PO Box 408316
Chicago, IL 60640
Donate Join Structure Organize Publications

Reflections on Cuba on the 50th Anniversary of the Revolution

By Barbara Chicherio

Barb in Cuba
(Barbara Chicherio and husband Don Fitz in front of the Ministry of Interior Defense Building, Havana.)

During January 2009 I visited Cuba over a long weekend. My stepdaughter started medical school there this past August and this was the first chance in several months for her Dad and me to see her. Visiting Rebecca was wonderful, but I was unprepared for what I encountered during the three short days spent in Cuba and how the experience would shift my perception of the global economy. Cognitively, I am well aware of the inequities that exist regarding the global use of resources and the excessive amount of world resources the US consumes compared to other countries. I also am sorely aware of the inequities that exist within our country’s boarders. But upon visiting Cuba I was shaken into understanding it on an emotional level. I was startled into realizing how much I took for granted just in the way I use water or the amount of space I live in. The most compelling aspect of the experience was suddenly to step into a non-consumer-oriented society. I did not understand the depth of the effect that consumerism had on me until it was suddenly absent. While it was somewhat shocking, it was great not to encounter a single Starbucks!

But, enough about me and more about Cuba.

Here are some things I learned:

Older-looking apartment building; telephone booths on street

HOUSING: There is no privately owned property in Cuba. All the housing is owned by the government. Every Cuban is entitled to a place to live at no personal cost. Apparently, after the revolution people just remained where they were living or moved into housing abandoned by the wealthy who left Cuba. While people do not own their homes or apartments, they can pass their residence on to their children or to family members. If a residence becomes empty, it is assigned to a new family or individual. There does exist a sort of informal trading of living space. If someone wants to move, a sign is put up in the window or on the porch. If someone is interested in trading living spaces, both parties must agree, and then they just trade spaces.

Double-long bus, followed by another

TRANSPORTATION: We visited Havana and noticed many forms of transportation: walking, bicycles, buses, official cabs, bicycle taxis, little three-wheeled "coco" taxies, "maquinas" (privately owned cars that one could ride in for a fee -- each car travels certain routes), and some cars that did not appear to rent services. During the special period (1990-2000, after the Soviet Union fell and when Cuba suffered some very hard times), government officials were mandated to pick up any hitchhikers they encountered. I noted few cars with less than three riders. Mostly people rode buses, which were always crowded. It was not difficult to get around Havana on a bus. Each ride cost two or three cents. Keep in mind that an average wage is about thirty dollars per month. Elderly and disabled people could ride for free.

Urban Garden Plot

FOOD: All Cubans receive ration cards and are allotted certain amounts of staples like sugar, flour, beans, salt and corn meal each month. They also can use the cards at vegetable markets or buy produce at these markets. After the Special Period, Cuban agriculture shifted away from a western style farming which was heavily dependent on petroleum for herbicides and pesticides and for fuel for large farming equipment. Organic farming methods were reintroduced. Cuba or at least Havana was organized into small areas. In each of these areas are vegetable gardens and markets to sell or distribute the produce. Everyone in Havana was within walking distance of a vegetable market.

Street Market: watermellon, squash, tomatos

UTILITIES: Every household has water, but in most homes the water is on two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. We were lucky, as the apartment where we were staying was close to government buildings, and so we had water twenty-four hours a day. There is no hot water, but as Becky told us, we can have hot water whenever we want: Just put a pot on the stove! There was electricity and there was a gas stove where we were staying. There was no heat or air conditioning, which I think is true for most of Cuba. We were showed a utility bill for one month for an average-sized apartment. This included water, gas and electricity, and the total bill was about four dollars.

HEALTH CARE: All health care is free. We were told that family doctors are assigned to a neighborhood or geographic area. These doctors work out of a neighborhood office, and their patients live within walking distance. The physicians often live above their office. While there are fewer “high end” procedures performed in Cuba (like organ transplants), Cubans receive excellent health care services. Life expectancy in Cuba is 78 years, the very same as in the US. The cost is what is very different. On average in the US we spend about $4,000 per person annually. In Cuba the cost is about $195 per person annually.

EDUCATION: I did not visit any schools during our visit, but I do know that Cuba has one of the best-educated populations in the world. We did visit ELAM, the medical school that Becky attends. ELAM educates doctors from many countries in Central and South America as well as Cuba and even a few from North America. This education is at no cost to the individual. All that is required is that the students make a pledge to work with low-income populations after completing their medical training. I was told that in Cuba, garbage collectors are paid more than physicians. All work is valuable.

I talked to Becky about living in Cuba and her thoughts regarding the anniversary of the revolution. While she and I both have reservations about Fidel and now Raul Castro’s role, she felt that the Castros are truly benevolent and that the revolution has been very successful. I have to agree. The standard of living for the great majority of Cubans has been vastly improved. While Cubans make very little personal income, most necessities of life are at least 90% subsidized. There is very little waste in the country. I suppose this is partly due to the US embargo. With few material goods coming into Cuba, what one has one takes good care of because it is very difficult to replace things. This has also had a positive effect on the environment. Because of the economy people consume fewer resources. There are no processed foods, there is little packaging, and people live in much smaller spaces. There are few privately owned cars, and there just weren’t many places to buy things or many things to buy. I do think that the US has a lot to learn from Cuba regarding social wages. We really need to follow the Cuban example especially regarding transportation and health care.

So, these are my short personal reflections on a brief trip to Cuba that will have a lasting influence on my worldview. I loved Cuba! Cubans have much to feel proud about on the 50th anniversary of their revolution.