Cuba might still be the most interesting place I have been, and visiting it is certainly the most common recommendation I give to travelers who have still yet to land upon its shores.
It instantly makes you aware of how similar disparate places around the world have become. How standard hotel rooms are, how familiar restaurant menus look, and how perplexing it is that everyone has chosen the same imperfect capitalist system to increase the quality of life in their country.
Especially for those that speak Spanish, Cuba offers an alternative way of traveling. Instead of staying in hotels, you can stay with Cuban families in “casa particulares”, which is a much more intimate experience. Most restaurants are not in a guidebook, and do not even have a sign outside, much less advertising of any kind. So every night is like a treasure hunt, trying to find the right door to knock on.
Cuba reminds us that travel is about adventure and education and not comfort and predictability. So few people recognize that, that we hardly saw any other foreigners during two weeks of travel there beyond the tour groups in old town Havana. It is still tantalizingly easy to get lost in Cuba.
Everything takes local knowledge, and so you are constantly communicating with people around you. Cubans are excited to meet you, and genuinely seem happy to help you. It takes a while to get past your initial suspicion of strangers to realize that people will really just want to chat with you — no strings attached. It feels very welcoming, and it is refreshing to really just have organic exchanges of ideas and culture with people that have been raised so differently.
However, the way you are able to travel is not even what is most impressive about Cuba, it is what you discover when you do travel that way. In America we chose to organize our society around creating wealth, and hope everyone is successful enough to buy the essential things they need like housing, food, healthcare and education. The Cubans seem to have decided that if they could design a system to provide everyone with these basic things they need, they would be more productive, and create more wealth.
In this sense, the core values upon which the Cuban society is based are completely different than pretty much everywhere else I have been. It is not to say they have found the answer to any of the world’s problems, they just have a different way of looking at them. Their system has different costs and benefits, with important lessons to teach.
People all around the country have been given a free high quality education, and not only can, but want to engage in interesting conversations about how the world works. They are honest, curious, critical thinkers, and that is both rare and valuable in our world. Further, not only are they articulate, but their art is powerful and unadulterated. Artists have sophisticated messages to give, and they do so masterfully. Cuba is such a stimulating change from the small talk and cheap souvenir markets of the world.
Cubans have also managed to design a high quality healthcare system and give access to all citizens. Unlike other developing countries in Latin America, the birthrate is low. So Cuban families are small, healthy, and life is long.
However, beyond the stellar results they have achieved with health, and education, others have suffered. Cubans have limited communications beyond their island, and even at home, freedom of speech is not a right. Until 2013 it was very hard to get a government visa to leave the island, and almost impossible to start a small business of any kind.
We have to be careful when we evaluate these shortcomings, as these limitations are shared by many nations, even if they are caused by different factors. For example, if someone cannot read a newspaper because they were never taught to read, while another can read, but is not permitted to access the newspaper, which one has more information? If one person cannot afford to travel abroad, while the other is just prohibited to by their government, is there a real difference in the amount of freedom they have?
The economic results are the most complicated, Cuba’s economy has not grown like America’s, but until the 1990’s (the first fifty years of the revolution), when Russia went into crisis and therefore stopped supporting Cuba, their economy grew in tandem with other developing Latin American nations, Further, it is certainly doing better than many developing countries that chose capitalism even today.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Venezuela has provided some support, but the continuing American embargo has made it very difficult for the small island just south of Miami. However, beyond the support and impediments levied by outside forces, it seems like the Cuban government has failed to create the proper incentives to keep the economy edging towards optimal efficiency, and innovating for the future. People are highly educated, and do not just want government jobs, but the opportunity to apply their minds to determine their own economic future.
People in Cuba are generally not very wealthy, but by designing a system where everyone has their basic needs covered, they have ensured that no one is really poor either. Compared to other developing nations in Latin America, there are no beggars in the streets, no homeless children, and not even a slums in the cities.
Crime is also extremely low, and it is possible to even walk home from the club alone without fear of being attacked. These achievements are the results of their system which creates much lower amounts of inequality than a capitalist one, and was so surprising to me, as I have never imagined such sophistication, safety, and good health in the developing world.
So when Cuba is evaluated from a perspective of health, security or education, it scores alongside the most developed nations in the world, which is incredible, since when it is ranked on an income per capita basis, it scores solidly with other developing world nations.
It is certainly possible to think about this in two conflicting ways. The first is that it needs to be more like America to improve the wealth of the nation, and the second is that other developing world nations need to take a page from Cuba’s book, because there seems to be a lot more in terms of health, crime and education they can do for their country, even given a meager income per capita.
Cubans deserve change because right now their economy is suffering, but the important question is how can they design change in a way that preserves their achievements, yet affords them the opportunities of being integrated into the global economy. Given the high standard of education, will the opportunities be more equitably shared by all, or will they only be reaped by a select few as most often seen in the developing world? If inequality does start increasing, creating civil strife as it tends to, will the current socialist bureaucracy have the capacity to abate it?
In the end, Cuba needed America to change before it really could. Americans needed to stop perceiving their different prioritization of values as a threat, because at the end of the day we all want the same things, we have just chosen different paths to achieve them. Hopefully this will allow Cuba to make the changes it needs, and hopefully they are able to do so without losing the unique character they have developed, and impressive gains that have made. To really understand the process, it helps to see Cuba now, to understand what needs to be improved, and what it can teach the rest of the world about how to improve itself.
Author’s Note: I updated this piece in 2016, and I quite enjoyed reading: History of the Present: Havana by Belmont Freeman in Places Journal, and recommend it to those interested in the topic.