Are the Cubans Poor?

If that’s your question, I have to ask you:

How Do You Define Poverty?


I think that will tell you a lot about whether you will enjoy Cuba.  I will admit, I did not know much about this intriguing country before I came.  Not near as much as I should have, at least.  I am notorious for wondering wide-eyed (and naive) into a new place, city, even country, without knowing very much about its history, geography, or customs, particularly when I know I will have Phillip alongside me every step of the way.  I hate to call it lazy but it is a divine way to travel as he likes to research, read up, plan and book our lodgings, outing and reservations and me?  I like to go!  Anywhere and everywhere and eat, see and experience it all.  Other than the very general parameters of staying moderately active and healthy in the process and partaking in the most ‘local’ experience possible, Phillip knows I am “up for” just about anything so, in this regard, we travel very well together.  This partnership, however, does occasionally leave me in a stupefied surprise when I stumble into an environment I did not expect.  Cuba did this to me.  In the best way possible.

I knew it was a socialist country and, while being educated, I will admit I did not quite understand the depth to which that singular political decision made these peoples’ lives so very different, as an American, from my own.  I saw socialism in my mind as ‘sameness.’  It reminds me of one of the very first books I remember actually reading, The Giver. Everyone in the society has virtually the same things.  They are provided with the same amenities, similar homes, cars, food and provisions so that their basic needs are theoretically taken care of and they do not covet their neighbor’s salary, home or social position.  In theory, it has its benefits.  There is no “competing with the Jones’,” there is no jealousy or vast discrepancy in land ownership or wealth.  In hope, there is no imbalanced wealth nor unfair poverty.

When you walk the dirty, crumbling streets of Jaminitas—the small neighborhood near the marina, where Phillip and I walked often for lunch or dinner and which quickly became our favorite venue while in Cuba—one word would likely immediately come to mind: poverty.  The age of their clothing (likely handed down and down and down and on its fifth year of daily wear), the holes in the curtains, the dinghy dogs roaming the streets, the threadbare sheets you can see on the cots in their living rooms which you can see from the street, you would probably immediately think they are poor.  And they are, compared to our standards.  Phillip and I learned a typical wage for Cubans who work as, say, auto mechanics, janitors, or construction workers is about 20 cucs a month.  That equates to about $24 a month.  Twenty-four.

But, you have to remember they do get rations every month—a generous portion of beans, rice, bread and meat every day.  They have free health care, free education, free housing and much more.  Are these the same houses that we can see all the way into from the street because they are only about three hundred square feet in size?  Yes.  But they don’t pay rent.  After factoring that in, and learning that a very filling, enjoyable meal for Phillip and I both including a bottle of wine at a nice family’s back patio cost us only 11 cuc, you start to think maybe they have what they truly need, at least as far as amenities, food and shelter goes and they don’t “want” as much as a typical American family does.  They don’t crave “things” as much.  At least I don’t believe they do.  What I did see as I walked what any typical American would call very poor streets, dodging dog shit, wafting away black clouds of car fumes and saying “pardon” left and right for the dozens of people that constantly passed by, was enjoyment.  The children were playing ball, pushing scooters and laughing.  The teenagers were incessantly flirting and cuddling in corners.  The adults were often arguing in jest but often laughing as much as the children and constantly talking and checking in on one another.  It seemed everyone’s lives were accessible to one another.  There was no shutting of yourself in a room with an iDevice and ignoring the outside world.  The “it takes a village” philosophy would definitely apply here as they all live their lives in the open and among one another.

What I did not feel was scared.  We walked some very dark seemingly seedy streets at night trying to find some of the little “back patio” restaurants new friends we had met had told us about.  We were often lost, wandering and passing by strangers in the night.  In many cities in the states, walking streets like that after dark, I would have been a little frightened, particularly in a neighborhood where Phillip and I would be such obvious standouts.  One of the things I hate about being in an area like that where my clothing or accent or skin color makes me an immediately recognizable ‘tourist’ there is the stare you often get from the locals.  They watch you walk by, following every step, daring you to make eye contact to start something.  Their glare makes you feel like you have something they want and they might just take it from you.  I never felt that in Cuba.

Phillip and I were often easily the whitest people on the street, with the cleanest clothes and pockets full of more cucs than many of the Cubans make in a year and they could care less.  Many didn’t even look at you.  They were too busy in conversation, laughter or buying some fruit to worry about a tourist walking by.  Those that did meet your eye would often say “Hola,” or “Buenas.”  The chance Canadian friend we made our first day in Cuba who lives in Jaimanitas three months out of the year and who served as an excellent tour guide for the area, told us “Cuba is the safest country to visit” because the very harsh punishments for crimes serves as an excellent deterrent.  While I haven’t visited enough countries to say whether that is true, I can easily say on the dark streets of Cuba, which easily look quite sinister, I felt safe.  It is a feeling you have as you walk by the locals that they are not sizing you up.  They are often not interested in you at all.  

By American standards, they likely easily qualify as “poor” but they don’t give you the feeling that they want for much, in the way of things that is.  This speaks nothing for the liberties they desire, the freedoms we Americans are so easily afforded and take for granted (such as the ability to travel, write, earn, etc.).  These liberties, however, are not something they can take from you or that you can provide, so it is not something they look to you for.  Rather, as you walk among them along what appears to be poverty-ridden streets, wearing, carrying or holding many things one would assume they do not have and would likely want, they simply smile or greet you as they pass by.  “Adios!  Buenos noches,” the children shout as you leave.

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9 thoughts on “Are the Cubans Poor?

  • I’m glad you guys enjoyed your trip to, and adventure in Cuba. Having been in the country wayyyy back in the mid 70s, in the American leased section (Guantanamo Naval base), I found the country geographically beautiful, the water crystal clear with great snorkeling, but I had no interaction with the Cuban people. The base was staffed by mostly Americans and a few Jamaicans, with all actual Cuban citizens on the other side of the fence. Without wishing to start a big political discussion, my impression of the Cuban people was formed then, and hasn’t changed much since, that they were most definitely “poor”, in that they lack the most basic of all human rights … freedom and liberty. No right to choose or work toward your own destiny, no right to own property, no chance at upward mobility through hard work, and no right to disagree politically. And certainly no right to own a sailboat and travel freely to other countries. 🙁 Rather than ask you if the Cuban people are poor, I’d like to ask you if you think they know what they are missing? Or have they lived under Communism, Socialism, or oppression (whatever you want to call it) for so long, is that all they know and expect of life? One other thought about “Everyone in the society has virtually the same things…” That is very easy to accomplish when everyone in the society has basically nothing. Except, or course, the politicians and their ilk.

  • It struck Rhonda and I as oddly unusual that while the streets of this suburb of Havana were supposed to be relatively safe, everyone lived behind tall chain link and barbed wire fences, with burglar bars on their windows and doors. They obviously felt an overwhelming need to protect themselves and/or their meager possessions from something, and created a strong impression that this was not a place you’d want to be wandering around in after dark.

  • Thanks for sharing Annie. I would love to sail to Cuba and perhaps one day I will. I’ve traveled Europe and in 1978, lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Leaving Saudi at the end of our hospital assignment, we traveled to Egypt to do the tourist thing. While it was seemingly safe there in 1978, I wouldn’t go back to the Middle East now for anyone’s money. Prior to flying to Europe in 1978 for this assignment, I had never been anywhere….I had not even flown in a plane until bordering the plane in Houston with our first destination in London. Everyone should have to travel overseas in their younger years….it opens young eyes to just how good we have it in the good ole USA. There are too many spoiled Americans who don’t understand the world is different outside our borders.

  • I think the main reason for walled compounds and homes is likely theft prevention. Violent crime is not common in Cuba but petty theft is pretty common.

  • Also, in regards to the original question about poverty, there are a couple of well-known poverty related indices (HDI and MPI), but Cuba is not listed in the MPI. In the HDI, it is in the top 40% or so, so it is doing better than around 60% of countries. The ranking depends on the year of the data. I think another interesting (and related) question would be about quality of life. There are several well-known quality of life indices and they are more or less consistent. The US is typically not in the top 10% but I was not able to find one in which is was not in the top quartile. Democracies and democratic republics are highly represented in the top quartile, although some constitutional monarchies do well also. Some communist countries are ranked relatively close to the US; for example, US News and World Report ranks China at 17 for quality of life and the US at 14. Denmark, a constitutional monarchy, is right at or near the top of all quality of life indices I know of. Cuba is not typically in the top quartile and due to the inability to get data, it is often not included at all.

    Any index is a composite value with weighting factors decided somewhat arbitrarily. I am sure you could come up with an index that would put any given country at the top. I think however, that you could make an argument that the average Cuban is better off than most Americans assume but the quality of life in the US is preferred overall. Finally, the answer to any quality of life question for an individual would depend a lot on the personal values of the individual. For example, many places I’ve been in Europe seem to be virtual utopias for a US tourist, but the population is extremely zenophobic and it is nearly impossible to become a citizen unless you are born there. My father-in-law spent part of his military career in Iceland at an air force base and the US staff were prohibited from fraternizing with the local population.

  • Hello Annie and Philip

    I have been to Cuba 4 times, with my girlfriend Claire. I am the adventurous one. I like to get out into the communities and meet and talk to the people too. Claire has become more adventurous as of late. We have been to resorts all over the island as well. So, I envy Philip for have someone who is ready to get out there and see the real Cuba.

    I know you would have gotten the more realistic exposure, by way of eating on their patios. We live on Prince Edward Island, which is in Atlantic Canada (as I’m sure you know). It might be an island lifestyle thing, but I love how they live in Cuba. We have never had a bad experience among the people of Cuba. We find, you just have to smile or give them a simple greeting, and they are open to conversation. we had a bad hotel experience, but that happens everywhere.

    Still hoping to Skype with you and Jannik sometime.

    Have a great and safe trip,

    Steve Muise

  • Hello Annie and Philip

    I’m so glad you are enjoying Cuba. My girlfriend, Claire, and I have been there several times. Although, we have stayed in resorts. I love getting out into the communities and meeting the people. Claire wasn’t so adventurous at first. but now she is game to go.

    We live on Prince Edward Island. As I’m sure you know, that is in Atlantic Canada. It must be an island lifestyle thing, but I love how they live and seem so happy, with so little…compared to North American standards. They are a welcoming people, as long as you aren’t rude or demanding. They are a very resourceful people. they have to be. they make something so small, last forever. The cars, tractors and everything else. I always come home more thankful for what I have, and it makes me wonder, do I need all the things I want?

    As you stated in your post. they have the basics and thats all we all need. Human nature is to want more. but do we need it? the Cuban people have made do with much less..atleast by North American standards. so, the question is, why can’t we? Their situation isn’t perfect. but we don’t live in Utopia. There is room for improvemnt there, and it is slowly coming.

    I hope the rest of your stay is great and rewarding. We always take care packages down for the kids and they seem to always be very appreciative for it. It has been said to us many time, we love Canadians. many times that was said to us, when we weren’t giving them tips or gifts. that what stands out o us.

    Still hoping to Skype with you and Yannik someday, or with Philip too. That would be a treatas well.

    Safe sailing,

    Steve Muise

  • This is a wonderful way to look at the world. I think too many people in the USA see the world with a tainted set of glasses. Sheltered inside their own boxes. Until you actually visit and interact with people in their own space you really have no way to understand them. I think too many of us jump to conclusions about why someone is good or bad or poor and ignorant. I think Mark Twain summed it up nicely. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
    And now you have a forum to share this idea to a broad audience. And you are doing it really well. Thank you Annie! please keep it coming!

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