Early in my just-ended three-week visit to Cuba, my wife and I were strolling along Havana’s stunning Malecon walkway which stretches for miles along the city’s northern coast. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday. We couldn’t help noticing how the seafront was more gorgeous than ever.
Both Peggy and I had been to Cuba many times, but it had been seven years since our last visit. In the meantime, buildings along the Malecon had taken on new coats of paint. Greens and whites, reds, golds, oranges, and blues sparkled in the sunlight alongside as yet unpainted decrepit apartment buildings. As ever, clotheslines of bed sheets, shirts, blouses, children’s clothes and underwear flapped from balconies in the sea breeze.
Yes, we couldn’t help noticing, things had changed drastically since our last visit. And it wasn’t only the paint and scaffolding outside the buildings under reconstruction.
Tourists were everywhere. Even those “Hop-on, Hop-off” double-deck tour busses which we had seen in Europe passed at regular intervals. Havana’s atmosphere wordlessly conveyed an optimism we had not witnessed since we began visiting Cuba in 1997.
Sharing observations like that, we suddenly heard someone call out to us.
“Hey, where are you from?” The young man addressing us was Cuban, tall, black and smartly dressed in jeans, Nike T-shirt and sneakers. His wife was lighter skinned and similarly dressed. Both were friendly and smiling. Seeing the couple reminded us that Cuba has a largely Afro-descendent population.
“We’re from the United States,” I replied.
“Oh, the U.S.!” The young man smiled broadly. “We love the United States; the U.S. is the greatest country in the world!” His wife shook her head In agreement.
“No,” I contradicted, “Cuba is the greatest country in the world.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, my friend,” the young man said still smiling. “Cuba is the greatest country in Latin America . The United States is the greatest country in the world!”
The encounter spoke volumes about the new Cuba that impressed us so as we walked the Malecon. The exchange offered a snapshot of an economy that is rebounding from a deep depression, of a people who are friendly, proud and patriotic, and of Cuban aspirations to U.S. levels of consumption. That aspiration contains both promise and threat.
But before I get to that, let me tell you more about our visit. . . .
This time we were in Cuba as part of a Berea College summer school course. We called the course “Cuba: Resilience and Renovation.” Ours was a fact-finding study. What has Cuba been? What will it become? Those were our questions. Thirteen students engaged the conversation along with my daughter and her husband, and several friends. It was great fun.
Our course took us from Havana eastward to Varadero, Santa Clara, Matazanas, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba. We filled our days with conferences involving academics and government officials including a representative of the U.S. Interests Section(the U.S. quasi-embassy in Havana).
We found ourselves chatting with people on the street; some of us went into their homes. We met students, social activists, feminists, representatives of the LGBT community, farmers, co-op representatives, merchants, Santeria practitioners, Baptist ministers, medical personnel, hospital patients, children and the elderly in a day-care centers, and members of a Committee in Defense of the Revolution.
On a couple of occasions, I spoke with a fellow OpEdNews contributor — “Guillermo Tell,” a Russian ex-pat who has lived in Havana for 27 years. He reminded me of Cuba’s on-going problems with bureaucracy and of the dangers of “reforms” that could end up selling-out the hard won gains of the Revolution. (More on that later.)Then there were those casual conversations with Cubans on the street, in night clubs and along the Malecon where Habaneros crowd each evening and especially on weekends for music, dance, love, conversation and arguments about baseball and politics.
We even found our way to a ringside table at the Tropicana nightclub, to a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club, and a children’s theater presentation on the Cuban Five that rivaled anything we’ve seen on Broadway.
Usually however our focus was the Revolution, socialism, and Cuba’s prospects for the future.
And what did we find out? Simply this: Cuba is the most important country in the world. Ernesto Cardenal said that of Nicaragua in the 1980s. And he was right. Nicaragua was then the most prominent center of resistance to U.S. imperialism. Today (and for the past 55 years) Cuba fills that role like none other. Alone in the world, it demonstrates that Third World Countries can accomplish so much with so little even in the face of pitiless opposition from the most powerful country in the world. Cuba is showing the world a way into a future that accommodates itself to the new globalization — but on its own terms. In doing so, it has already surpassed Latin American darlings of development such as Costa Rica. It has already surpassed the United States in quality of life.
Are you surprised by that? Let me tell you what I mean — and here I address Cuban patriotism and the revolutionary gains evoked by our sidewalk encounter. Those elements are what make Cuba so important even in the face of the seduction by “the greatest country in the world.”
First think about Costa Rica. Peggy and I have lived there on and off for the last 25 years. To begin with, Havana is much more beautiful than Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. Havana’s seafront, colonial structures, its comparative cleanliness and hospitality far exceed what we’ve found in San Jose which is dirty and bleak by comparison. The latter has nothing like Havana Vieja — the old city whose restorations, museums and newly proliferated restaurants have created a tourist center that rivals anything we have seen in Europe.
Cuba’s Varadero seacoast is cleaner, more orderly, more extensive and luxurious than Costa Rica’s famed Manuel Antonio or Guanacaste’s Flamingo Beach resorts. Cuba’s highways are better than Costa Rica’s pot-holed thruways.
Yet, on the basis of independent surveys and assessments, Costa Rica bills itself as the “happiest country in the world.” I suspect Cubans are happier still.
And that brings me to the reasons why and to my claim about the U.S. and comparative qualities of life. Am I really saying that Cuba has surpassed not only Costa Rica but the U.S. in those terms? Yes — despite the impressions of that young man accosting us on the street.
Or let me put it this way: what do we value most in life? Few, I think, would respond: money, competition, meaningless work with increasing hours with fast-diminishing rewards. Few would list fast food, shopping malls, movies, luxury cars and vast homes at the head of our must-have lists.
Even abstractions like U.S. “freedom” (in our system that imprisons and executes more than any other country in the industrialized world), “democracy” (where voter-suppression is the order of the day), “free speech” (where the mainstream media ignores issues important to the poor and middle class), and “rule of law” (where universal surveillance, torture, police-impunity and extrajudicial killings are common) have become increasingly meaningless.
Instead most of us would say: “What I care most about are my children and grandchildren. I care about my health and that of my family. I care about the well-being of the planet we’ll leave to our descendants. Education is important. And I want safety in the streets. I’d even like to have some years of retirement toward the end of my life.”
In all of those terms — addressing what most humans truly care about — Cuba far outstrips the United States. Consider the following:
- Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.
- Health care and medicine are free.
- Cuban agriculture is largely organic.80% of Cubans are home-owners.
- Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba — at all levels. Please see my last blog entry.)
- Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
- Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
- Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
- Streets are generally safe in Cuba
- Gun violence is non-existent.
But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.
There’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.
And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20m onthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as
- Health insurance
- Home mortgages or rent
- Electricity and water
- School supplies and uniforms
- College tuition and debt
- Credit card interest
- Insurances: home, auto, life
- Taxes: federal, state, sales
- Unsubsidized food costs
The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics — far above, I would say, most Third World countries.
None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.
To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba seems to be embracing:
- A reduction of the government bureaucracy that my friend Guillermo Tell so despises.
- Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
- Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy.
- Connecting wages with productivity.
- Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
- Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
- Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
- Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation — itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax” a la Thomas Picketty (whom, I’ve been assured, the Economic Planning Body is studying).Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.
Those are the general directions. Actual decisions will be “transcendent” more than one person at the heart of the process told me. They will be made according to a world vision that is “entirely new.”
Breathlessly, we await the results. They will determine whether Cuba continues to be the change which our deepest concerns indicate we’d like to see in the world.
Cuba’s resistance to imperialism, its willingness to address real problems (like climate change and income inequalities) rather than ignore or deny them — all of these are what make Cuba “most important.”
They are the reason Cuba might even be poised to become “the greatest country in the world.”
Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 36 years where he directed Berea’s Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.