By Jim Spelman
After a week in Cuba, Im on a high! Not because Im back here among my goodies, but because I had given myself a chance to see and hear how people in a country less materially fortunate than ours, live. Being a habitual skeptic, I knew, long before I departed my comfortable environs, that much of the information about the small Caribbean country gleaned from our media was marginally or totally false. The few expectations I had about what we would find there went largely unmet.
For instance, I thought many of the people would be unkempt, scrawny and undernourished. Not so! We met cab drivers, office workers, doctors, nurses, school children, college students, farmers, teachers, politicians, architects, diplomats, soldiers, policemen, clergy, journalists, dancers, musicians, city dwellers, country folk and more. All appeared healthy, clean, (we had been told they had little or no soap) well fed and well dressed. [Although, in all the miles we traveled, I saw only one clothing store, a Bennetton,(at which most Cubans cant afford to shop), in old Havana.] At one point, I asked someone how those who wore white clothing kept them so blindingly clean. They boil them, came the reply.
Though I didnt think much about it beforehand, some of my fellow travelers thought our movement about the country might be restricted or at least rigidly guided. It wasnt. We were free to go anywhere, talk to anyone and take as many pictures as we had film. However, we were asked not to photograph anything military. That constraint turned out to be ironic. We never saw anything military except an old Russian tank in front of El Museo de Revolucion! A preconception I had entertained was that, as in Spain and Mexico, where soldiers are everywhere, we would see a lot of military personnel. We didnt.
Although there is a paucity of advertising in Cuba, which in itself is a pleasant difference from our experience here, billboards displaying patriotic slogans occasionally decorate busy street corners in the cities and roadsides in the country. Monuments, statues, posters and other memorials to the martyrs, Jose Marti, Che Guevera and others, appear everywhere. However, contrary to my expectations, I cant remember seeing any public portrayals of El Presidente, Fidel Castro. He is shrewd!
Speaking of public officials, believe it or not, Cubas leadership is elected by the people. Each of the 551 neighborhood civic committees, located throughout the country, elects a person to the national House of Delegates. The House then chooses 30 of its members to serve as a governing board. From that number are selected the president and four vice-presidents. Of course, we werent told what kind of politicking it takes to ascend to power, but then most of us dont know much about that in this country, either.
In the orientation sessions we attended prior to leaving, we were warned not to have our passports stamped with a Cuban visa because U.S. Customs could deter us with questions about our reasons for having gone there. Therefore, to ease our return, we were given a license stating that the trip was sponsored by our local community college for educational purposes.
Educational it was! Heres a little of what I learned.
Lesson one: Socialism is simply an economic system different than the one to which we are accustomed. To fear it is foolish. It has its benefits and its costs, just like capitalism. They both bear a tendency to become unbalanced. A system combining democracy with the best aspects of each would be worth trying.
Lesson two: Classism is a human condition. In spite of El Presidentes attempt to cast it from his society, it is there and here to stay. What needs to be done, in both Cuba and the U.S. (and the rest of the world), is to foster respect between groups.
Lesson three: If necessity is the mother of invention, poverty is the sire of resourcefulness. If no one will sell you medicinegrow your own! If you cannot buy new automobiles, keep the 30-, 40- and 50-year-old ones running. If farm machinery is unavailable, use oxen or mules with wooden plows.
Lesson four: Wealth, like happiness, is an attitude. Work, play, and contribution to the community, not stuff and money, are the real sources of peace and contentment.
My visit to Cuba was a once in a lifetime; I returned home with much more than I had when I left.