A place of paradox. Families of six packed into Golden Age apartment buildings. Crystal chandeliers hang from crumbling walls–but no electricity. Ornate brass sinks enameled with peacocks—but no running water. No Smartphones, no working WiFi—but lots and lots of Chevy convertibles from the 1950s. Old-school TVs, the ones with antennae and a turn-it dial broadcasting in 4 or 5 state-run channels reminding citizens “Viva La Revolucion.” A glance into the state grocery stores, or rather warehouses, reveals empty shelves that span into the dark interior except for stock boxes of soap or sugar in the same-old burlap sack. No vitamins, no batteries, no bandaids. Going to Cuba is like taking a step backwards in time or entering into a black-and-white commercial from the 50s.
This is the humbling lesson of Cuba—a visitor jets away counting his or her blessings; remembers that others dream of what he/she takes for granted back home. “Thank God I don’t have to live here,” the tourist thinks. He can pay for a swanky room for $20 a day, equivalent to the average monthly salary of a typical Cubano. The double-standard of foreign luxury vs national poverty is displayed by the double currency. The CUC, or cubano cubertible, is the one used on the “free market” while the moneda nacional is the one cubanos use. $1 CUC is equal to 25 moneda nacional. The CUC was introduced in the 90s to syphon off foreign investment into the country.
Yet after sauntering through the streets of Old Havana, exploring the rich green valleys of Vinales province, talking with the paijanos of the campo collecting tobacco, the visitor comes to understand a deeper paradox of poverty–poverty can make you free. Deprived of the luxuries, some the necessities, of life, el pueblo cubano displays a freedom of soul hard to find in the first world. Poverty cultivates a deep spiritual richness of soul. Even while the people struggle with making their daily bread, they dream, they dance, they laugh, they smile, and they are good to one another.
I bumped into an octagenerian poet on the corner of Mercerdaries and Obra Pia who recited the first page of his hand-stitched libretto. At the Portocarreras Gallery I had a stimulating conversation with a print-maker about his process that involved three techniques—celluloid exposure transfer, print press and paint. After work hours, when the bands gather on the corners to delight the visitors with the rhythmic pelvic pounding of the bongo drum breaking them out into a spontaneous salsa flurry. When was the last time you danced, never mind danced on the street?
This is the great paradox of poverty—that you synthesize at the end of your stay in Cuba– you realize that it is because of the lack of materialism that people are truly free and happy. This is not to romanticize poverty—I am sure that when a mother lacks antibiotics to bring down the lung infection in her infant or when a father stares blankly at empty shelves of the government almacen or warehouse, he does not feel very free. But I have witnessed how rich and supportive the relationship between neighbors and family members and friends can be. I was invited to Alamar, a working-class suburb in Havana East. The family I visited opened their home and their hearts and fed me a delicious dish of arroz cubana.
Because they are not burdened with the cares of the monetary industrialized complex, not worried about the self-inflicted competition to catch up and surpass the Joneses, they are all more or less, probably much less, in the same boat. They can be free to express their authentic selves. Their creativity sparkles; their relationships solid; their concern in the present.
And this is the further paradox that an American learns from a cubano. That you can have nothing—a ramshackle house to live in, dirty holes in your shoes, no car but a packed guagua, no A/C in 95 degree humid weather, and you can still be happy. Cuba teaches America that you can have very little and still be insanely happy. That Cuba forces you to dance in the midst of a crumbling building. That joy does not come from buying the next upgraded iPhone or amassing 20 pairs of Manolo Bhatniks or even living in a single-family home. True happiness comes from the spiritual wealth you bring to your life—your story, your party, your poem, your game, your cigar and your bottle of rum. The freedom to live your authentic self.
Perhaps I would be happier to live in Cuba even if poorer. Perhaps happiness is inversely proportional to materialism (up to a basic extent). On the exit ticket for this trip is scribbled the notes:
“Cuba—keep smiling (even when your teeth fall out).
Cuba—keep dancing (even with holes in your sandals)
Cuba—keep dreaming (even with pain in your stomach.)”
Such is the paradox of poverty.