This article is part of a two-piece spread, Cuba Journey: Reflections from two journalists who joined an international delegation to the island in May. Click here to read “Resisting the Blockade 60 Years Later.”
HAVANA—One evening I looked out my window at the treetops in the lush courtyard below. A middle-aged woman and man tried to pick one of the few ripe fruits in their towering mango tree. One of them used a long pole with a hook at the end while the other guided them. The spotter’s perspective wasn’t very good and they gave up after failing to snag a fruit. I had the perfect vantage point and should have called out. They would have welcomed the help. I didn’t want to bother strangers. In hindsight I felt guilty. In Cuba, holding back something that could help others feels like a sin.
Life in Cuba is the inverse of the United States in many ways. Resources are scarce but spread relatively evenly among the country’s 11 million people; in the U.S. a wealthy minority enjoys lives of great luxury while tens of millions of people are one misfortune from financial and social ruin. In Cuba, there is only one political party and its representatives in parliament choose the president, but the people get to vote on national referendums. In the U.S. the people choose their leaders, but don’t get to vote on any specific laws or changes. In Cuba, pimps are prosecuted more than sex workers; in the U.S., sex workers are still the ones targeted for arrest and punishment more than pimps. “In the United States, people give when they have something extra; In Cuba, you give what you have,” said Carmen, one of our group leaders.
One afternoon, I was sitting in the little plaza in front of the community center where our group stayed when a man with one arm in a brace and a lopsided gait walked by pushing a wooden cart that couldn’t make it over one of the uneven cobblestones. I helped him lift the cart and upon returning to my bench, a man who had been facing away, standing on the edge of the square under the shade of a tree and smoking a cigarette, turned to me and said, Disculpa, no lo ví, “I’m sorry, I didn’t see him.” As if it were everyone’s duty to help the man with the cart. When the cart-pusher stalled again, another man walked up and helped him across the street. (My face got hot with frustration as I thought of NYC — a homeless man my boyfriend once knew spoke of angry people who beat on him and his friends, spit on them and set them on fire.)
Cuban solidarity runs strong. People greet you with open arms. I’ve never heard the phrase “you’re family” more in such a short period. Once, I was crying against the wall of a house and a woman came out and gave me a hug. Another time, I walked into a neighborhood library and the librarian greeted me with such warmth and generosity of knowledge that I was overwhelmed (in a good way). She teared up when it was time to say goodbye.
Despite the deprivation people experience, crime is sparse. I have traveled widely and Havana is the only city I’ve been to where, as a woman, going out alone at night didn’t feel threatening.
During our delegation’s visit, there was a gas leak at a hotel in Old Havana that was closed for repairs. Forty-three workers (including a couple of their children) died. The country went into three days of national mourning and people were glued to the news as the body count grew. Some clubs and bars hosted musical performances, but most didn’t. We went to one that refrained. The energy was somber and almost no one was there except for the bar staff. A friend asked one of the workers how he was; triste, he responded. My friend asked why, and he said, “Well, because of the explosion,” as if it were a total given. In the United States, mass shootings and other large-scale tragedies hit us so rapidly there’s little time to mourn or feel anything at all.
Despite the shortcomings of Cuban socialism (many of which are inextricably linked to the U.S blockade), the people still embody the system’s communal values. Cubans focus on the future of the whole far more than the future of the individual. During my first subway ride after I returned to New York, I got worn out by hearing so many people talking about themselves.
In the midst of public health and climate crises, now seems like a good time to take a few pointers from Cuba. Its Latin American School of Medicine has provided free training in community-based medicine to tens of thousands of doctors from poor countries around the world. The government gives out cigarettes to its people and Cuban doctors have created a vaccine for lung cancer. It has also become a global leader in organic agriculture since the fall of the Soviet Union cost it access to imported farm machinery; agricultural projects that damage the environment are prohibited.
“Every Cuban is a gardener, even in Havana,” said Yamila Perez, a scientist at the Ministry of Agriculture.
No one starves in Cuba, but given the need for mandatory rationing of basic food staples, few grow fat either. Gardens dot the capital city’s rooftops and patios. Cubans are encouraged to save seeds and plant anywhere they can. The Ministry of Agriculture tells people to just go up to any unused plot of land and start farming it. In the States, there’s a term for that, guerilla gardening, because it is illegal!
And, when it comes to abortion access, reproductive rights are championed. You can go to a pharmacy and buy the morning-after pill over the counter. Abortion has been legal since 1961 and is fully accessible up to 10 weeks; late-term abortions are available but require an evaluation.
“Cuba has problems, but the whole world has problems,” said one man I spoke with on the Malecón, the popular esplanade that stretches along Havana’s shoreline. It’s hard to distinguish which problems are or are not caused by the U.S. embargo. But, corruption does exist though it’s more of the kind that accompanies scarcity. For example, a Cuban friend named Rodolfo complained to me about how his brother, as a retired military officer, gets to rent out a room at one of the most desirable beaches at a very low cost.
Rodolfo would later tell me that his cousin and aunt moved to the States and made it: They have a three-story house overlooking the Hudson. But during COVID, the cousin confessed that he wished he never left Cuba. Rodolfo then frustratedly remembered that when he was visiting that cousin, he would say “hello” or wave to people as they passed by his family’s porch in New Jersey and that very few neighbors gestured back.
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If the best way to judge a country is by its people, Cubans know what’s up. Not us. Amid their shared hardships, they have a different kind of relationship to each other that holds up a mirror to our own dehumanization.
When I returned to “the land of the free” in mid-May, I powered on my phone and read Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. The right to choose was soon to be lost. In front of me, huge, armed customs officials created a menacing presence. One of them plucked a Middle Eastern woman out of the line and literally asked her if she speaks Arabic. Then they escorted her away. I also noticed after returning that so many people feel sullen and angry here — sometimes it feels like everyone’s about to explode. I felt much more freedom to be human in Cuba. I could be my true boisterous, emotional self with strangers. I remembered something my Cuban Studies professor once told me. “In Cuba, they say, ‘Americans have the freedom to buy what they want, but their minds are caged. In Cuba, we only live with the bare minimum, but our minds are free.’ ”
I recently woke up to a link coming from a friend in a group chat: “Demolition Begins at Historic Mansion in Bedford-Stuyvesant.” After the Landmarks Commission chose not to vote on protecting the 120-year-old masterpiece, a developer tore it down in hours to build luxury condos. Luxury condos. In Bed-Stuy. I thought about all the beautiful colonial-era buildings in Havana that were converted after the 1959 revolution from rich people’s houses into community centers and homes for poor people.
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