Talking with Cubans about the State of the Nation (3/5/04)

HAVANA — After nearly half a century of revolution, the small island of Cuba is still evolving. Even Cuba’s supporters were moved to criticize the nation’s human rights record last April, when 75 Cuban dissidents were sent to jail, and three men who had hijacked a ferry in an attempt to reach Florida were executed. At the same time, the Bush administration continues to pander to the anti-Castro Florida vote while it pours millions of dollars a year into attempts to topple Fidel Castro.

But while Cuba and the political debates that surround it receive overwhelming attention, the inside reality of life there and the opinions of Cubans themselves are often absent from the discussion.

With a population of more than 11 million, Cuba, like any other country in the world, is full of all types—patriots, dissidents, the educated, the apathetic, and many who are just trying to raise their kids, work a job and live in peace. As most Cubans point out, daily life on the island is a struggle. The refrain "No es fácil, muchacho" ("It’s not easy, kid") peppers any discussion.


The U.S. trade embargo has been a double-edged sword in Cuba. It has helped the government’s crusade to create national solidarity against a common enemy, and it provides a handy scapegoat for economic problems. Because of the trade embargo, many products are scarce or prohibitively expensive: Due to a shortage of medicine, doctors and herbalists join up to treat patients in some areas. People share personal property and equipment. Christmas garlands are made out of milk jugs. Due to their improvised parts, the 1950s American cars that roar improbably down the streets are described proudly as "50 percent Cuban." There are countless creative and necessary responses to the trade embargo.

Many Cubans work odds jobs to make ends meet. Salaries are low and the monthly government food provisions often don’t cover people’s needs. Many lucrative business ventures are illegal, such as housing tourists without a permit or selling lobsters in Havana. One man we spoke with makes about $10 USD a month. In order to support his family, he paints, works as a mechanic, and sells products to tourists. "Everything here is illegal," he explained, "But people need to take these risks in order to survive."

Economic hardships have left Cubans with an antiquated public transportation system. In Lista De Espera, a popular Cuban movie, the passengers in a bus station wait so long for a bus that they give up the idea of traveling and decide to turn the station into a utopian commune. The film is not a far cry from reality, where old trains break down several times a day or don’t arrive at all. Overcrowded public buses, known as guaguas and camels, have erratic schedules and regularly pass by crowded bus stops. Not only is it practically impossible for Cubans to leave the island, they have a tough time relocating within Cuba itself. The government limits relocation in efforts to control population growth.

Before the Cuban revolution in 1959, unequal distribution of wealth and foreign control of resources caused widespread poverty and crime. While some young Cubans are dissatisfied with their social reality now, older citizens say that Cuba today is much better off than it was 50 years ago. They say that while there are still differences in living standards, resources and social services are widely available and more equally shared.

Information Access

The Cuban government strictly controls all media on the island (See Sidebar for a breakdown of Cuban media sources). One day in a small town outside Havana, a few regulars dragged their chairs over to the small community television in a park. But instead of the standard evening soap opera, Cuba’s bearded leader took over the screen to begin a two-hour speech on education, healthcare and international relations. Amid moans of indignation, someone changed the station, and then changed it again. Fidel Castro was on all three Cuban television channels.

Perhaps nowhere else in Cuba is the government more present than in its media. Every day, Cuban citizens are bombarded with pro-government propaganda via radio, three television channels, newspapers and billboards. The dozen or so radio stations are perhaps the least controlled media source heard on the island, but Cubans still know what can and cannot be said on air. Full internet access is not available to most citizens and it is illegal to have a personal computer or home internet access unless for government-authorized work purposes.

Cuban public opinion regarding national media varies more than the media itself does. "All news sources here are controlled by the state. The government uses what is convenient for them to show in the news and nothing else," commented Sarai, a young mother in suburban Havana. On the other hand, a landscaper in Havana said, "Our government is very dedicated to keeping us informed and everyone thinks so. Cubans know everything about what is going on in Cuba and in the rest of the world."

"We are living in a bubble," a 27-year-old bookseller told us. "Most people know it, but can’t do anything about it. It’s just like in Orwell’s books." He went on to add that he owns a boxed copy of his favorite book, Orwell’s 1984, illegal in Cuba. Yet like anywhere else, many Cubans are too busy working and taking care of their families to concern themselves with news and politics. Other citizens simply don’t care. Maria Valdez, a single mother, said, "Fidel takes care of me. What happens in the world outside doesn’t affect me. I have my rights within Cuba and that is what is important."

Equally varied are public opinions regarding personal freedom. Some Cubans are die-hard Castro supporters, while others are quick to call the government a restrictive dictatorship. And though people aren’t allowed to speak against the government in public, many do so unabashedly in personal conversations. The majority of this criticism is directly related to the low salaries and the scarcity of basic household products, difficulty of travel to other countries, and the absence of freedom of expression. Still, these opinions do not always seem to carry over into social relationships, and many people commented that they had friends both pro and anti-Castro.

Race, Class and Gender

Poverty, racism and gender inequality are still problematic in Cuba. While some Cubans say that class is mixed in all neighborhoods of Havana, others cite poorer districts and note that there are more black families in those neighborhoods. Though there are many mixed-race relationships and persons of color in professional and governmental positions, racism in Cuba is still largely an undiscussable issue.

Pointing to one’s own wrist for the question "Is she this color?" has become the acceptable on-the-street way to ask about someone’s race. One man, after explaining that there was no racism in Cuba, proceeded to pat a security guard on the head and call him ‘nigger’ in English, knowing the cultural meaning of the word.

"People have to say that there is no racism here, because it’s supposedly one of the successes of the revolution and of course things are better. But people are still extremely racist," remarked Lucia, a young mother.

Television and painted propaganda consistently celebrate the role of Cuban women as revolutionaries and as mothers and wives of revolutionaries, portraying women as strong workers and matriarchs. Women are legally protected from domestic violence. Free, voluntary abortion is both available and used. Women can retire earlier and have no mandatory military service.

But just under the surface lie gender roles that many women know still exist. "The men here are incredibly macho," complained one woman, a single social worker. "When a woman begins to date a single man, she immediately becomes his cook and housecleaner, clothing mender and secretary."

While Cubans haven’t completely achieved the social equality they would like to say they have, a look at other Latin American nations shows that Cuba has done a fairly good job.

Views of the U.S.

For years, the greatest threat to the United States was the "bad example" of communism. Now it is terrorism and "evildoers." In Cuba, the threat, or enemy, has been imperialism, and the personification of that enemy has long been Uncle Sam. As one of the last socialist countries in the world, Cuba is in a long-term battle with its closest and most radically different neighbor to maintain its sovereignty.

In spite of that circumstance, many Cubans compare their country to the U.S. more than to other Latin American countries. The vast majority we spoke with had a relative or friend in Miami, where millions of Cubans live. This connection alone puts Cubans in Cuba more in touch with the U.S. than with other countries.

Most Cubans make a distinction between the U.S. government and the U.S. people. Many are enamored of aspects of American culture such as movies and brand-name clothing. Many would like to leave Cuba, and while illegal attempts to leave the country are common, most wait for the U.S. visa lottery or hope for a foreign marriage.

"No Hay Problema"

Cuba has one of the lowest crime rates in the region. That may be because acts of violence or theft are punished so strictly, or because of a highly educated population with a relatively stable standard of living, or both. Though rarely carried out, the death penalty is sometimes sought for rape and other violent crimes. Firearms are outlawed except for police use, and everywhere we traveled, both in the city and the country, we were told "You can walk around at 3 a.m. and you’ll be fine. There are no problems here. Everything is very safe."

One mild but constant threat to personal freedom and safety is the government itself. When we were communicating via home telephones, tourist computers or private conversations, we were reminded that theoretically, there was always someone listening who could take us all to jail.

"You can’t go out in the street with a sign that says ‘Fidel Has An Ugly Beard!’ You’d be disappeared," said one fruit seller in a rural town. A journalism professor described the code of behavior in the university as unspoken but perfectly understood: you cannot speak against the government or its philosophies and ideals. She says her students are critical but not out loud. However, in spite of the lack of certain freedoms and the difficulty of daily life, both critical and supportive citizens are unanimous in their pride and approval of education and healthcare.

Free Healthcare and Education

Countries across Latin America have been adhering to neoliberal economic policies for decades. While serving external interests, many of these policies have resulted in internal poverty, inequality and social turmoil. Cuba, on the other hand, has spent 45 years as a socialist nation and in many ways is better off because of it.

In the UN development program’s annual report for 2003, Cuba ranked 52nd in the human development index—the sixth highest in Latin America, above Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela. Since Castro came into power, Cuba has maintained free education and healthcare for all its citizens. It has the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the world. In 2003, the infant mortality rate in Cuba was lower than that of the U.S. In comparative educational tests, Cuban students outperform regional averages, scoring above students in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. These are impressive facts and figures considering the U.S. economic embargo.

Many aspects of the Cuban government focus on putting the basic needs of the people first. Free healthcare—including check-ups, preventative treatments, complex surgeries, special diets and dental work—is provided by the government. Outpatient medicines that are not free are inexpensive.

Not only free, healthcare is readily available to everyone. In the tiny rural community of Gramali, there is no electricity or running water and the bus comes three times a week, when it’s not broken. Yet the four corners that constitute the center of town are made up of a store/pharmacy, a bakery, a school, and a solar-powered medical center.

In Havana, neighborhood medical offices provide citizens with easy access to consultations. Gabriela, a single mother, says during her pregnancy she received a special diet of food from the government and was practically sought out for checkups by her nurse.

"I live a pretty tranquil life," Gabriela says. "Fidel gives me pretty much everything." According to Gabriela, after she has worked 25 years and is at least 55 years old, she can retire and receive a 60 percent pension, which should allow her to scrape by. For now, the government will provide free daycare for her son and free education, from pre-kindergarten through post-graduate studies.

Basic education in Cuba is obligatory, and illiteracy has been eradicated. If children from rural families leave home to study in the university, their families are compensated for the loss of manual labor. Besides free instruction, students receive food and housing if they have to leave home to attend university. All graduates are guaranteed a job.

"We Were Living Like Millionaires And We Didn’t Even Know It"

When Fidel Castro gives public speeches, he uses free education and healthcare, low housing and transportation costs, and monthly food rations among the reasons to continue "defending and preserving the revolution." Despite dissatisfaction with a variety of issues, many Cubans still seem to agree with him.

Juan Valdez Paz, a sociologist in Havana, commented, "People here know they are better off than many of the people living in neighboring countries. They are very conscious of what they have to lose, and that if we lose this independence, we will never ever get it back. Also, don’t forget that Cuba is the only Third World country with a welfare state. The people are cautious about change—about losing what socialism we have—because we would not experience capitalism as England or Germany do. The older generation that lived on the periphery of the capitalist world economy knows what it is like. So though people are unhappy with many parts of the government here, most people know that if we turn to capitalism, things are going to get worse."

In the early years of Fidel Castro’s reign, he was supported by a partnership with the Soviet Union. After the Soviet fall, Cuba was left on its own to fight for self-sufficiency in the face of pressure from the United States. Without much-needed support and economic aid from the Soviet Union, many expected Cuba’s socialist government to collapse in the early 90s. But by tightening government spending and strengthening the economy through tourism, Cuba has stayed relatively strong in unfavorable circumstances.

In many ways, the average Cuban is guaranteed more essential rights than most people in the world. One hospital lab technician in Havana remarked that during Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union, "We were living like millionaires and we didn’t even know it." It remains to be seen what Cubans will be saying when the reign of Fidel Castro ends.

Ben Dangl is a freelance writer. April Howard, a student at Bard College, spent last semester at the Universidad de Chile studying social history and is currently translating Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel.