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Veronica Vega: For years I had a hard time deciding between writing, painting or dancing. It was writing that proved to make the most sense financially in the short term. I live in Alamar, an aborted project for a city that only breathes from what’s left of nature, from the alternative cultural scene, and above all, from the infinite will of the human soul. I’m not a journalist. Writing in HT has been an opportunity to say what I believe can be improved in Cuba.

The Good and the Bad When it Comes to Cuba

July 15, 2017 | Print Print |

Veronica Vega

Balance. Illustration: Yasser Castellanos

HAVANA TIMES — A French friend used to tell me that listening to criticism from foreigners about her country was a healthy experience for her. The general opinions of a visitor tend to be based on the splendor of a first impression, and aren’t objective at all.

And what can I say about the impact that this First World has on a Cuban person? Every time I bump into a visiting friend who has emigrated, I prepare myself for the standard confrontation: abroad (any developed country is amazing) – Cuba (an insurmountable disaster).

So, in contrast, I also found it healthy to hear very different opinions from a self-employed Cuban woman after her recent tour of Florida’s cities.

In her opinion, it’s such an organized society that it ends up being unnatural. Healthcare isn’t a service but a business; it isn’t focussed on preventing disease but rather on creating dependence. Hyperactive children are given sedatives instead of channeling their extra energy into sports or another physical activity.

She was shocked to see dogs wearing collars with devices which give them small electric shocks if they bark, which violates their natural urges and must traumatize them.

She said that houses are built out of a material called “plasterboard”, which creates damp and so to counter this smell, people constantly burn aromatic substances which she couldn’t breathe in. All of the food tasted artificial to her, she really missed the flavor of beans and coffee…

She crossed a bridge and was struck by the fact that it was covered in mesh. She asked why and she was told that it was to stop people from trying to commit suicide.

Snitching is a lot worse there than it is here… she claimed. A neighbor can report you to the police for any work done outside of the law, even when it’s just something stupid that can’t hurt or affect anyone. In Cuba, a driver can get out of his car to argue with another driver in the middle of the street, if you do this there, the other driver could be carrying a firearm and with so many crazy people out there, who knows what could happen.

Very insulting language is used to refer to those people who don’t belong to the White race, referring especially to indigenous and Black people. Rafters (those who are heroes here in Cuba), are considered to be the lowest of the low in their society. So much so that they criticize the fact that girls here are seen as sex objects, but there they are expected to invest money in making their bodies more attractive… to work as strippers.

If you have seen someone fall down on a public street, you don’t even think about helping them, if you call an ambulance in these situations and the person who fell down thinks that your actions have caused them some kind of harm, they can even sue you!

Everything is seen through the green lens of money: if you have a small car accident, as well as medical help, firefighters and the police will also turn up, so you have to pay for all of these services including material damage that you might have caused with your car.

And the worst thing is: if you are buying a house on credit and you suddenly end up unemployed, you will lose your house along with EVERYTHING you invested up until that moment, it doesn’t matter if you only had a little while left to pay off the debt…

It seems that the only thing that gave her a positive impression about the Land of Opportunities was technological advances, such as the GPS system in cars.

But I ask myself: walking down clean streets, not seeing animals suffering in them but being respected and protected by law, doesn’t that give a lot of relief?  At least this is what some relatives and friends who immigrated to the United States are most amazed by. My niece too who recently traveled to Antalya, Turkey, where the thing she liked the most was to see cats and dogs on the street, so beautiful and well-cared for by organizations, wearing collars with GPS for protection!

The self-employed lady’s opinions reminded me of my son’s friend who immigrated to Texas when he was still a teenager, and when he came back on holiday, he had changed tremendously. He spoke clearly, he had good manners, he had willingly integrated into school when here he only used to think about playing soccer and raising pigeons. He already knew how to drive and helped his dad doing some errands with his own car.

So, not everything can be so bad out there. Here, the small business owners who have young employees complain about “anthropological damage”, about the lack of morals, discipline… They don’t believe hard work can earn them gradual prosperity; they only want easy money to show off and squander.

No society is black and white. The failures in each and every system reveal the imperfections of its people. And we have to admit that a lot of what seems to be “good” in Cuba: with regard to the absence of violence, a non-dizzying pace of life, soldarity (which is becoming more and more relative), can’t be called achievements because they are founded on a lack of prospects, resources, management, business freedom… In a nutshell, on the lack of opportunities.


What's your opinion?

  • Sven Normand

    This lady exaggerates very much: to say the least.

    If things are so terrible in the United States, how is it that people from all countries (and especially the Cubans) want to immigrate there?

  • Eden Wong

    Lots of valid points made on both sides.

  • Ken Hiebert

    “If you have seen someone fall down on a public street, you don’t even think about helping them,…”
    There may be some people in the US who react this way, but I am inclined to think that there are many as well who come to the aid of those in distress.
    That is my experience here in Canada.

  • Larry Gates

    Very well written and fully understood but you forgot 1 thing im any country its the government who set the rules for just about anything and everything that happens to its people and yours is no different

  • Dan Segal

    Veronica–very intriguing and insightful. I visited Cuba in March and was one of those US citizens who was definitely mesmerized by the splendor of a first visit, as you note–mainly because we have heard so much about Cuba here in the US that felt false once I was there to observe with my own eyes. I have been having a similar conversation to the one you voice in your article with an acquaintance who is Cuban American. It is rare for us Americans to have the chance to see a country where not everything is commercialized, where our hyper-developed systems you mentioned–legal with emphasis on lawsuits, economic with warped values, health care with emphasis on profit–have not yet taken hold, or have been expunged. My own reaction to that is a nostalgia for a past that is still the present in Cuba. Eventually, soon, Cuba will have many more of the trappings that most other countries have–yes, more creature comforts and updated infrastructure, but also the frenzy of growth that comes with rampant capitalism. Rampant capitalism has as at least some negative consequences for environment, lifestyles, and for small, individually owned businesses. Will Cuba be able to enter the fray but hold onto a scale of capitalism that isn’t ruinous? So many Cubans I spoke with mentioned a desire for growth, but a measured or controlled growth. Ideally, yes–this is what most people would want. In a capitalist society, a tiny % of the people are the truly wealthy, even though everyone hopes or aims for this–really, most of us are striving, living in debt, working a lot, sacrificing family and enjoyment, putting things off for the proverbial ‘later’. Living with the short cuts of contractors who need to cut quality to compete on cost, or the loss of individual small businesses where products used to be made by hand, where foods used to be ‘home-made’ even at restaurants–but now those ideals and values are lost in the tide of competition and capitalism. To me this is as much a quality of life problem as it is a quantitative problem. It is the underlying sadness that is eroding American culture–our loss of authenticity. While Cuba suffers through many problems, and I am not trying to gloss over them or idealize the condition there, Cuba, at least, still has those things that we have lost to the pressures of capitalism. Cuba’s position in relation to capitalism and a more modern, free way of life reminds me of a geologic fault line that is building pressure, and the longer it doesn’t move, the more sudden and disruptive the movement will be when it happens. Capitalism–with its evolution and eventual, inevitable widening of gaps between groups of people in the society–will probably reach Cuba soon enough, and when it does, I just hope Cubans are wary enough to learn some things from our experiment here in the US.

    Anyway, that is how I interpret your friend’s perceptions of her time in the US. Surely some Americans will take the attitude ‘if you don’t like it, leave’–which is fair if they want to feel that way, but in my opinion, it is a reaction and not really a thought.

    Oh, and the observed lack of grit and earnest work ethic in the young–same here. Same everywhere? Interesting that the same phenomenon is observed generationally, even in two very different countries that supposedly don’t communicate much.

    Your provocative conclusion about the things in Cuba that can be seen as good–safety, a saner pace of life, etc.– perhaps being just the passive result of a lack of opportunity…this made me sad to read it, because I felt it to be true when I was there. But I also thought about how many things can be seen in a new light after seeing Cuba–we have lots of opportunity here, but the cost is an insane pace of life for many, risk of crime and violence in affordable cities, etc…I have been wrestling with the fascinating question of why is Cuba so safe? Cynics will say it’s fear of reprisal–but we have that here too, and Cuba seemed entirely safer than most cities, or places, I’ve visited in my own US. I like to think it’s something inherent in Cuba’s nature but of course this opens me up to being seen as an idealist…

  • drspocks

    Just returned from my sixth trip to Cuba. These trips however have been spread out over nearly thirty-five years. I was struck by how hard daily life is. there seem to be little and sometimes not so little obstacles everywhere. Buses that are late, no toilet paper in the store, favors being given to the politically connected. The basic municipal services that any society expects from a government seem stretched to the breaking point in Cuba.

    But i was also struck by the civility and sense of community in Cuba, the general knowledge of the average citizen and their sense of what was going on in the world. I know this sense of community cuts both ways. When no one can afford to move everyone in the neighborhood knows one another and does the best to get along.

    But people come to the US because of the material standard of living. Not because of community. Not because of civil liberties, because those freedoms are disappearing little by little every day.

    Most are unaware of what a racial hierarchy America is. Those who are not white discover what that means very quickly and it is not a pleasant discovery. Rights and privileges are dolled out according to skin color line and any interaction with police might turn violent. Some will say these are just a few aberrations, but there are mountains of data that say otherwise.

    There are opportunities for those willing to work hard, but again they are material. Unions are on the decline and the real unemployment rate in America is closer to 10%. In urban Black communities and some rural areas it’s 20%.

    I can’t speak about the experience of immigrants. My ancestors were slaves brought to America against their will. But my guess is that most immigrants would stay in their home country if they could have the wealth and material comfort available in America at home.

    Some are here because they can raise their voice in protest and not be thrown in prison. but recently our police are trying to change even that. Over 700 native indians face criminal charges because they peacefully protested against an oil pipeline running through their land. Twenty years ago they simply would have been fined. today the prosecutor is seeking to have them imprisoned–and they are not alone.

    To emigrate is a difficult and often very personal decision. I have learned not to judge those that do, or those that choose not to.