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.                 

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.

  • Response to Moses: Lol yep everything the Cuban government says is fake news.
    That’s communists for you they control the media for a reason it’s all fake.

  • Learned helplessness is obvious to many Cubans who simply see the hopelessness in their present existence and project it into the future and simply capitulate.

    Cuban youth particularly see this hopelessness and helplessness in their parents’ struggles of waiting in endless lines, having to earn subsistent wages, witnessing Party officials benefiting from the system, and the general population complaining endlessly about the very things you have eloquently stated.

    After graduating their post – secondary studies what have they learned? What skill sets have they acquired to be able to earn a livable wage and perhaps project themselves into the future as possible parents? In turn, what tangible economic opportunities does their society provide them to become proud contributing citizens? These are concrete goals many youth aspire. These are attainable goals which turn youth into hopeful, helpful, positive providers to their immediate communities and society in general.

    Not all Cuban youth can become exportable Cuban doctors; not all can enter the lucrative Cuban military; not all have foreign family abroad that sends much needed remittances to their beleaguered families on the island so that they can cope on a daily basis with the harsh economic reality.

    What kind of future can the majority of Cuban youth aspire when they see extreme generational unemployment, and/or vast underemployment within their immediate families, in their neighborhoods, in city streets, among their friends? It’s a real reality. Learning from these day to day negative experiences sharpens the mind for change. But how?

    To speak out undeterred is dangerous . To act out is even more perilous and severely punished. This is learned behavior frowned from early childhood. So, even if a group of youths, and it is mostly youth who instigate change, decide enough is enough and that change for the better is required now, have clearly learned that, to them at least, such positive, productive helpful behavior will not be tolerated in their homeland. Therefore, they have learned (capitulated) to live with the ever present, soul destroying status quo: learned helplessness. Sad. And this is passed on unabated generation to generation.

  • No Brad, it is not fake news! It is an alternative fact!

  • Response to Brad: According to Webster’s Dictionary…Fake News is when Cuban leaders says agricultural output is increasing, corruption in government is decreasing and Cuban youth are more enthusiastic than ever about their future in Cuba.

  • 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?”

    But isn’t the propaganda that Cuba is a medical powerhouse?
    Or is that fake news?

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