Monday, January 28, 2013

Reflections From Cuba - Updated

The following is one of several pieces I wrote on my Blackberry Playbook while on a recent holiday in Cuba. Because Internet access and outside information is limited there, I spent some time writing pieces largely drawn from things I was thinking about at the time, and therefore are perhaps not as overtly political in nature as my usual fare.

January 21, 2013:

What, I wonder, is worse, a society in which there is little or no opportunity to learn and grow, or one in which the opportunity exists but is ignored by a substantial proportion of the people?

That is one of the questions I am left with after our most recent visit to Cuba, our sixth time in the island nation, and our third occasion to learn about the 'real' Cuba under the auspices of friends we have there. And while I must, owing to the country's repressive political system, remain vague and circumspect about our friends and what we learned from them, let me say that they are educated people who do not work at or for any of Cuba's resorts.

Since we first visited the country, it has been difficult to regard it as a developing nation by virtue of the proportion of people who are educated. For example, Cuba's doctors are well-known throughout the world for the medical humanitarian assistance they give in disaster-relief (they are, as an illustration, still in Haiti three years after its devastating earthquake) and medical missions throughout the developing world. There are also many teachers, lawyers, engineers, etc., all thanks to the fact that education is free for all Cubans, as is medical care.

But there is, from my point of view, a much darker side to Cuban life. Their ability to realize their human potential is so constrained as to be almost non-existent.

As one would expect in a dictatorship, access to books and information is very limited. The lifeblood of the mind and spirit, writing that exposes us to new ideas and challenge our complacency, is generally unavailable, political tracts and screeds in their stead as far as I could discern. Libraries, where they exist, do not permit the borrowing of materials; all must be read within the library. And while some have access to email, only a select few, for example doctors, can utilize the internet. Television, except that available to tourists in hotels, is limited to state broadcasts consisting of old movies and information the government deems permissible for the people.

There are other things we have learned that I think prudent not to discuss here, but let me sum up this portion of the post by stating that, in my view, it is a country that infantalizes its citizens, resulting in a life that from my perspective and background would be a kind of living death. And while it would be easy to dismiss my assessment as a kind of cultural imperialism or arrogance, I can only say that I have been witness to the deep intelligence, passion and yearning of the people, forced into a kind of stoic acceptance of a life in which they would prefer more choice. That being said, I don't think their choice would necessarily involve embracing our lifestyle or values either, i.e unbridled free enterprise and worship of things material, just a less austere and controlled one.

Books. Learning. Reading. Writing. Without these, to paraphrase something Bob Marley once said, my life would be madness. They are what make existence worthwhile for me; their absence would reduce the level of my humanity and spirit.

So how do we judge a culture or society where access to such riches are scorned and rejected? As a teacher, it was something I saw all too often in students, but its incidence was not especially troubling, as much of such behaviour could be attributed to an immaturity they would eventually outgrow. Indeed, even those for whom encouragement to stay in school failed was, to me, never the tragedy that others made it out to be, as they always had the opportunity to 'drop back in' when experience taught them that their options without education were quite limited.

My larger consternation, however, resides in the intractable underclass in our society who, raised in a culture of poverty and welfare-dependency, never realize that the only way out is through the possibilities afforded by education. A partly self-induced form of infatilization, they live out their lives without realizing their potential, ignoring the opportunities the country makes available to improve their lot. Such waste is a tragedy that parallels what I see in Cuba. I will extend this further by being critical of both the conditions and the insularity seemingly extant on the native reserves in Canada, where by all that we have heard about places such as Attawapiskat, the people live in abysmal squalor. Like the aforementioned culture of poverty, unproductive living and unfulfilled potential seem endemic.

I realize, as my policy analyst son has taught me, that issues are never simple. I also realize that there is a richness to native culture and tradition that my comments here would seem to belie, just as I realize there is a constellation of social factors that contribute to the larger culture of poverty that I have briefly mentioned here. I also suspect that my apparent judgementalism here will offend the sensibilities of many. Yet simply excusing conditions because of their genesis does no good either. But solutions remain elusive, fascism and classism frequently substituting for real dialogue and problem-solving.

Solutions are never simple or obvious, either for Cuba or for Canada.

UPDATE: A sign of hope as to how education can heal some of the wounds still felt today by aboriginals over the their traumatic residential school experiences can be found here.


  1. Revolutions are usually lead by the young and educated whose potential is not being fulfilled. If Cuba has so many of them, what's holding them back?

  2. That is an excellent question which does not have an easy answer, doconnor. While I am planning to do some research to learn more, I think one of the problems is the very limited access Cubans have to information. The Internet, as mentioned in the post, is available to only a few, and while I imagine in areas such as Havana radio from the U.S. can be received, there seems little opportunity for a systematic and organized way to learn about the larger world.

    Another factor, of course, is that as a virtual dictatorship, the state has tremendous power over its citizens. Dissent, as I understand it, is met with swift imprisonment, and public rallies, probably for that reason, are rare. And unlike the revolutions in the Middle East, which were fueled by social media, communications of that nature do not really exist in Cuba.

    Another reason, I suspect, is that there is no common rallying point for the Cubans. Many have good knowledge of their various periods of enslavement under the Spanish, under the Americans as steadfast supporters of the former dictator Batista, etc., and do not wish return to those times should current government fall.

    Perhaps the desire for evolution, as opposed to revolution, best describes the yearning of many Cubans. But of course, I am not an expert, and offer this only as my impressions of the country.