Cuba and Cooperatives (Part 4): Reflections

My time in Cuba is now close to a month in the rear-view, and yet the full sensory experience has stuck with me longer than any other trip.  I have a few ideas why. Nonetheless, these blog posts are as much to help keep the feeling alive as to honor the profundity of the experience itself by absorbing and reflecting on it as much as possible, to begin to do justice to the beauty I saw everywhere there. I am dedicating this post to what are now semi-mature reflections, after the rose colored glasses have cleared and re-immersed in the rhythm of my daily life at home.

  • Cubans collectively honor and celebrate their history much more seriously than we do.  Theirs is a history hard-forged from clutches of colonialism, slavery, oppression, corruption and dependence. Their “independence” is only 60 years old and yet they revere national heroes such as Jose Marti, Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro as if they ushered in Cuba’s liberation hundreds of years ago.
  • For Cubans, history and time is not one-dimensional. It flows through time and into the future as ether, under-current or gravity. It’s as much a part of their heritage, their pride and their story as it is of their daily life and their vision for a more hopeful future.  After all, Fidel “defined” the revolution in words and prose in 2000, more than 40-years after the physical revolution was consummated. The lively discussion now is how, with the U.S. trade embargo re-strengthened, will the revolution adapt and evolve to maintain buy-in and excitement among the increasingly disenchanted youth.
  • Daily life in Cuba is relatively non-financialized or monetized. By that I mean, most chores, tasks and activities in Cuba, for Cuban and even for tourists, do not involve financial transactions. Whereas every uber ride, food delivery, doctor’s visit, community gathering involves some consideration of money, the same activities in Cuba either come with de minimis expense or involve no documented transaction at all. As a result, services feel more relational and less transactional.  One feels more cared for and involved in a community because the stigmatizing element of money is not (as) present. When leaving a tip, most bar-tenders will try to hand you your change, and will act surprised and exceedingly grateful when you insist they keep it for the tip. I felt like I was actually helping someone and honoring their role when leaving a tip, rather than just meeting someone’s expectation.
  • Work in Cuba is universally dignified and celebrated. Cubans pride themselves on their productive capacity in society, as an end in and of itself. Work is a daily act of revolution, a way to move the country forward, produce value for one’s community and to earn the benefits that the State provides.  In fact, Cuba’s domestic industrial policy is to promote maximum employment, not maximum production with least labor cost (as it is in the U.S.). Most Cubans still receive State salaries and pensions. Only a small minority work for a private or cooperative business; the closest thing to fending according to the market. All kinds of jobs exist in Cuba that would never exist in the U.S., not because we don’t need those things done, but because we find ways to automate those tasks, to eliminate human involvement.  In Cuba, street cleaning is as dignified and necessary work as is engineering or rum distilling.  All are necessary ingredients in the Cuban economy, and Cubans feel proud to contribute. As a result, unemployment is nearly non-existent. So too is homelessness.
  • The wealth gap in Cuba is unrecognizably and enviously lower than here in the U.S. Anecdotally, it is believed the wealthiest person in Cuba has an estimated net worth of $3M, whereas the highest net work individual in the U.S. trumps that by more than 100x. The average pay gap between workers in Cuba is also far lower than in the U.S. The Cooperative law limits the pay differential from highest to lowest paid worker to 3:1, whereas the average pay differential in the U.S. is about 271:1.