What is Cuba like? Since visiting there recently, I have been asked this question hundreds of times and learned that every third person harbors a desire to visit there.
Yes, there are iconic ‘57 Chevrolets, some in mint condition for taking tourists around Havana. But most 1950s Russian and American cars there would not pass emissions and safety inspections here (although this may change as the Trump administration takes a wrecking ball to the US EPA). There are no traffic jams in this city of 2.2 million people because most Cubans take buses, ride bikes, use pedicabs and walk. Music – especially Afro Cuban and salsa - is everywhere: in hotels, small clubs, plazas, flowing from opened windows. So no need to go in search of it; it finds you.
Cubans love books, we were told. Sure enough, there were many bookstores in Havana. Could their love of books stem from a public education system that is free through university and medical school, the most democratic educational system in the Americas? Within two years after the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s aggressive literacy program, which placed special focus on women, Afro-Cubans and rural people, raised the literacy rate from 60 percent to 96 percent. It now stands at 100 percent. (By contrast, 32 million adults in the U.S. are considered illiterate, reflecting the fact that our country invests much less of our GDP in education than does Cuba). Every morning, just after 7:00 the streets are filled with children in school uniforms walking, being biked and, in the case of the small rural towns like Boca de Camarioca where we stayed, being brought in horse-drawn carriages to their schools.
In Havana we met with two key women’s organizations, the Federation of Cuban Women and the National Union of Cuban Women Lawyers. They described their programs on violence against women in the primary and secondary schools and have a profound understanding of prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women. Their feminist magazines – one for girls and one for women - reach hundreds of thousands of readers.
Cuba is a poor country, with the average monthly salary of teachers being $40, and no evident signs of consumerism - no shopping malls, luxury goods, cheap fast food places or billboard advertising. Despite its poverty, it has the lowest malnutrition rate in the Americas. Nowhere did I see homeless people sleeping in parks, doorways or under bridges nor people begging as I saw daily during the years that I worked in Boston. Boston, with a quarter of Havana’s population, had nearly 8,000 homeless men, women and children in 2016, with a 25 percent increase in homeless families since 2015.
The U.S. embargo of Cuba, more accurately called a bloqueo or blockade by Cubans, began in 1960 with the intent to deny money and supplies to the country; to decrease wages; and “to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government,” according to a State Department memo. And, yes, there is a sense of the country locked in the 1950s, with housing and colonial buildings desperately in need of repair, extremely crowded buses, shortages of consumer goods, and poor air quality in Havana. Years of material deprivation, amazingly, have not dampened the warmth, affection and welcome that everyone who visits Cuba speaks of, a richness in the Cuban spirit sustained, possibly, by their more equal society.
In the past few years, the Cuban government under Raul Castro has allowed small private enterprises to open. Families are renting rooms and offering meals to tourists, in what are called casas particulares. These and other small microenterprises are flourishing and raising incomes and standards of living across the island.
One hallmark of Cuba’s achievements is its free health care system, recognized as one of the best in the world, as well as the primary care it provides in poor communities throughout the world. In meeting with health care providers, we learned of their emphasis on disease prevention and the country’s policy that every community, no matter how remote, has a primary care facility. With its commitment to health care as a human right, Cuba has achieved higher life expectancy and a lower infant mortality rate than the United States, these being key indicators of the overall health of the country’s people.
Like many colonial-era countries, Cuba’s wealth was built on the African slave trade and slave labor. One factor that may contribute to their overall health achievements is that the social and economic integration of black and white Cubans – an intentional goal since their revolution – is more advanced than that of many countries, including (and especially) our own. In 2015 black and Hispanic households in the United States had on average one-tenth the money and property of white households.
Last year President Obama made a trip to Cuba, after much closed door negotiation facilitated at times by the Vatican and consultation with wealthy Miami Cuban-American businessmen. Some of them joined him in Havana, being flown there on the private jet of a Cuban American healthcare billionaire.
Obama’s intentions appear honorable – opening up Cuba’s economy with private enterprise to raise the standard of living, release of political prisoners and free elections. Yet there is a fatal irony in these objectives for Cuba. Our “free” national elections are determined by money – the biggest spenders win; and our Executive Branch is now littered with people in the top 1 percent of income. We have the largest prison system in the world, with a disproportionate number of African Americans unjustly incarcerated, and have never yet, as a society, come to terms with structural racism, our segregated cities and segregated urban schools. Even with the Affordable Care Act, medical expenses are the biggest cause of bankruptcies while executives in the health care industry become multi-millionaires.
Realistically, most U.S. people would not choose to live in Cuba: we have more individual freedoms and no shortages of consumer items, if you can afford them. I do remember, however, a sign scrawled on a wall in the city of Matanzas (the former center of the African slave trade) that speaks to the island country’s social aspirations: la dignidad no se vende, dignity is not for sale.
Pat Hynes, a retired professor of environmental health from Boston University School of Public Health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice http://traprock.org.