Dave visits the home of Jose Marti.

Cuba Week: Seeing Cuba in a new light

An index of the Cuba series appears at the first post.

August 16, 2015

I had intended to limit my blog posts about Cuba to my journal entries from each day. Many friends, though, have asked me plenty of questions that go outside the scope of my observations. I will try to field those in this post. Please remember that these are just my opinions, and I have seen only a tiny sliver of what Cuba has to offer.

My preparation for this trip included two books from the Nashville Public Library. Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond was a very useful history for me. I definitely needed to know how Cuba emerged as a country after being a colony, about the key role the University of Havana has played in spawning the revolutionaries of each new generation, and how Castro was able to emerge as the leader of Cuba in the late 1950s. Slow Train to Guantanamo: A Rail Odyssey Through Cuba in the Last Days of the Castros was much less academic, instead taking an earthier look at today’s Cuba. Most notably it told the story of the Hershey Train and convinced me I needed that on my itinerary! I also enjoyed the PBS special “Fidel Castro Tapes;” I only found time to watch it when I returned home, but it would been helpful in advance. Public displays in Cuba revolve around Jose Marti, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, or Camilo Cienfuegos, so it’s useful to a traveler to know their names.

Government graffiti near statue of Gomez

Government graffiti near statue of Gomez

Without further ado, here’s my assessment of today’s Cuba:

To whose opinion should I listen to understand Cuba?

The truth about modern Cuba’s successes and failures lies somewhere between the official government publication “Granma” (named after the yacht that brought Fidel from Mexico to Cuba) and the worst polemics of Cuban exiles in Miami. Are the citizens of Cuba guaranteed universal human rights? While people make use of their freedom of expression in Cuba (Article 19), some of them are punished very severely for it by the government. Has Castro’s career led to mass-murder? He certainly executed many people from the Batista regime and incarcerated many more, and many more have died at sea trying to escape the nation. Compared to Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, though, Castro was relatively benign, and he cannot begin to measure up to the devastation wrought by Kim Il Sung, who reigned over North Korea for a similar duration. I would suggest that you listen to people who are able to recognize that Fidel Castro’s government has been able to accomplish some good things along with its accompanying failures.

What’s good about Cuba?

The UN Development Programme produced its most recent Human Development Report in 2014, evaluating 195 countries on a wide range of criteria. In this report (from data in 2012/2013), Cuba ranked 44th on “Human Development Index.” The U.S. came in 5th, while Brazil was ranked 79th and South Africa was rated 118th. If we look at the “mean years of schooling” criterion, Cuba ranks 49th, between Liechtenstein and Singapore (and just ahead of Greece and Italy). Even better, young adults emerge from training without debt. Foreigners have taken advantage of free medical training in Cuba. A parent’s ability to direct his or her child’s education, however, can be hindered by the government (note the source for this link).
On the same table, Cuba is reported as achieving a 79.3 year life expectancy at birth. That ranked Cuba 35th, just in front of the United States (78.9 years). Senator Tom Harkin highlighted this impressive performance after his visit there, and Politifact noted that Cuba has been quite forceful with its citizens in protecting its international ranking in this area. We’re free to behave in unsafe ways in the United States. Go, us! The New York Times asked whether Cuba will be able to continue to afford their medical system as they move forward.
Daily Caller recently criticized the New York Times for highlighting the Castro government’s environmental performance. Imagine if each family had two cars in Cuba. Instead of all the taxi-sharing and car-pooling that happens daily in Cuba, each family would contribute quite a lot more CO2 than they currently do. Yes, poverty can be good for the environment. Imagine, though, if cars like Thingamachinga were each replaced with new, fuel-efficient cars. Suddenly those clouds of black smoke would be absent. Surely some gains in economic development are possible without invoking the worst potential environmental outcomes.
For people living in Cuba, each day is an exercise in “making do.” Your car breaks down? You fix it. You can’t get that part anymore? You improvise. I joked during my visit that the United States should provide a work visa to each Cuban willing to live in under-served communities to open auto mechanic shops. Meanwhile we can send them shiploads of used cars. I respected the pragmatism I saw in the inhabitants of Havana.
Dave sits by a spare tire on a school bus at Jardines de Hershey.

Dave sits by a spare tire on a school bus at Jardines de Hershey.

What’s bad about Cuba?

The United States has greatly benefited from the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger. Our “American dream” is that if we work hard, our kids will enjoy better lives than we did. Cuba is facing a great danger that many of its citizens do not believe that they will benefit from working hard. While the United States population is growing at a little under 1% a year, largely due to immigration, Cuba has struggled to break even in population. Cuban policies have made it easier for couples to wait later to have children. With memories of the “special period” of the 1990s fresh in many minds, it appears that some couples have decided to forgo having kids altogether.
In my journal, I commented on the frequency of littering I saw during the trip, and I don’t remember seeing a single recycle bin in the country. I should add that one frequently sees piles of trash lying on the ground on some street corners. I had the impression that sometimes a trash container tips over, and nobody bothers to pick up the mess. It may also reflect some degree of “trash picking.” I am accustomed to having clean hands in my life in the United States, but seeing litter everywhere made my skin crawl a bit.
I would say that the economy in Cuba was destroyed by: 1) government mismanagement, 2) the collapse of the Soviet Union, and 3) the embargo of the United States. They have, however, been effective in reducing the difference in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens. The poorest people in the United States live worse than the poorest people in Cuba. Someone from the U.S. middle class, though, is far wealthier than the average citizen in Cuba. The New Republic simply described Cuba as “hell.” The report from Poverties.org seemed somewhat more even-handed.
An old joke from the Soviet Union ran, “They pretend to pay us; we pretend to work.” The United States economy has been buoyed in recent years by leveraging technology in the workplace and by the increased workload carried by individual workers. In Cuba, labor productivity has not been reliable. The Havana Times blog wrote “managerial bureaucrats aren’t much interested in the productivity of their wage laborers, but, rather, in the perks they secure in exchange for their loyalty to the high bureaucrats who appoint them. Therefore, neither managers nor workers have any compelling reasons to produce efficiently, no matter what bureaucratic slogans proclaim.” More broadly, Cuba was the prime cane sugar exporter in the world in the mid-19th century. Two things went wrong with that: first, the sugar beet can be grown in temperate climates, and it now accounts for a third of all sugar consumption in the world. Sugar prices have not been reliable. Second, centralized planning under Castro was deeply problematic for the sugar industry. His government’s plan for the “ten million ton harvest” in 1970 encountered profound difficulties, according to Fraginals and Moreno: “Unfortunately, by 1964 the structure and infrastructure of the Cuban sugar industry had been seriously damaged by measures adopted from 1959 to 1963. Thousands of hectares of planted sugar cane had been dismantled. The required process of repairing and cleaning sugar mills after each harvest had been neglected since 1959. Sugarcane railroads had been equally neglected. Quantitative and qualitative methods of control had been discarded; allowing the instruments used in determining product quality and production levels to deteriorate.”
Sugar production goals at Hershey sugar mill

Sugar production goals at Hershey sugar mill

Summing up

What did I think of Cuba?

  • It is gorgeous, and I can hardly imagine how picturesque Havana must have been at the close of the 1950s. I hope that it can be restored before it crumbles irreparably.
  • I cannot imagine the frustration of carrying out research there. I respect my friends Lorenzo, Ross, Ernesto, Yasset, and Aniel all the more for their accomplishments.
  • The next time I visit, I will be sure to pack a suitcase of useful things for my hosts.
  • Even if the United States today lifted all of its restrictions on trade and tourism in Cuba, great changes within Cuba would be necessary to take advantage of its new trade relationship.
  • The climate of Cuba is incredibly hot and humid. I felt dirty most of my week there due to my own sweat.


I am deeply grateful for the hospitality of Lorenzo’s extended family. Besides reserving Thingamachinga for our use in tourism, providing many meals, lending me an apartment for a week, and otherwise taking care of my every need, they made me feel included, even when doing so took place by gestures rather than words. My trip to Cuba would have been entirely different if I hadn’t been a part of this family! I would also like to thank Ricky Bousman for reminding me that I could write, even though I didn’t have a computer with me. Thank you for taking the time to read about my week in Cuba!


One thought on “Cuba Week: Seeing Cuba in a new light

  1. Pingback: Cuba week: Arriving in a different world | Picking Up The Tabb

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