Cuba: the Most Important Country in the World!

Malecon

Early in my just-ended three-week visit to Cuba, my wife and I were strolling along Havana’s stunning Malecon walkway which stretches for miles along Havana’s northern coast. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday. We couldn’t help noticing how the seafront was more gorgeous than ever.

Both Peggy and I had been to Cuba many times, but it had been seven years since our last visit. In the meantime, buildings along the Malecon had taken on new coats of paint. Greens and whites, reds, golds, oranges, and blues sparkled in the sunlight alongside as yet unpainted decrepit apartment buildings. As ever, clotheslines of bed sheets, shirts, blouses and underwear flapped from balconies in the sea breeze.

Yes, we couldn’t help noticing, things had changed drastically since our last visit. And it wasn’t only the paint and scaffolding outside the buildings under reconstruction.

Tourists were everywhere. Even those “Hop-on, Hop-off” double-deck tour busses which we had seen in Europe passed at regular intervals. Havana’s atmosphere wordlessly conveyed an optimism we had not witnessed since we began visiting Cuba in 1997.

Sharing observations like that, we suddenly heard someone call out to us.

“Hey, where are you from?” The young man addressing us was Cuban, tall, black and smartly dressed in jeans, Nike T-shirt and sneakers. His wife was lighter skinned and similarly dressed. Both were friendly and smiling. Seeing the couple reminded us that Cuba has a largely Afro-descendent population.

“We’re from the United States,” I replied.

“Oh, the U.S.!” The young man smiled broadly. “We love the United States; the U.S. is the greatest country in the world!” His wife shook her head In agreement.

“No,” I contradicted, “Cuba is the greatest country in the world.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, my friend,” the young man said still smiling. “Cuba is the greatest country in Latin America. The United States is the greatest country in the world!”

The encounter spoke volumes about the new Cuba that impressed us so as we walked the Malecon. The exchange offered a snapshot of an economy that is rebounding from a deep depression, of a people who are friendly, proud and patriotic, and of Cuban aspirations to U.S. levels of consumption. That aspiration contains both promise and threat.

But before I get to that, let me tell you more about our visit. . . .

This time we were in Cuba as part of a Berea College summer school course. We called the course “Cuba: Resilience and Renovation.” Ours was a fact-finding study. What has Cuba been? What will it become? Those were our questions. Thirteen students engaged the conversation along with my daughter and her husband, and several friends. It was great fun.

Our course took us from Havana eastward to Varadero, Santa Clara, Matazanas, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba. We filled our days with conferences involving academics and government officials including a representative of the U.S. Interests Section (the U.S. quasi-embassy in Havana).

We found ourselves chatting with people on the street; some of us went into their homes. We met students, social activists, feminists, representatives of the LGBT community, farmers, co-op representatives, merchants, Santeria practitioners, Baptist ministers, medical personnel, hospital patients, children and the elderly in a day-care centers, and members of a Committee in Defense of the Revolution.

On a couple of occasions, I spoke with a fellow OpEdNews contributor – “Guillermo Tell,” a Russian ex-pat who has lived in Havana for 27 years. He reminded me of Cuba’s on-going problems with bureaucracy and of the dangers of “reforms” that could end up selling-out the hard won gains of the Revolution. (More on that later.)

Then there were those casual conversations with Cubans on the street, in night clubs and along the Malecon where Habaneros crowd each evening and especially on weekends for music, dance, love, conversation and arguments about baseball and politics.

We even found our way to a ringside table at the Tropicana nightclub, to a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club, and a children’s theater presentation on the Cuban Five that rivaled anything we’ve seen on Broadway.

Usually however our focus was the Revolution, socialism, and Cuba’s prospects for the future.

And what did we find out? Simply this: Cuba is the most important country in the world. Ernesto Cardenal said that of Nicaragua in the 1980s. And he was right. Nicaragua was then the most prominent center of resistance to U.S. imperialism. Today (and for the past 55 years) Cuba fills that role like none other. Alone in the world, it is demonstrating that Third World Countries can accomplish so much with so little even in the face of pitiless opposition from the most powerful country in the world. Cuba is showing the world a way into a future that accommodates itself to the new globalization – but on its own terms. In doing so, it has already surpassed Latin American darlings of development such as Costa Rica. It has already surpassed the United States in quality of life.

Are you surprised by that? Let me tell you what I mean – and here I address Cuban patriotism and the revolutionary gains evoked by our sidewalk encounter. Those elements are what make Cuba so important even in the face of the seduction by “the greatest country in the world.”

First think about Costa Rica. Peggy and I have lived there on and off for the last 25 years. To begin with, Havana is much more beautiful than Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. Havana’s seafront, colonial structures, its comparative cleanliness and hospitality far exceed what we’ve found in San Jose which is dirty and bleak by comparison. The latter has nothing like Havana Vieja – the old city whose restorations, museums and newly proliferated restaurants have created a tourist center that rivals anything we have seen in Europe.

Cuba’s Varadero seacoast is cleaner, more orderly, more extensive and luxurious than Costa Rica’s famed Manuel Antonio or Guanacaste’s Flamingo Beach resorts. Cuba’s highways are better than Costa Rica’s pot-holed thruways.

Yet, on the basis of independent surveys and assessments, Costa Rica bills itself as the “happiest country in the world.” I suspect Cubans are happier still.

And that brings me to the reasons why and to my claim about the U.S. and comparative qualities of life. Am I really saying that Cuba has surpassed not only Costa Rica but the U.S. in those terms? Yes – despite the impressions of that young man accosting us on the street.

Or let me put it this way: what do we value most in life? Few, I think, would respond: money, competition, meaningless work with increasing hours with fast-diminishing rewards. Few would list fast food, shopping malls, movies, luxury cars and vast homes at the head of our must-have lists.

Even abstractions like U.S. “freedom” (in our system that imprisons and executes more than any other country in the industrialized world), “democracy” (where voter-suppression is the order of the day), “free speech” (where the mainstream media ignores issues important to the poor and middle class), and “rule of law” (where universal surveillance, torture, police-impunity and extrajudicial killings are common) have become increasingly meaningless.

Instead most of us would say: “What I care most about are my children and grandchildren. I care about my health and that of my family. I care about the well-being of the planet we’ll leave to our descendants. Education is important. And I want safety in the streets. I’d even like to have some years of retirement toward the end of my life.”

In all of those terms – addressing what most humans truly care about – Cuba far outstrips the United States. Consider the following:

 * Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.
 * Health care and medicine are free.
 * Cuban agriculture is largely organic.
 * 80% of Cubans are home-owners.
 * Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba – at all levels. Please see my last blog entry.)
 * Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
 * Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
 * Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
 * Streets are generally safe in Cuba
 * Gun violence is non-existent.

But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.

There’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.

And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20 monthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as

 * Health insurance
 * Medicines
 * Home mortgages or rent
 * Electricity and water
 * School supplies and uniforms
 * College tuition and debt
 * Credit card interest
 * Insurances: home, auto, life
 * Taxes: federal, state, sales
 * Unsubsidized food costs

The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics – far above, I would say, most Third World countries.

None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.

To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba seems to be embracing:

 * A reduction of the government bureaucracy that my friend Guillermo Tell so despises.
 * Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
 * Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy.
 * Connecting wages with productivity.
 * Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
 * Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
 * Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
 * Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation – itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
 * Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax” a la Thomas Picketty (whom, I’ve been assured, the Economic Planning Body is studying).
 * Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.

Those are the general directions. Actual decisions will be “transcendent” more than one person at the heart of the process told me. They will be made according to a world vision that is “entirely new.”

Breathlessly, we await the results. They will determine whether Cuba continues to be the change which our deepest concerns indicate most would like to see in the world.

What I’m saying is that Cuba’s resistance to imperialism, its willingness to address real problems (like climate change and income inequalities) rather than ignore or deny them – all of these are what make Cuba “most important.”

They are the reason Cuba might well be poised to become “the greatest country in the world.”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “Cuba: the Most Important Country in the World!”

  1. Mike, Thank you for this latest Blog. I have been missing out recently I think. Your trip to Cuba sounds amazing and I can only wish I had such opportunity. After seeing Michael Moores film about health care and his trip to Cuba I have been more intrigued with that country. Keep up the good work. Peace, mary bell (Florida seems a different country and not so friendly maybe)

    On Sat, May 31, 2014 at 8:34 PM, Mike Rivage-Seul’s Blog: . . .about things th

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    1. Good to hear from you, Mary. We miss you in Berea. Cuba is so proud of its health care system and of its sending doctors all over the world. While there, one of our students had to see a dentist. It was all so easy. Cost her nothing for the consultation and almost nothing for the medicine prescribed.

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  2. Hi Mike
    Good to have you back.
    This is an excellent piece. And just what I need going back to IMF-Ireland.
    I feel however in general the ordinary American want the same things as the ordinary Cuban, the Cubans however have a better chance unless of course the US imperial bully-leaders will start talking defending their interest$ blah blah, taking no options off the table. Or another Project for another New American Century! They might even fly in the World Bank and bring the place into indebtedness for another half century where Ireland is now at.
    Our mutual friend Declan Coyle and wife Annette, while you were away, have been causing tsunami waves in Ireland, with good results, re medical rights of incurably ill children and other cuts/abolishments of cricial social benefits for the most needy – all based on the EU-IMF-Troica template. They helped change the whole political framework.
    I will make a hard copy of this as there is so much in it of interest and applicable to present day Ireland since we sold out to the World Bank and IMF and opened our ability to enter the heaven of hi-frequency trading and the glory of rigged markets and destruction of basic Trust. (There is a new book on the subject which I know you will be familiar with – Flash Boys by Michael Lewis…it should have been called flash cowboys. It maybe wishful thinking to expect it to bring down Wall Street but we live in hope. Interestingly many of the main players are recent emigrants from Europe seeking the American dream and finding a nightmare – and wanting to do sometime about it.)
    I have been asked to meet James Morressey in the summer – a well known Irish author who is doing a new analysis of our industrial development and the circle we have completed and I know he will be very impressed with your Cuban incisive piece. I also hope Declan Coyle or others might be able to get it some national coverage. Its a wonder Home Security allow you guys thru anymore or maybe I should be careful with remarks like that, one might draw the ire of those who preserve your freedom and enviable way of life. Cynical maybe but true.
    And I also got understand what $10 a month really can mean.
    With thanks to you and Peggy.
    Jim

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    1. Jim: thanks for the comment. Since returning last Wednesday, I can’t get Cuba out of my mind. Everything I see and read seems to relate to it. Above all, anything I read in or about the gospel convinces me that if an economy were structured on Jesus’ principles, it would come out looking something like Cuba’s. Such an interesting place. — And, yes, those concerns about Homeland Security did cross my mind as I crossed borders.

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      1. You forgot to cc former priests, I know some are very interested as so many were in the continent .Ireland also has been a fan of the medical prowess and standards. generosity jc

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  3. Since they threw out the American gangsters, I have admired the courage of the Cubans in standing up to the world bully – the USA. Too bad our brainwashed public is so misinformed about this wonderful social experiment happening so close to our increasing debacle. Thanks for your continuing eforts to pump some truth into the murky atmosphere mostly prevailing stateside.

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  4. Many thanks for this, Mike. I was getting worried about ‘the greatest country in the world’ bit!
    I do agree with all you say. I have been to Cuba twice and plan to go again this year.
    We do need alternative models to the ones being promoted by the U.S. in particular as the way to live and we do need people like you making statements like this. You have no idea of the scorn with which any comment I make about democracy or freedom in Cuba elicits in most circles.
    I could tell you sometime about a conversation I had with a man in Cardenas whom I asked about Cuba now compared to Batista times. In a town where taxis were horse-drawn carts or traps he told me: “Then, we were poor!” It would make little sense unless one understood some of the points you are making in your piece. It was a great chat drinking rum and smoking a big cigar -even if I don’t smoke.
    Thanks for doing this Mike.

    Brian Smyth

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    1. Brian, thanks so much for your comment. Propaganda is SO powerful. And the Cubans are SO courageous. Visiting Cuba was inspiring. I can’t think of another country where the “preferential option for the poor” is more consistently lived out. Amazing then that Cuba remains so maligned and its reality so distorted. (Not to mention the cigars and rum!) Thanks again, Brian.

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