, but ask anyone who travelled through the country and they will usually say the same thing.  You are more likely to hear music and dance than an argument on the street. They are very patriotic about their country and have a very strong sense of national identity. They are proud of their culture and use any opportunity to exhibit it, most prominetly through song and dance. Cuban’s would certainly like to earn more money, and experience an increase in standards of living. But, not at the expense of increased inequality.  One Cuban (train worker on €10 a month) we met was very focal on the need to earn more money. When I asked him how much he said €30. When I asked him how much a doctor should earn he said €50. More money to increase standards of living but not more income inequality was desired.

The first thing that struck me about Cuba was how safe I felt. At no stage during the trip did I feel threatened. I have travelled in most continents and the Cuban people are the least aggressive society I have ever met, and violence practically non existent. Everyone we met on our travels agreed with this observation. One French-Argentinian guy we met (who travelled right across South-Latin and Central America) was amazed at how safe Cuba was. He studied in Havana for 10 months and reflected on his capacity to walk home at night, through dark unlit streets in Havana, packed full of Cuban youths and not receive anything but an ‘hola’. He lives in the French suburbs, and walking home alone in the dark is something he considered crazy. This complete absence of violence, or aggressive behaviour is arguably the result of two things.

Firstly, Cuba is an authoritarian regime (but remarkably few uniformed police officers on the street) and the consequences of dissident behaviour could be imprisonment. Thus, Cubans are responding to a basic reward and punishment incentive. However, this does not explain why Cubans are so non-aggressive to one another, and feel safe leaving their own doors open whilst chattering and dancing in large groups on the street.  I would argue that they are socialised differently. There is, undoubtedly, a much higher sense of community-solidarity amongst people. And, because the are more equal to one another, have less status anxiety about their social relationships. An engineer may have a daughter studying law, and a son driving a bus. Or, a street cleaner may have a best friend who is a doctor, a wife who is an economist and a son who is a carpenter. This blurring of social hierarchy means that there is less social ghettoising.

This leads to the second observation that struck me in Cuba, and backed up by people we met who had travelled across Latin America. There is no absolute poverty in Cuba. There is no homelessness as everyone has a house (which must be built on for growing families, similar to Arab countries). There is also no drug or substance abuse. You never see people ‘on the street’ as you do in practically every western economy. We met a student doctor entering her final year in medicine who had just completed a three month working placement in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. The difference in both health and social problems between Cuba and these societies, for her, was striking. The French Argentinian guy, we met, had they same experience. The levels of extreme wealth and extreme poverty in countries like Argentina and Brazil (with little or no welfare states) had an obvious effect on him, and easily explains his huge admiration for the Cuban system . Thus, when contextualised and compared to other central and Latin American countries, Cuba, in terms of poverty and the knock on social-health effects scores pretty well.

Basically, it’s better to be poor in Cuba than in surrounding countries, including the USA.

The third observation and related to the second is how healthy Cuban people are. The only overweight people you see in Cuba are the tourists. There is no processed food (and supposedly all food production is organic, but I am not sure if this is true) or fast food. Food is rationed so all Cubans get a set amount of beans, rice, meat (and even rum). But, people also buy food, particularly meat, which, by our hygiene standards is probably not great. People are obsessed with sport and keeping fit. Everywhere you go there is someone playing volleyball, baseball, football or boxing on the beach. On pure visual observation (and not backed up with statistics) Cuban people look extremely fit. Physical exercise is a priority in the education curriculum (as it is in all authoritarian regimes). The Cubans speak highly of their health system but lament the lack of medicine available (due to the embargo). Health care is completely free but we did hear one story of corruption within the health care system (i.e. paying the doctor under the table for quicker access and better care). However, it is impossible to know if this true.

Education is central to the Cuban revolution and almost everyone we met wanted to tell us about their free university system. We met a young student in Havana who was very critical of the regime and wanted to live the ‘american dream’ in the US, but the first words he spoke to me were ‘In Cuba we have free university, do you in your country?’. We met a farmer who has a son studying economics and a daughter studying medicine,  a bus driver who’s daughter was studying law,  train worker who’s son is a mechanical engineer, and many students studying languages, speech therapy and a whole host of other things. By all accounts, Cuba is a highly educated society, but the resentment by the youth who will not receive high wages in return for their studies was obvious. Also, the standard and type of education that the average Cuban receives is open to debate. But, again, this has to be put in the context of central-latin america where literacy-education levels fall drastically short of where Cuba is at.

Thus, the Cuban people are aware of the egalitarian aspects of their regime (health, education, security) and almost everyone we met defended these aspects of ‘Socialismo’. But, they criticise the failings of the economy and the dual currency. Some clearly distingush between the authoritarian ‘committee for the defence of the revolution – communist party’, and popular socialismo. Criticising the power of the former (and levels of corruption) but supporting the latter. No one talked about the need for western style competitive elections, and democracy (understood as electoral voting) did not appear to be a concern for people. They are safe, healthy and have a good education. Corruption is a problem but getting a precise definition of what people mean by corruption is difficult.

Everyone however, was frustrated at their inability to ‘think and feel what they want’ (female taxi driver), and for young people, to be able to travel and have ‘opportunities’.  Many people will not talk to you, fearing that you are an informer. There is a generational tension in relation to the Cuban system. Young people in the cities tend to be more vocal in their opposition to the regime. Older people, particularly in rural areas, tend to  support both the CDR and the Socialist system. But, many people, particularly in professional jobs (all government employed) will not speak to you about the regime. They have more to lose than a street vendor in Havana.

The Cuban system has clearly traded increased equality for individual liberty. Whether, and how the two can be balanced is a difficult question. Whilst the western media talk about change in Cuba, the people themselves seem less optimistic about change. But, what is interesting is how the Cuban society/system would evolve if the trade embargo was lifted, because, it would appear that it is this, not the socialist system, which is causing most problems in the economy. Whether Cuban society will challenge the authoritarian nature of the regime is impossible to tell. But, if they do, it is more likely to be a  festival with rum and salsa than a revolution with armed conflict. Also, with the collapse of the global financial system, the Cuban regime has been quick to highlight the failings of global capitalism. This, coupled with the rise of popular socialism across Latin America has changed the context and circumstances of potential change in Cuban society. But, change is certainly desired by practically everyone we met.


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