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A Visit to Havana, Cuba and a New Perspective on People and Poverty

First published at Campus Activities Programming® - January/February 2019 Issue.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a friend’s wedding in Havana, Cuba. This beautiful lush place of welcoming and joyful people will make you think twice as to why we in the “civilized” world consider Cuba a third world country, tainted by the stereotypes of people living in dire poverty, criminals roaming the streets and anti-American sentiment blaring from the radios of ’53 Chevys.

Some lyrics from John Lennon’s anthem Imagine came to mind as a way to introduce my experience and perspective.

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

There is no commercialism in Cuba, hence no advertising of products or services of any kind. This was a new experience for me as I have been bombarded with advertising everyday of my life since Toucan Sam sold me on Fruit Loops over 50 years ago.

This lack of constant messaging to purchase things is apparent immediately as there were no billboards from the airport to our hotel. No TV ads either. Why? There is nothing to sell and no competition. The government owns pretty much everything and subsidizes many things including food, beer, alcohol, and gas. Healthcare and education (K through doctorate) is included in the Cuban Communist Plan too. (No college loans to pay back!) As you know, free healthcare and education is not part of the United States Capitalist Plan.

I met several Cuban’s in there thirties who were going back to school so they could do something that interests them now. When you take, ”what job can I do to earn the most money” out of your inner dialogue, you’re left with “what do I love to do!”

Another thing that struck me about the people here is that Cuban’s have not been conditioned to “Keep up with the Joneses,” because there are no Joneses in Cuba! There is almost no capitalist “want” hence the people live more in a “so happy to have what I have” mentality, rather than the familiar capitalist “I’m miserable with what I have and will continue to be until I get this or that or what they have.” (READ: An attitude of gratitude.)

There seems to be more frustration, anxiety and general all-around angst living in the richest country in the world than there is in one of the planet’s poorest, where everyone earns the same meager wage, about $40 to $60 a month, and have very little in terms of possessions. (Can you Imagine professional athletes, schoolteachers, carpenters, and attorneys all earning the same salary here?!)

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

By all accounts, practically everyone in Cuba is living in dire poverty as defined by the “first world” cultures of the planet. Does poverty take into account a country with more doctors per capita than any other country on the planet? (By the way, doctors make a bit more than most, about $67 a month.) The World Health Organization rates Cuba’s water quality as among the best in the world and ranks its citizens nutrition levels, health and life expectancy as among the best. For the most part this is not the case with people living in poverty in the US. Every person I met in Havana, had enough to eat, and the mango, papaya, and avocado I enjoyed everyday was world class, not third world.

Yes, many buildings in Cuba are crumbling and parts of the city reminded me of scenes from The Planet of the Apes movies where New York City is dilapidated and the ruins of the Statue of Liberty sits abandoned on a beach. Difference is that if Lady Liberty was from the waist up on a beach in Cuba, someone would be living in it… happily. ¡Qué vista desde la antorcha! (What a view from the torch!)

I realize I may be romanticizing a bit, and living in a communist country is not all it is hyped up to be (by me). You’re still living under the rule of a dictator. I get that. I’m just sharing as honestly and clearly what my experience and perception was based on the people I spent time with. That’s the best barometer I have.

So, you decide… automobiles from the 50’s, laundry hanging to dry practically everywhere, and no hot water in your home; or new cars, a Maytag washer/dryer, modern plumbing and a less literate and healthy populace. Ideally, you want it all, which I would argue is why Norway and the other Scandinavian countries comes up as the happiest places on earth year after year.

Imagine a world where everyone has enough to eat, free education, free healthcare, housing, less stress and anxiety, and a more level playing field for all.

You may say I'm a dreamer

But I'm not the only one

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