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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