Cuba: An Island Apart

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Cuba.

Cuba’s social and economic revolutions are impressive.

Travelling, at its best, can shatter prejudices. For example, in North America it is widely believed that in order to live well you need lots of money. And without money you will live poorly.

So how can it be that the average worker in Cuba, who earns less than $300 per year, is by most measures not poor? Cuba boasts one of the lowest rates of infant mortality, one of the highest rates of life expectancies, as well as one of the highest rates of doctors per person in Latin America, if not the world.

And while each person in Cuba consumes only about 1/30 the energy of a North American, their standard of living seems high, especially when compared to the rest of the less industrialized world.

As we approach the third millennium the overdeveloped world seems driven by a voracious appetite for more and more things. This insatiable hunger now seems to be rapidly destroying the life support systems of the planet. Cuba’s success at meeting basic needs while consuming few resources is a puzzle worth pondering, and admiring.

Snapshots from Havana: a man cycling with his companera on the back rack and a child on the crossbar. Kids playing baseball with a stick and handmade ball in a rubble strewn lot. Street vendors selling coconut cookies and freshly squeezed orange juice for a nickel a glass. Afro-Cuban musical rhythms echoing through the narrow streets of Havana Vieja, inspiring passersby to mambo. A vibrant market full of corn fritters, Cuban grown bananas, carrots, and papaya. Waves crashing and lovers romancing along the seaside promenade, the Malecon.

Now imagine a place with no ads. In Cuba there are no commercials on the state controlled television or radio stations. And there are no billboards or magazines or posters cultivating endless needs. In the absence of such advertising, it’s clear how it acts as a major driving force, pushing consumption around the world.

Money here can be baffling. A surgeon friend told me that he earns the equivalent of under $300 per month. And his salary is higher than most, except for those working in the tourist trade who can earn U.S. dollars. But people here don’t need to earn much because so much is provided by the state for free, or nearly so. Housing prices are pegged at less than 10% of income. Health care, day care and education (through university) are free. University is available to those with good marks, regardless of income.

Basic foodstuffs, while almost free, are rationed: rice, beans, bread, coffee, fruit and the occasional meat. Kids are assured milk. But food is in short supply, and there seems to be constant shortages of soap and cooking oil among other things.

Little is wasted: a vendor who sold us fried banana chips in a hand rolled paper cone was happy to take it back for re-use. Food scraps are often fed to a backyard chicken or pig. There is surprisingly little garbage, and the little that does accumulate in the streets is swept up each morning by a street cleaner and his pushcart.

By global standards, Cuba’s social and economic revolutions are impressive. Certainly it is no utopia. The shortage of funds and resources means that every few days there are blackouts of electricity, and cooking gas service can be unreliable. Many complain about not enough food and other necessities. Havana Bay is one of the most polluted bays in the world. Black smoke trails from refinery smokestacks and blankets this city of two million. And although there are fewer cars and trucks than in western cities, those on the road spew dirty exhaust from burning a who-knows-what mixture of fuels.

But all in all this island has proven itself to be flexible, egalitarian and intelligent. It has also made great strides at lessening its ecological footprint. Next week we’ll touch on the Cuban bicycle revolution, its shift towards organic agriculture, and its growing reliance on renewable energy: all impressive ecological experiments which could inspire the rest of the world to emulate.

Until then, we’ll be soaking up the sights and sounds of this tropical Caribbean isle. Hasta luego companeros y companeras!

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