What I Call in Cuba “Learned Helplessness”

By Ammi

HAVANA TIMES – I have a lifelong friend, who I not only share coffee and cigarettes with, but minutes and hours. Something interesting happened recently… something that we experience every day but hadn’t classified as an inherent cultural phenomenon or just the Cuban people’s way of life.

We were in Old Havana, in one of those lines that you don’t even understand why people are lining up, because you have no idea what the truck is going to bring in. Nearby voices force me to listen, and I believe that popular wisdom shouldn’t be overlooked.

A woman who seemed to be leading the discussion, spoke about remittances from abroad, the lack of personal hygiene and food items, as well as abusive prices. Well, you might tell me that this has been the subject of conversation in Cuba for a long time now, which is absolutely true, it’s like a tape that plays over and over again without ever stopping. It wasn’t the subject that caught my attention, but the reaction it caused, which was very worrying.

It’s normal for us to talk about medicine shortages, but it’s even more common to hear a Cuban say: “why are you going to the drugstore if there isn’t any medicine?” Or, maybe, “who are you going to complain to?” Phrases like: “Don’t even think about going to talk to leaders, or officials, they are always in meetings.” “Nobody cares about your case,” “Nobody does anything here,” “We are in Cuba”, etc. These are expressions that have been passed down from generation to generation.

So, our legacy will be to leave a trail of shortages to our children and grandchildren, a legacy I would like to call “learned helplessness.” It isn’t a matter of complaining about everything we don’t have, from our rights to our most basic needs. The shocking thing is that we accept it as if it were our own, this instilled fear, this entrusted silence. In keeping with the times we are living in, and society’s expectations, I wonder: what side will people be on?

Bureaucracy, corruption, weak professional training, inefficiency in sectors where people belonging to the Party hold the most important positions, and not the people who have the real skills and wherewithal to defend citizens’ best interests.

All of this, plus the Government’s lack of interest in answering the Cuban people, has given rise to this concept of “learned helplessness”, when everyone accepts their own destiny as the unfortunate circumstance of living on an island without any more resources than what we have.

This is the result of State policies for over 60 years, which have intervened and have disrupted the decision-making process for 11 million Cubans throughout the course of their lives.

I listen to the group again, I focus on the growing line, while a military man looks at me with a challenging gaze, as if he could read my mind. So, I stop in my tracks, with the firmest voice I have in my head, and tell myself “you aren’t helpless”, “nor have you learned this business of: everything is lost.”

I look at my friend who has his eyes fixed on the Malecon, he realizes I’m looking at him and tells me “people have to learn, sister, it can’t be like this forever, we have to speak up and demand what’s ours and not exactly what comes in the ration booklet.”

I’ll get a better night’s sleep, today.                 


I’m a mother of four children who through perseverance, studies and improvement managed to improve her environment and I have learned that every effort is rewarded and knowledge is shared. For me there is nothing more important than freedom and especially that which is capable of breaking personal limits. I am considered a cheerful, enthusiastic, curious person, willing to learn from each new experience.

8 thoughts on “What I Call in Cuba “Learned Helplessness”

  • Carlyle MacDuff You mean to tell me that you are so naive or choose to ignore the tremendous assistance and help that the United States and Western Allies (including the Vatican with Pope Paul ) gave SOLIDARITY and Lech Walesa in Poland to start and continue to support the crumbling domino effect and subsequent brake up of the USSR and hence Russia? of course you must remember that, Right? BOTTOM LINE CHANGE CAME ONLY WITH TREMENDOUS HELP FROM OUTSIDE THE USSR.

  • if joaquin Boves you agree that Communist Russia was a political dictatorship, then you have observed a country getting rid of one. No foreign army was necessary. A rotten system rotted from within. You may argue that Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev were not dictators, but if so, who denied them their decisions?

  • Very interesting indeed. Just as an observation, there has never been in history that I know of of a country getting rid of a political dictatorship WITHOUT the help of a mayor foreign power (ie George Washington’s Army and the French, Polish governments, the liberation of the Philippines from the Japanese and many others. Let’s get real you need money, help of well trained mercenaries
    and a government or governments that will support the project.

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