author photo

Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

The Misery of Poverty in Cuba (Part 2)

December 19, 2012 | Print Print |

Graham Sowa

HAVANA TIMES — In the first part of this piece I asked if Jean Marat and the “misery of poverty” were alive in present day Cuba. For the second part of this piece I’m going to explain why I think Jean Marat is alive, even though much as been done to remove “misery” from poverty.

For a large part of my life I have believed that poverty and misery and are interchangeable synonyms. They are poor. They are miserable. Same thing.

But I no longer think that is true.

Reflecting more on how I arrived at this grammatical error I thought of my childhood. I come from a family that was able to provide all that I needed, and many things that I wanted. I lived believing that anyone who survived just slightly below my comfort level must also be just that much more miserable. And of course I believed that anyone who lived above my socioeconomic status must be that much more happy.

I think that is how a lot of my peers in the United States grew up thinking as well. We are basically in love with material culture, the money is just the way we get it. It was supposed to make us feel good.

But I think some of us were still miserable. So growing numbers of people started taking anti-depressant drugs to improve their mood.

I was reminded of this heavily medicated reality in a movie called Gringo Mariachi I saw at the Film Festival in Havana last week. The lead character is 29 years old and his mom was still reminding him to take his Ritalin. He wasn’t taking medication because his family was poor, he was taking it because he wasn’t happy.

More than once I’ve been curious as to why developing countries are not receiving huge international aid shipments of Prozac. I’ve visited dozens of health centers in Haiti and never once did I see anyone writing prescriptions for anti-depressant medication. But then again, I doubt that those pills alone would take the misery out of that kind poverty.

My personal experience has shown me that being rich and comfortable is not a guarantee to be free of misery. Could it make sense that there exists a poverty that is free of misery?

By Victor Hugo’s criteria for “killing the misery of poverty” I think Cuba has made more progress than most countries. This progress is especially in creating a populace that is capable of surviving conditions that would render most first world residents completely useless.

True, there are many people without jobs. There is prostitution. There are still corners of darkness and ignorance. The strict conditions that Victor Hugo put forth have not been met. And I know no group of people as large as Cuba (11+ million) will ever live free of joblessness, prostitution, or ignorance.

In fact, if my memory does not fail me, no Cuban has ever told me that they were miserable. Of course that doesn’t mean I don’t hear about problems, some acute, some chronic. But never the word “miserable.”

I think Cuba is a good example of what a society can look like when material culture and misery are scarce. Of course the example would be better if there was more local control and collective action. But maybe those ideas are approaching lights of the future.

With the first world facing the reality of economic austerity there are lots of lessons to learn from Cuba and Cubans. A lot of us who are used to living with lots of stuff will need to adjust to having less. And we’ll have to be able to do that without being miserable. Perhaps even laying to rest Victor Hugo’s Jean Marat.


What's your opinion?

  • Moses

    Cuban “misery” is masked by the more palpable human condition of fear. Cubans have learned that to complain not only does not change things for the better but may even invite worse problems. For FEAR of making their situation worse, Cubans turn to a macabre sense of humor or a sickening indifference as a means to cope with their suffocating disillusionment. I am a little surpised that you Graham do not understand this. Poverty in the US is, rightly or wrongly, blamed on a lack of preparation (educaion, resources, family ties, etc.). These are all personal conditions. Even racism, which is real, is a lesser cause of poverty than it once was. Cubans view themselves as victims. Either victims of the US embargo or the Castro regime. Few Cubans accept their living conditions as a result of a lack of personal initiative or effort. Cubans are miserable . Very miserable. However, they are even more afraid.

    • Milly C. Lugo

      You are so right! Fear is a good deterrent for outward expressions of misery and unhappiness.

    • Luis

      So let me get this straight – poverty and misery in the US are a result of “personal conditions”, while in Cuba they are a product of political/economical conditions. Am I seeing a ‘right’ Moses for the US and a ‘left’ Moses for Cuba?

  • Griffin

    Graham – Ritalin is not an anti-depressant. It’s a stimulant prescribed to treat ADD/ADHD. Ritalin is not prescribed to treat depression.

    What you describe as misery is different than what psychiatrists diagnose as depression. Being miserable, or unhappy is not the same thing as being depressed. Misery is a reaction to intolerable circumstances, while depression is a biochemical imbalance that inhibits a personal ability to feel happiness or pleasure. One should not confuse the two things, although they can come together.

    Perhaps the Cubans you speak to are too careful to be frank with you. I have heard Cubans tell me they are miserable with their life in Cuba today. Certainly, I have read several accounts by Cubans describing the wort years of the Special Period as misery.

    The field of positive psychology has studied the phenomenon of happiness and found that above a certain level of a standard of living there is very little correlation between income & happiness. If a person is so poor he doesn’t have enough to eat or a decent place to live, or if she’s suffering from illness with no medical treatment, then that person is usually unhappy. As income increases, the level of happiness increases up to the point where one has enough money to eat without hunger, a decent place to live, clean clothes to wear, & etc, …at that point, a person usually reports being “happy”. Any more wealth beyond that level that a person acquires does not seem to increase their level of happiness proportionately. One can still be unhappy through personal tragedy, or one may be biochemically depressed, no matter how wealthy one is. It’s not that the wealth causes them to be unhappy, but neither does it solve any underlying personal issues that keeps them from being happy.

    Factors that contribute to happiness, and therefore counter misery, are a basic standard of living, personal fulfilment, meaningful work, good health, rewarding relationships and a sense of hope for the future. Social conditions which interfere with those factors can cause a person to feel unhappy or miserable.

    With those factors in mind, and looking at conditions in Cuba today, one can see that at least some of those factors are declining. Food rations are declining while the price of food is rising. The housing stock is declining and overcrowding is increasing. Basic services such as water, sewage and electricity are experiencing increasing failures & shortages. Health care standards are dropping. Personal fulfillment is declining as university graduates are compelled to work as waiters, taxi driver or prostitutes just to make ends meet. As for having rewarding relationships, perhaps this is one enduring strength of the Cuba people who are well known for their love of family and warm friendship. This counts for a lot in hard times. They also have a long history of getting by on very little, a tolerance for hardship which many in the pampered US would find intolerable.

    What about hope for the future, a belief that in time things will get better? The answer to that is mixed. Some look at the economic reforms and changes and see hope for new opportunities. Others see rising prices and loss of jobs in the government sector. Some fear the increase in political repression as a sign things will never really improve. Others respond by leaving the island with the hope of a better future elsewhere.

    Look around, Graham. You will find misery in Cuba as you will, more or less, in any country. Misery and unhappiness will always be with us.

  • http://www.waynepitchko.blospot.com Wayne

    having spent much time in Cuba…..I have not found people being miserable…..very happy as a matter fact…..poverty of course at certain levels…and like everyone would like more…both freedoms and material things…..but no one is sleeping on the streets..or homeless….free health….free education…and it is VERY SAFE

    • Milly C. Lugo

      If people are so happy with their condition, how come they are still anxious to leave Cuba? re. What is a homeless person? Someone without a roof? It is more than that…someone whose dreams, aspirations, and individualism has been sacrified for the collective good. Free health care? Only the rich and powerful get the best healthcare in Cuba (e.g. Chavez, the Castros, etc.). The majority of the people have to bring their own supplies to hospitals…doctors have to freelance to make ends meet… read Yoani Sanchez’ blog for a view at the real Cuba, not the facade portrayed for visitors.

    • Moses

      Wayne, seriously dude? Are Cubans very happy OR very resigned to accept the shortages, blackouts, substandard housing, high food prices, low salaries, corruption, etc. simply as the way of life in Cuba. Resignation, over time, looks like acceptance. And acceptance over time has nowhere to go but laughter. Ask a Cuban why there are no strawberries in the fruit markets and watch how they laugh at you for asking such a stupid question. Ask a Cuban why don’t they call the electric company to complain about the blackouts and you will get a bellyroll of guffaws! When a Cuban sees or hears about an injustice, do they take to the street to protest? Do they send a letter to their local politician? or none of the above and just do nothing. This indifference, again over time, turns into jokes and laughter. Everyone is the “court jester” lest the King (insert Castros) send them to the gallows. Wayne, what you naively see as happiness is hardly that.
      P.S. I agree with the “feeling safe” part though….

      • Francisco Guayabal

        I usually tell the Lefties gringos that have self-brainwashed themselves into believing that Fidel is their Messiah the same thing. I challenge them to go to Cuba and tell Cubans the same atrocities and burradas they argue amongst themselves and watch Cubans laugh them out of town. Sadly, there isn’t a one that has the needed testicular fortitude to put their dollars where their mouth is and move to Cuba so they can experience the paradise they want to pun on others by themselves. There is no pseudo-Commie gringo I know that would last more than 3 months in Cuba living under the same conditions as the people of Cuba. They’re so delusional…no wonder they have to take Prozac and every other mood-altering drug known to man!

      • Luis

        Funny how you say this about ‘complaining’ and ‘resignation’ after describing the Occupy Movement as “by and large a group of rabble rousers looking to damage public property or simply mix it up with the police.”

    • Francisco Guayabal

      LOL! There’s none so blind as those who don’t want to see. No doubt the extent of your interactions with Cubans is limited to the wait staff at the luxury resort where you stay and the jineteras you sleep with while lavishly throwing your gringo dollars around.

  • Latanda

    Moses, Griffin, Milly….you know the score but you also know that most people don’t! Far from it. The world has ‘bought into’ Castro’s propaganda and tourists are very carefully protected from seeing the reality. So much so, that they have little idea about ‘the real Cuba’ and seem to project all sorts of ideologies onto the country. How ironic to hear Graham talk about the lack of ‘materialism’ in Cuba when the younger generation (and now many older people too) are obsessed with money and material goods ONLY and will go to ANY lengths to obtain them. Forget ‘corners of darkness or ignorance’, how about widespread professional hustling as the only way of being???

    • Griffin

      Delusions die hard. Graham seems like a very nice young man. Alas he is also shockingly idealistic, naive and gullible. When will he open his eyes? Perhaps when he finally graduates from the Cuban medical school and discovers he cannot get a job as a real doctor anywhere other than in Cuba or maybe Venezuela.

  • http://havanatimes.org grahamsowa

    Griffin,

    Quick note on Ritalin. So I used the trade name because it is more commonly known. The actual compound name is methylphenidate and it decreases the reuptake of dopamine and norepi. Yes, the common prescription is for treatment of ADD/ADHD, but off label and on a chemical level the drug is an anti-depressant. I highly recommend a book called Anatomy of an Empire which talks about the history of the anti-depression drugs in the United States. From discovery to common use today. Check it out its good stuff!

    -Graham

  • Griffin

    A list of Spanish words related to “miserable” (meanings in parenthesis)

    miserable: (miserable, wretched, paltry, measly, squalid, abject)
    desgraciado: (unfortunate, unhappy, miserable, poor, unlucky)
    triste: (sad, sorry, unhappy, dismal, sorrowful, miserable)
    desdichado: (unhappy, unfortunate, miserable, wretched, hapless, ill-fated)
    abatido: (dejected, despondent, depressed, miserable, broken, weary)

    Perhaps if you listen for any of those adverbs, you might hear Cubans speak of misery

  • Francisco Guayabal

    If the writer hasn’t experienced Cuban “misery” is simply because he hasn’t looked for it…nay, one doesn’t have to look for it, it finds you. I recently visited my family after being in exile for many years and that was one of the first things that struck me, how many of my relatives and childhood friends were either completely gone (as in hospitalized in mental institutions), how many of them had been institutionalized at some point and how many of them had simply lost it. So, maybe they don’t take Prozac and Ritalin (but that’s simply because they can’t afford it) but they sure as hell could use it and need it. I can’t think of a more “miserable” place than Cuba in every sense of the word. Also, it should be noted that “miseria” in our Cuban vernacular means “poverty” not unhappiness. That could be another problem the author is having, his poor grasp of the nuances of our dialect. So, when Cuban speak of “miseria” they’re speaking of their poverty not their unhappiness.

  • http://www.blackonblackband.co.uk Dani

    Great post Graham. In the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provide a huge amount of evidence that people in more equal societies are happier. It’s not in fact the level of income as such. As you reach a certain level of income where your basic needs are catered for then the correlation tails off. Cuba by having greater equality as well as a high Human Development Index rating, despite its lower GDP follows the pattern of countries such as Sweden and Japan which score better on social problems such as violence, stress, obesity etc. However Cuba is not totally an island. It suffers from inequality between tourists from developed countries and the when compared with the local population. These create the distortions of jineteras and taxi drivers mentioned above. Ditto the emigrant population in the USA.

    Another point. In the developed countries wealth becomes a status symbol and this doesn’t need to be. People should gain influence, status and respect from what they achieve rather than the trappings. No true artist, musician or scientist would want to do anything else with their lives even if they got nothing in return.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Spirit_Level:_Why_More_Equal_Societies_Almost_Always_Do_Better

    • Luis

      Yes Dani. By the way, the US always score low on the HPI. while Cuba always score high. Wonder why.

      • Griffin

        …because the Cuban government fills out the survey. There is no independent verification of their data.

        • Dani

          “the HDI is, to the extent possible, calculated based on data from leading international data agencies and other credible data sources available at the time of writing” – these include the UN Population Division, UNESCO Institute for statistics and the World Bank.

          If you want to quibble take it up with them.

          http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/Cub.html

  • donaldopeoples

    Cuba would be better off if it weren’t for the arrogance and incompetance of past US diplomactic bungling. We should have embraced Castro and not driven him to
    Kruschev. Pre Castro Cuba was a USA involved Mafia brothel, tell the truth! A small group of influential ex pats in Miami have decided our policy for the last 60 years. Enough is enough – time to get over the Bay of Pigs and start making positive decisions for us and our neighbors sake.