What I was Thinking While I Was There

I think that I’ve started this blog post about forty times, trying to figure out how to show you and tell you everything that I want to, and I’ve finally figured out that I’m best to go with an Inigo Montoya quote.
"Let me ‘splain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

Cuba was the best vacation we’ve had in a while.  Admittedly, Joe and I don’t go on many, so the competition wasn’t really stiff, but it was truly grand. Havana is a city I’ve always wanted to see, so that was a highlight for me, and not at all what I was expecting. 

It’s hard for me to separate my expectations of the city with the reality of what I found there, or my ideas about what people in Cuba have (and don’t have) from the actual things that I saw there.  The standard of living is very different than here. 

Like a lot of developing countries, there’s not big houses, a car for every house, a computer (or two) or so many clothes that they regularly donate to a charity or have big yarn stashes. The way we (North Americans and Europeans) live, is a life of pretty wild decadence to their eyes.

Unlike some other developing countries (and I’m thinking here of the places we see on the labels of goods we own – China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan – for a start) while the standard of living is lower than ours, there is a stunning lack of abject poverty.  I’ve seen more homelessness in downtown Toronto than I did in Havana. (For the record, the amount of homelessness I saw in Cuba was zero.)

Every Cuban has a right to certain things provided to them by their government. Housing is highly subsidized. The rate of home ownership in Cuba is 85%, although the number of people living in one residence might be surprising to us as North Americans. (They have a cultural preference for all generations of a family living together.)  They might be crowded, but they all have a home to live in.  (Questions about homelessness were met with confusion, largely.) They have excellent health care, some of the best in the world by any standard you care to assess it,  and it’s accessible to all.  Life expectancy is higher than that of the US, and only slightly lower than that of Canada, and the same goes for infant mortality.

Education is free in Cuba, from primary school to University, and the literacy rate is an amazing 100%, something neither my own country, nor the equally developed country to my south can claim. 

This statistic, together with some other remarkable facts about healthcare explain a great deal about why the average Cuban- particularly older ones, speak with real gratitude about the revolution. Before Castro and the revolution, only about 50% of Cuban kids went to school,  and 45% of the population was illiterate, healthcare was for the rich, and many Cubans weren’t just poor, but destitute.  It’s not hard to see how a shift away from that would be positive, especially for the Cubans old enough to have lived both ways.

I’m not saying all this to convince you that Cuba’s a paradise without problems. There are problems, for sure, particularly around political freedoms. Cubans don’t vote, for example, but it’s more complex than "Socialism bad, democracy good." It’s more a question of priorities.  Given a country crushed by poverty, illiteracy, lack of healthcare and misery, would you trade your political system for making sure everyone got those things? Cubans said yes, and as a result of the revolution, there’s a standard of living that means that nobody’s living in a cardboard box or wondering how they’re going to feed their kids, or get them help if they’re sick.  Most people in Cuba don’t have much (although that’s changing, as a great many of them start small businesses and branch out,. The highest income earners in the country are in tourism and crafts)  but every person has enough, and considering what they had before? I don’t think it’s irrational at all that they chose it.  I’m not sure what I’d pick if I was living like that.

It’s a beautiful place, and the people are remarkable, strong, funny and kind and I enjoyed every minute. It’s a remarkable time in their history, and it was a privilege to invest in them.

PS.  I’m not stupid.  I know that anytime you use words like I’ve used here (socialism, in particular) that you might as well pour gasoline on your comments section and toss a match in. I’ve decided to talk about all this anyway because I trust you, and because I believe that you’re all respectful and smart enough to know that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Everyone who is going to comment here comes from a country that has problems. None are perfect, and I think we should be able to talk about choices, other ideas, and the way that other humans choose things (remembering that overwhelmingly, Cubans chose Castro and this system with a degree of ferocity that makes our political support look anemic.) Also, I know darn well that they aren’t free (although Cubans are starting to travel abroad for education, business and travel, we met some who had been on holiday to Canada) and so do they, but remember their perspective.  While we were there I overheard a conversation between a New Yorker and a Cuban. The American asked if he minded that his government wouldn’t let him go where he wanted. The Cuban asked her how she had come to Cuba.  When she replied that she had come through Canada because her government didn’t allow her to travel to Cuba otherwise, the Cuban smiled at her until she laughed too. We all know it’s not the same, but their perspective is an interesting one.

Go forth and comment, but with respect for all people, will ya?

PPS:  I didn’t see any knitting in Cuba, but man, can they crochet.