What’s Cuba *Really* Like?

H. Patricia Hynes | (Informed Comment) | – –

What is Cuba like? Since visiting there recently, I have been asked this question hundreds of times and learned that every third person harbors a desire to visit there.

Yes, there are iconic ‘57 Chevrolets, some in mint condition for taking tourists around Havana. But most 1950s Russian and American cars there would not pass emissions and safety inspections here (although this may change as the Trump administration takes a wrecking ball to the US EPA). There are no traffic jams in this city of 2.2 million people because most Cubans take buses, ride bikes, use pedicabs and walk. Music – especially Afro Cuban and salsa – is everywhere: in hotels, small clubs, plazas, flowing from opened windows. So no need to go in search of it; it finds you.

Cubans love books, we were told. Sure enough, there were many bookstores in Havana. Could their love of books stem from a public education system that is free through university and medical school, the most democratic educational system in the Americas? Within two years after the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s aggressive literacy program, which placed special focus on women, Afro-Cubans and rural people, raised the literacy rate from 60 percent to 96 percent. It now stands at 100 percent. (By contrast, 32 million adults in the U.S. are considered illiterate, reflecting the fact that our country invests much less of our GDP in education than does Cuba). Every morning, just after 7:00 the streets are filled with children in school uniforms walking, being biked and, in the case of the small rural towns like Boca de Camarioca where we stayed, being brought in horse-drawn carriages to their schools.

In Havana we met with two key women’s organizations, the Federation of Cuban Women and the National Union of Cuban Women Lawyers. They described their programs on violence against women in the primary and secondary schools and have a profound understanding of prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women. Their feminist magazines – one for girls and one for women – reach hundreds of thousands of readers.

Cuba is a poor country, with the average monthly salary of teachers being $40, and no evident signs of consumerism – no shopping malls, luxury goods, cheap fast food places or billboard advertising. Despite its poverty, it has the lowest malnutrition rate in the Americas. Nowhere did I see homeless people sleeping in parks, doorways or under bridges nor people begging as I saw daily during the years that I worked in Boston. Boston, with a quarter of Havana’s population, had nearly 8,000 homeless men, women and children in 2016, with a 25 percent increase in homeless families since 2015.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba, more accurately called a bloqueo or blockade by Cubans, began in 1960 with the intent to deny money and supplies to the country; to decrease wages; and “to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government,” according to a State Department memo. And, yes, there is a sense of the country locked in the 1950s, with housing and colonial buildings desperately in need of repair, extremely crowded buses, shortages of consumer goods, and poor air quality in Havana. Years of material deprivation, amazingly, have not dampened the warmth, affection and welcome that everyone who visits Cuba speaks of, a richness in the Cuban spirit sustained, possibly, by their more equal society.

In the past few years, the Cuban government under Raul Castro has allowed small private enterprises to open. Families are renting rooms and offering meals to tourists, in what are called casas particulares. These and other small microenterprises are flourishing and raising incomes and standards of living across the island.

One hallmark of Cuba’s achievements is its free health care system, recognized as one of the best in the world, as well as the primary care it provides in poor communities throughout the world. In meeting with health care providers, we learned of their emphasis on disease prevention and the country’s policy that every community, no matter how remote, has a primary care facility. With its commitment to health care as a human right, Cuba has achieved higher life expectancy and a lower infant mortality rate than the United States, these being key indicators of the overall health of the country’s people.

Like many colonial-era countries, Cuba’s wealth was built on the African slave trade and slave labor. One factor that may contribute to their overall health achievements is that the social and economic integration of black and white Cubans – an intentional goal since their revolution – is more advanced than that of many countries, including (and especially) our own. In 2015 black and Hispanic households in the United States had on average one-tenth the money and property of white households.

Last year President Obama made a trip to Cuba, after much closed door negotiation facilitated at times by the Vatican and consultation with wealthy Miami Cuban-American businessmen. Some of them joined him in Havana, being flown there on the private jet of a Cuban American healthcare billionaire.

Obama’s intentions appear honorable – opening up Cuba’s economy with private enterprise to raise the standard of living, release of political prisoners and free elections. Yet there is a fatal irony in these objectives for Cuba. Our “free” national elections are determined by money – the biggest spenders win; and our Executive Branch is now littered with people in the top 1 percent of income. We have the largest prison system in the world, with a disproportionate number of African Americans unjustly incarcerated, and have never yet, as a society, come to terms with structural racism, our segregated cities and segregated urban schools. Even with the Affordable Care Act, medical expenses are the biggest cause of bankruptcies while executives in the health care industry become multi-millionaires.

Realistically, most U.S. people would not choose to live in Cuba: we have more individual freedoms and no shortages of consumer items, if you can afford them. I do remember, however, a sign scrawled on a wall in the city of Matanzas (the former center of the African slave trade) that speaks to the island country’s social aspirations: la dignidad no se vende, dignity is not for sale.

Pat Hynes, a retired professor of environmental health from Boston University School of Public Health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

BBC News: “What is life like in Cuba after Fidel Castro? BBC News”

5 Responses

  1. Can’t quarrel with most of the article though, for a long time, there were virtually no Afro-Cubans in the top ranks of the government of the country. Cuba was also infamous for its persecution of gays, something that has recently changed though only Cuban gays can say how much. But one real test of a system like that of Cuba is if it can deliver economically in the long term and Cuba has been struggling since it lost its subsidies from the Soviet Union. Finally, as a leftist, I most definitely do not believe in dictatorships for life nor hereditary ones.

  2. H. Patricia Hynes, Cuba has a very serious racism challenge, especially against people of African American descent.

    Your counter argument might be that every country in the world has a major challenge of racism against people of African descent. While there is something to this argument, that doesn’t excuse the very real problems of racism inside Cuba. It is extremely difficult for Cubans of African descent earn a middle class income, let alone become part of Cuba’s military leadership, political leadership, intellectual leadership, economic leadership.

    Your implicit endorsement of Cuba’s lack of civil rights, freedom of speech, ability to select Cuba’s leaders, oppression of LBGTQ is troubling. As is the way you gloss over the fact that a poor healthy young person in Cuba has far fewer economic opportunities than similar young healthy poor people in India, China, Chile, Peru, Indonesia, or just about any free market pro business country.

    Why is it acceptable to you that young Cuban people don’t have the same economic opportunities as young people in Asian tigers or Latin American tigers (Chile, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica)?

    “One hallmark of Cuba’s achievements is its free health care system, recognized as one of the best in the world” . . . this is an obscene lie. Cuba spends very little on health care per person. What you might argue is that Cuba has a very high rate of return on health care spending. However, Cuban health care is by no reasonable definition “good quality.” Cuba doesn’t have any hospitals comparable to modern hospitals in Mexico, Chile, India, Thailand, Indonesia, or other modern countries. [Acknowledging that Cuban hospitals are available to poor Cubans while most quality hospitals in developing countries are available only to paying customers.]

    “reflecting the fact that our country invests much less of our GDP in education than does Cuba”. The US spending on education as a percentage of GDP and in real terms are among the highest in the world:
    link to cbsnews.com

    While Cuba spends a higher percentage of GDP on education; spending as a percentage of GDP isn’t as important as real spending. The reason Cuba can’t afford quality education and quality health care is because Cuba is a poor country (relative to the rest of the world.)

    Cuba use to be a relatively rich developed country in 1959 by global standards. However real GDP growth in Cuba has been slower than the global average. Cuba has fallen behind.

    Cuba’s abysmal economy is a global laughing stock. The Cuban people deserve better.

    Fidel Castro and Raul Castro have both strongly criticized past Cuban leftist economic policies and called for free market reforms. H. Patricia Hynes’s dishonest defense of Cuba’s disastrous former leftist economic policies seem designed to disrupt and undermine Cuba’s current efforts to become more pro business.

    America’s low life expectancy is because most Americans choose not to exercise nearly enough. America spends more on education per person than any other country.

    Cuba’s high life expectancy has much more to do with healthy exercise (and possibly dietary choices) than with the health care system, which isn’t all that good by global standards.

    “Our “free” national elections are determined by money – the biggest spenders win” The evidence does not support this allegation at the US national level. Recent elections have seen strong electoral results for Donald Trump, Kasich, John McCain (2008), Huckabee (2008). These are candidates that raised very little money for their campaigns. What is true is that publicity is very helpful to win elections . . . much more useful than money.

    “disproportionate number of African Americans unjustly incarcerated”. Is there evidence for “unjust” incarcerations? Isn’t it more useful to discuss how to encourage young people not to commit crimes in the first place? For example, how to improve education outcomes for African Americans. Prison reform to facilitate education and normal career prospects for inmates in prison. Including encouraging entrepreneurship, prisoners starting VC backed start-ups, prisoners working high end jobs, ups while serving their sentences in jail?

    “as a society, come to terms with structural racism, our segregated cities and segregated urban schools” Is this why you believe that Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans are far less likely to be in prison and far more likely to be in the middle class and upper middle class than African Americans? Do you think this is because Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans practice “structured racism” against African Americans?
    Do you believe that the reason Asian Americans, muslim Americans, Arab Americans are better educated, wealthier, have better career prospects, and less likely to be incarcerated than Caucasian Americans is because of “structured racism”?

  3. Typo above:

    America’s low life expectancy is because most Americans choose not to exercise nearly enough. America spends more on “HEALTH CARE” per person than any other country.

  4. Astonishing to me how ignorant (Anon) some of the commenters are about the history of Cuba and the revolutionary period. Ms. Hines article is informative as well as authentic.

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