An American in Cuba
The streets are clean. People wore clean clothes. The white shirts, white white, and the blue shirts, not faded. I like to dress up. I was the one who wore a tasteful baby blue seersucker suit to Cuba. I notice things like clean shirts.
I know that in Cuba people do not have a lot of personal possessions. Where I live, if I see that many clean shirts I figure the individual has a lot of shirts. Not in Cuba. The word I heard often to describe the whole notion of personal possessions in Cuba, from Cubans: scarcity.
If I wanted to purchase a shirt in Cuba, for example, there was basically one. It was nice, a linen cotton blend with four pockets, but I saw the same version of the same shirt everywhere. Also with hats. There were a few straw hats for sale in every store, basically the same hat. They were cheap and, well, they looked it.
The shirt has a name. It’s a version of what is known in the region as Guayabera, also known as the wedding shirt. The version I saw most often in Cuba had four patch pockets and a vertical linear design of pleats on both sides of the middle buttons. There are several interesting theories of the origin of the shirt, some that originate in Mexico or Spain or Native peoples in the region, and some which go back several centuries.
There is scarcity in Cuba. Cubans need most everything, except for those items they do quite well making themselves, such as pharmaceuticals for their free health care system. They produce a lot of their own pharmaceuticals, but they still have problems securing the raw materials for some of their drug industry. The Embargo (el bloqueo).
The Embargo is blamed and I’m sure it’s true for much of the scarcity, but not all. In agriculture, for example, Cuba a lush island in the Caribbean that until recently imported 80 percent of its food, cannot blame all that scarcity on others. The Cuban vice minister of the economy and planning ministry reportedly said in February 2007 that 84 percent of the country’s food was imported. I was told they are presently importing about 60 percent of their food.
Their chicken comes from Canada. Frozen. A lot of trade comes from Canada, thus Canadians have a sweet deal on travel to Cuba. A Montrealer can spend a week in Cuba in a decent hotel for $700, flight included, one of the benefits of trading with Cuba.
Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba supplied the Eastern Bloc with all the sugar and rum they could consume in exchange for fertilizers to support Cuban agriculture. When the Iron Curtain came down, such support ended abruptly, starting a period the Cubans refer to as “the Special Period.” This is either irony, a good sense of humor, or a cruel joke on themselves; during the Special Period there was widespread malnutrition and the average Cuban lost twenty pounds between 1990 and 1994.
On the other hand, the scarcity of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides necessitated a kind of agro-ecology developed by something Cuba has no scarcity of: scientists. Cuba is a well educated country, it has 2 percent of Latin America’s population but 11 percent of its scientists. Fidel made education a priority and that is another proud feature of Cuban culture.
Venezuela bailed out Cuba on fertilizers, so there is an industrial agriculture again in exchange for the surplus of doctors that Cuba trains in its medical schools.
A Cuban engineer told me that under Fidel there was also little personal incentive for agriculture so agriculture suffered greatly. For example, he said, we taught the Vietnamese, in a similar condition as ourselves adjusting a Communist ideology, to produce coffee. Now we import our coffee from Vietnam.
The coffee was not great. My brother’s friend who was born in Cuba and left at the Revolution, sends his family living in Cuba Bustelo coffee, the same I buy at Straub’s and my daughter drinks from the bodegas in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s packaged in Miami. The best cup of Cuban coffee I had during our trip was in the airport in Miami on the way home. Best Cuban food too.
There is virtually no homelessness, Cubans are proud of that, no hunger, etc. Basic foods are rationed for next to nothing.
There’s a kind of dual economy in Cuba. There are even two currencies, so to speak, one for locals one for visitors. The local currency is supported by perks that is basically a rationing system.
The streets were also clean. There wasn’t a lot of garbage languishing about and I didn’t smell sewage. The streets smelled better in Havana than they do in New York City, for example, and a lot cleaner and I didn’t see people living on them as I do in all the warmer climates in the United States.
I saw few policemen and guns are well controlled. There is still some street scamming, but nothing like you run into if traveling to other Caribbean islands. In Cuba, one has to be careful not to buy ersatz Cuban cigars on the street. People will try to hustle tourists with cigar scams.
I saw little drug or alcohol abuse, and if there is, it is handled in the tiered Cuban health care system that operates through a series of health facilities in ascending complexity beginning in the neighborhood. Every neighborhood has a clinic that handles the basic health care, something more complicated may be referred to a clinic or hospital that specializes in heart, kidneys, digestive system, etc.
There appears to be zero tolerance for illicit drugs, and none were offered to me on the many strolls I took through the streets of Havana. If someone in a family has a problem with alcohol, it is usually handled in the neighborhood clinic and by engaging the whole family. Havana has an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night of the week.
There is a scarcity of affordable housing and it’s often too expensive for young people to live on their own, so there is often several generations living within one apartment or house. Newlyweds even live with their parents. We tend to marry young, one of our guides told us, we also divorce because it’s difficult living with your parents after you’re married (he was recently divorced).
Everyone seemed to have family who have left Cuba. This is a big problem for the future of Cuba; it’s an aging population. The problem from within is to keep its population on the island, its young people at home, the temptation for young people to live elsewhere is great. It’s a problem both from within and without; I heard Cubans blame the Embargo for this many times.
Cubans were quick to make the distinction between American policies and Americans. There seemed to be little animosity toward Americans, I heard this from everyone and it came up often in conversation. I believed it. But the great burden of the Embargo seems to be on everyone’s mind. I think the Cuban people feel the changes coming so quickly that a lifting of the omnipresent Embargo cannot be far behind.
Cuba is eager for the kind of individual incentive that they associate with the United States. There are already private clubs and restaurants and ways to engage in private enterprise that were not known ten, even five years ago. We visited some privately owned restaurants (paladares) and clubs that could have been located in any city of sophistication anywhere in the world.
I think the Cubans can taste the end of the Embargo and the release of Cuba to grow without the obstacles under which it has labored since the Revolution in 1959. It’s an island of startling beauty, history, potential. It longs to be released from the barriers from without. Cuba wants to keep its Cubans.
Everyone on the island seems to be poised to make a better living. There’s a spirit of independent enterprise. I picked up a few good ideas for retirement myself. Looking to hire a chicken.
James Stone Goodman
An American in Cuba