Written by Miki Kashtan / The Fearless Heart
In 1992, at what is often known as the Rio Earth Summit, I was stunned to read that Cuba emerged as a leader in sustainable development. In 2006, I watched the Salud! movie about Cuba’s freely-accessible, community-based approach to medicine and its contribution to the health of untold number of people in many struggling countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia through sending doctors (tens of thousands) and through educating future community doctors in their international medical school. In 2013, I read the book Cuba and Its Neighbors: Democracy in Motion by Arnold August, where I learned about little-known participatory democracy features within Cuban society.
These were all powerful, positive windows into Cuba. With each, my desire to go to Cuba grew. I was hungry for any first-person accounts of Cuba from people I knew. I gradually came to believe that there may be as many Cubas as there are visitors to Cuba. I kept believing that the incompatibility of all these stories was not an accident. When the opportunity arose to go to Cuba with my sister Arnina, to offer some workshops at the International School of Havana and to have conversations with people in Cuba, we had a resounding YES. We are both fluent speakers of Spanish, and we immersed in Cuba for 10 days: work at the school, meetings with several people, a significant friendship budding with someone who accompanied us for many of those days and who has a keen eye for history and politics, many chance meetings with people on the streets and anywhere we were, and active engagement with the local culture of food and dance, mostly in places not catering to tourists.
What follows is my own version of Cuba, then. Like all others, it’s partial, biased, colored by my own experiences, longings, beliefs, and chance encounters. I do not pretend to know Cuba based on such a short visit in only one place. I do know that my reflections to Cubans resonated with them and surprised them. I hope to have future opportunities to refine and expand my understanding.
My Cuba – A Paradox
I now understand Cuba to be a paradoxical place, where all the stories I had heard before fit, except none of them are the full picture. My Cuba, the one I fell in love with, is a paradox with six flavors.
Cuba is a place of living poorly and a place of living well.
There is no one questioning the basic reality that Cuba is a place of material deprivation and hardship. The wide streets in Havana are mostly empty of cars, and the ones that are there tend to be 60-year old gas-guzzling vehicles. Toilet paper is often missing. Eggs, beyond the basic amount rationed for each citizen, are sold on the black market, through whispers in the vegetable market, at five dollars a dozen, which is a lot of money in Havana. The physical infrastructure is in a state of progressive disintegration. The sparseness of medication in pharmacies is glaring. Most people need side jobs to make ends meet. Periodically, they nearly run out of gasoline, and there are lines at gas stations that may keep people waiting more than 24-hours.
Cuba is also a place of free access to basic food, shelter, education, and medicine. Government cars are mandated to pick up anyone waiting for a bus, especially when waiting for a new shipment of fuel. Despite the grinding hardship, Cuba exudes vibrancy, beauty, and radiant dignity. The creativity of engaging with resources astounded us. It seemed as if everything discarded would find new use. People seem to be reusing, sharing, and extending the lives of resources, and making do with less, without losing joy, even while wanting more. In the midst of decades of a brutal embargo, and after the fall of the Soviet Union which left Cuba nearly without anything, Cuba made a heroic shift to organic farming and has been receiving high scores on sustainability. 70% of all that is grown on Cuban land now is organic, for example. We visited one such farm which was started by five people on 800 square meters in the 90s and is now run as a cooperative of 150 people on 140 hectares, aiming to improve the nutritional and palate needs of a city of 600,000 inhabitants near Havana. Cuba also scores well above its economic capacity in terms of many measures of human well-being, with better rates of literacy, infant mortality, and longevity than many far wealthier countries, demonstrating that conscious priorities about use of resources can yield unexpected results. Cuba’s free access to healthcare is also different in that medicine in Cuba tends to be community-based and far more integrative (herbs, acupuncture, and homeopathy are generally part of medical training in Cuba). It’s not surprising that many come to Cuba to study in their international medical school and to commit to community-based medicine in their countries. Lastly, starting in the 1960s, Havana features an ice cream store and a movie theater that cost literal pennies, making some signature “fun” activities of richer countries accessible to all.
Cuba is a place lacking civil and political freedom and a place full of personal freedom.
Both staunch supporters and avid critics of Cuba agree that Cuba is a highly regulated and centralized place. All resources and information are highly controlled. Centralized planning continues to be the rule even as small businesses of various sort are opening up, since everything requires licensing and approval. Some basic freedoms many take for granted in the industrialized so-called liberal democracies – such as the right to assemble or to free speech – are absent. Of the people we spoke with, including those highly committed to socialism, revolution, and the Cuban experiment as a whole, many expressed varying degrees of cynicism and apathy about the government or bureaucracy, referencing, for example, significant penalties for small infractions, and the degree to which decisions are made top-down.
The basic commitment to care for all is breathtaking. If this is, indeed, a dictatorship, it’s one based on care, not on personal gain. The extraordinary experiments in participatory democracy I read about are real, and some people I talked with participated in them. And a knowledgeable person told me that the level of participation and local decision-making are far higher outside Havana. When the constitution was redone, for example, as well as when certain laws are drafted, the entire population gets invited to participate. This happens in groups, not as individuals voting on a referendum. People come together in groups based on neighborhood or in their workplace to discuss, offer feedback, and make proposals. In addition, local and provincial government is selected bottom-up, to varying degrees around the country. I wasn’t in Cuba long enough, nor did I go outside Havana at all. I don’t, therefore, have a fuller sense of what exactly happens. Why exactly people in Havana participate less than elsewhere, is not yet clear to me. Nor did I get quite enough information about the extent to which the input given is integrated into the constitution and other laws. And, with all these caveats, there’s something going on with these experiments that to me seems clearly connected with the sense of agency that people exude. In a context of intensive central planning, the Cuba I was in exhibits a kind of infinite can-do attitude between the lines; a kind of chaotic, swarm-like decentralized happening somehow supported by all within an intangible yet strong web of relationships.
Most poignantly, in the midst of all the scarcity and control, Cuba is the only place in Latin America I’ve been to that lacks the servile attitude, the deference to all and especially Westerners, that breaks my heart in so many other countries there. People look really free, agents of their own lives, servants to no master, deferring to no one, remembering their dignity.
Even I, dreamer of collaboration with unabashed faith in humans, am not fully trusting that if they let go of the control this place wouldn’t quickly turn into another banana republic rather than a collaborative dream. And I don’t see with any clarity what those who rule this place could do to make it truly work for everyone and not only make it cover the basics for all (which is already a huge amount).
The US Embargo
Cuba is a place of tragedy and a place of defiance.
Since a few years into Cuba’s revolution, the US has maintained a massive embargo on Cuba. It’s hard to overestimate the horrific impact that the embargo has had or to imagine what would have happened had the US left Cuba (or Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil, or any of many other places where political leaders emerged whose ideology or policy were at odds with so-called US interests ) to organize its own affairs. The embargo, and subsequently the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the “special period” in which Cuba almost came down crashing, have left Cuba deprived of resources and in a constant state of war and defense, frantic to protect itself from the kind of CIA coups that have affected many other places on the planet, especially in Latin America.
The defiance against the giant neighbor is breathtaking to behold. Cuba is a place of active defiance in which Cuba’s residents refuse to give in. Cubans know what’s going on in the world and align themselves in solidarity with people all over. Despite the grinding struggle, the overwhelming experience on the streets is one of carefree, relaxed joy. The tragic incapacitation is coupled with magnificent achievement and imaginative sustainability. Eleven million people are daily standing up to 60 years of political and economic blocking, and, with all the struggle, exude aliveness.
Cuba is a place struggling to survive and a place where life bursts through anything that could possibly stop it.
Coming into Havana it’s hard not to notice the decay. The buildings are peeling in the absence of resources to maintain them. No amount of talk about equality, or even the actual practices of providing access to resources have made much dent in deeply seated cultural patterns. Sexism continues to reign. The less desirable jobs still appear to go to the darker skinned people. The impacts of millennia of patriarchy intensified by centuries of colonialism and slavery cannot be magically shifted through revolution. I don’t see any clear systemic, large scale attention to the dimension of trauma and internalized oppression, not here, not elsewhere. Even with the limitations of the embargo, Cuba is culturally influenced by the culture it defies, with little pockets of recognizable, blatant US consumerism.
Havana is the safest city in all of Latin America. As much as gender roles are obvious, it’s also a place of all around sensuality and aliveness, featuring defiantly sexy, strong women, and men who seem to take pleasure in easy sensuality (which I found startling in its uniqueness). Even with the sexism and racism that also exist there, I saw people connecting across all differences, bursting with life. Everyone takes pride in their local culture, where all – fat, thin, tall, short, white, black – dance and sing and love and have fun together. Long lines of waiting – for food, toilet paper, government license, or ice cream – turn into minor happenings, socializing with strangers, dancing even then, even while walking. Music oozes out of everywhere. Every Sunday a massive gathering of mostly people of African descent, intermingled with anyone who shows up, turns into an ecstatic intersection of fun, prayer, drumming, Santeria, conversation, and more. While I was standing trying to get a glimpse across the large crowd, a woman insisted I start dancing, and showed me a few Salsa steps. At one of Havana’s biggest and loudest dance clubs of local music for local people, everyone dances with everyone else, and we stood mesmerized for almost two hours watching the pairs forming and re-forming while the music raged and the poor quality dessert was being served all around.
Cuba is a place constantly challenged by the neoliberal world, and a place that continues to challenge that world by being an imperfect and existing alternative.
When I learned that Cuba was beginning to allow small businesses to exist, and even more so when Obama loosened the strings that strangle Cuba, I was worried more than relieved. Would the Cuban experiment die from the exposure to capitalism? Is the Cuban government underestimating the vicious power of capitalism to lure people? Market logic is creeping in, and with it more focus on exchange, less on needs. Class divisions, already in place to some degree given the special favors given to those in leadership roles within the regime, are growing. Clearly, just as much as Cuba’s very existence is a constant threat to capitalism’s rule of the world, the existence of capitalism is a constant threat to Cuba.
Cuba is a place of deep solidarity. A new friend we made there was resentful about people not “pulling their weight” and still having access to resources. Even with that, and with how tough it was initially for him when I reminded him of the commitment to everyone’s needs based only on their ability and not on their actual contribution, he worked his way back to his own baseline alignment. Whenever the issue came up, with anyone, I sensed an intense commitment to equality for all; to vigilantly guarding basic access to resources. After years of corporations squeaking their way into Cuba, with ritzy hotels for the tourists, the absence of advertising, glitz, and the endless parade of ultimately unnecessary products is a breath of fresh air. Cubans remind us all that when aliveness, connection, community, and good music are present, we don’t need much to have a good time. Even in its challenging existential battle, as a sole ember remaining after the USSR crashed, Cuba persists in constant innovation and commitment to all struggling places. At the Martin Luther King Center, I learned of Cuba’s central role in brokering the peace agreements after decades of civil war in Colombia. Next month, Cuba holds a conference on Latin American resistance to neoliberalism, stepping into its frequent role of leadership in Latin American attempts to stand up to the giant.
Despair and vision
Cuba is a place of place of broken dreams of revolution and a place of pride and valiant protection of revolutionary successes.
There is ample evidence that Cuba is a difficult place to live. Some of the people we’ve talked with totally lack faith and spoke with bitterness and a kind of disempowered blame that feels more familiar elsewhere. This, to me, points to real barriers, to difficult conditions, to the distance from government that so many experience. These likely contribute significantly to the apathy and disillusionment I heard named as reasons why more people don’t engage with the experiments in participatory democracy discussed above. Many people have friends and family who’ve left Cuba, others have expressed their own ambivalence about being there. Someone I spoke with who was sitting right on the edge of the paradox I am capturing here told me how her grandmother who fought during the revolution told her what is happening is not what they fought for.
Cuba is also a place of uncompromising vision and intense involvement. The most striking example of that, for me, was my conversations at the Martin Luther King Center. The person I spoke with, a key leader in that organization, lives for the dream, stretching way beyond any imaginable comfort zone to do his work, exhausted and passionate at once as he continues to make sense of the revolution and its paradoxes, to go on with the dream of making both Cuba and other places ever more capable of embodying the vision. Nothing naïve about him; no illusion of utopia. Only clarity about the monumental task ahead, without any guarantees of success.
A lot of the values in the name of which the revolution was fought are now simply in the air. There is an “of course”-ness about everyone being a socialist. Any number of people who’ve been away from Cuba, including for years, and have ample opportunities to choose to leave permanently end up coming back, knowing full well the imperfection of what they are coming to, and still clear they want to be there. It seems to me this goes beyond the simple fact of Cuba being their place, their country, their people, and blends into real pride in their capacity to withstand the embargo and to find their way to live as they do. With all the difficulties, struggles, privation, and imperfections, I am with them: there’s a part of me that could imagine living there myself.
Taking It in
I mourn that anything that remotely resembles socialism, focusing on needs, caring for all, large scale cooperation, solidarity, togetherness, and low consumption is either extinguished within a few years or is under such constant threat that paranoia and control seem to make sense.
I mourn that capitalism ends up being a massive addiction that calls to those who don’t have access to it with the lure of freedom, the possibility that, if only I have enough money, no one can tell me what to do. No one who dreams of capitalism imagines they’ll be one of the many poor people it generates. Everyone thinks they will be one of those who make it. This is the heart of the pull: freedom, relief. In the dreaming, no one thinks of what they would lose.
I mourn that those who are controlling and planning the Cuban experiment have had to do it, from the start, without ongoing care, support, and transparent attention to the complexities of power difference. Just looking at the pictures in the museum of the revolution drives home that point. The result is tragic even as it is understandable: like most leaders, in most places, they ended up prioritizing their own needs and well-being even at cost to others. I can make sense of the rationale, because even in my own much smaller sphere of influence I feel the pull. There is so much responsibility, so much extra impact absorbed to make things move, so much invisibility of our humanity, that relief in the form of material comfort and having a say in things seems logical and appealing. How tragic that this, then, ended up creating a new ruling elite, even while acting on the dream of caring for all, which I continue to believe is genuine, was genuine for Mao and for Stalin alongside the horrors they brought to their respective contexts.
I mourn how rare it is for Cuba to be perceived at once in its glory and challenge. I mourn that they never had a moment of rest to just be, and that this has made it nearly impossible to extend their experiments in democracy to embody and model the fullness of the possibilities that were present in seed form in the revolution. I mourn living in a world where they couldn’t find any other way than taking up arms. I mourn the absence of conditions to transcend patriarchy.
I mourn the many passionate, visionary young people who fought in the revolution and died, leaving Fidel alone, traumatized, to carry forward the dream without his closest colleagues, without being able to trust anyone else, without being able to release control and trust the people he fought for.
I mourn the incessant criticism that has no other vision to offer Cuba that would care even remotely as well for the people living there, that doesn’t look at the full picture, at the literacy, health, and aliveness, and at the solidarity, unity, and commitment. I mourn how few see what our new friend said when I asked him what he wanted people outside Cuba to know: “despite all the difficulties, we are here, we are alive, and we are continuing into the future.” Come see for yourselves, I want to say to the naysayers, and tell me if who you see here is a bunch of oppressed people, or a community of empowered, alive, dignified, self-aware, highly educated people, no matter how many issues they have. Tell me how often you see a small nation standing up to the biggest empire on the planet for so long. Tell me why they still have to struggle so much to maintain their independence and commitments.
I mourn that without a clear vision of a post-patriarchal, fully collaborative society truly run from below, more and more cracks are happening within the legacy of the revolution and its ideals. I mourn that Cuba is trapped within the central planning vs. market forces false duality that leads them to introduce more and more market mechanisms when they realize the limitations of central planning, instead of truly innovating with community-based resource generation and sharing, based on needs, not rigid equality.
I celebrate all that this small island has managed (all obstacles notwithstanding), with its determined, solidarity-bound, embattled, vibrant, alive, intent, imaginative, sensuous, friendly, committed population. I am full of love and admiration for them.
I want relief for them. I want ever more empowerment so their resourcefulness can turn into full collective liberation. For them. For the world beyond them. I hope we will find a way.