Losing Good Values in Cuba’s Hard Times

Look at the large number of foreigners. Go and ask them for some coins to buy cookies and a soda… and bring me what they give you.   Illustration by Carlos

HAVANA TIMES – We have experienced tough times in our country, some more than others, but the Cuban people have always suffered countless shortages; it was only thanks to aid from the COMECON (Socialist bloc) that we were better off for a while, when everything was readily available and quite cheap on the whole.

The toughest time Cubans experienced was in the ‘90s, with the so-called Special Period, with blackouts lasting over half a day, without anything to eat, no transport whatsoever, etc; and things really did reach breaking point.

There are many stories from those trying days, which are best kept locked away in our memories. Yet the majority of Cubans faced and put up with that awful time, even in those conditions. Especially women who worked wonders in the kitchen so that their children were able to put something in their mouths at least once a day. If anyone deserves credit for that time in this country, it’s Cuban women. They knew how to overcome the toughest times with hard work, modesty and integrity.

However, over time and as things gradually got worse, the general population has lost some of human beings’ best values, and this continues today, even among families, friends and society as a whole. The president Diaz Canel recently voiced his concern in this regard at the last session of the National Assembly of People’s Power. Raul Castro also did this when it was his time in power. Today, you can hear remarks on the street by people who are worried about the situation.

Just a few days ago, I bore witness to a horrible scene. I was crossing the Cathedral Plaza in Havana when I saw how a woman speaking to a very small girl. She pointed to a group of Spanish tourists and egged her on to ask them for some candy or money. The girl did exactly that, and yes, they even carried her and gave her a few things. Both the woman (I’m not sure if she was the child’s mother) and the girl were well-dressed and not at all skinny, you could tell that they weren’t in dire need of help.

I have seen similar cases around this area on other occasions and I wonder: where are these people’s values? And the values of people who send their children to hang around hotels and hunt down foreigners so they can “fall in love” with them, marry them, take them far away so they can receive the prize: a few miserable pesos or cheap trinkets.

What father or mother can sleep at night after teaching their child to beg, to prostitute themselves? Scenes like this one, unprincipled people like these, leave a great deal to be desired from a society which aspires to be a global reference of correctness and ethical values.

So, if we really want dignified Cubans and a dignified country, respected by others, we will have to fight to get rid of the miserly philosophy of getting godforsaken money no matter what the cost.

Ideology or race don’t matter, nor does a person’s sexual orientation or religion, we just need a society where people don’t become werewolves, but brothers and sisters instead. A society with ethical values and especially a sense of belonging, identity and inner light. Would that be possible? If we do manage to achieve this one day, then we can be happy and proud to call ourselves Cuban.

Miguel Arias

Miguel Arias Sánchez: I was born in Regla in 1949. That’s where I went to elementary and high school. Afterwards I took courses to be a teacher and did that for several years. I did my military service and as soon as I got out I studied formally to be a teacher graduating at the University of Havana. I taught in classrooms for nearly 20 years. I had the opportunity to travel and see another reality. I returned and am currently doing different self-employed activities.

21 thoughts on “Losing Good Values in Cuba’s Hard Times

  • I agree with your analysis Dan and noted your comment that some tourists “still not see through the veil – one of the motivations for me writing ‘Cuba Lifting the Veil’. For many years and twice per year, I backpacked, usually 16-18 km per day on rough terrain and sometimes at fairly high altitudes (how else does one look down into an active volcano?) in a substantial number of countries. Doing so enabled meeting local people in isolated locations and absorbing the ambience of each country.
    When I first visited Cuba I did so as a member of an international group of fairly distinguished agricultural scholars. But prior to the others flying in, I spent four days staying in the Chateau Hotel Mirimar and on the first day walked the length of 5th Avenue, through the tunnel, along the length of the Malecon to see Old Havana – and then walked back taking different routes where possible – first view of the Karl Marx Theatre. When the other scholars flew in, I joined them at the airport and we spent several days looking at Cuban agriculture – both individual “farmers” and co-operatives. We enjoyed doing so, but learned little. The major effect for me was meeting my wife to be in a typical small town where the reality of life in Cuba was evident. Some three years later following lots of prolonged visits, we married and live in a city that seldom sees a tourist. As my wife works professionally in education, I do the daily shopping and walk the dog – I don’t have a bicycle!
    Unlike Wendy, I don’t need to talk about qualifications – they are not inconsiderable and I have had agricultural articles and the results of research published in several countries – but that is all now behind me.
    But the consequence of all that experience, coupled with marriage and living most of my time at home in Cuba, has perhaps made me a touch intolerant of mis-representation of things agricultural and political in Cuba. We have traveled Cuba from the Roncali lighthouse at the end of the Guanahacabibes Peninsula to the concrete statue of Christopher ‘Colon’ at Baracoa, staying always in casa particulares. As described in the introduction of that book, I have political experience, making me a staunch supporter of the democratic processes and one who detests totalitarian dictatorship, and that is the reality of Cuba.
    I share the hope expressed by the anonymous author of the article that Cubans may yet know the freedoms and opportunities which are the norm in the western democracies and live in their beautiful country free of repression with freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom to vote for political parties of choice. They deserve no less!

  • Carlyle,
    I think in the most general terms, regardless of identity or country of origin of this article’s author, that it falls into two very broad camps. When people travel, for whatever reason, some want the same basic comforts and conditions they have at home, and some want to get away from that and experience something different. This is true with any country you can visit–some tourists or groups choose accommodations and experiences that essentially preserve or emulate the conditions of their lives at home (resorts, with the comforts of home or better!)…while some seek to experience ‘real’ things in the country of travel. Now we can all disagree over what constitutes real, and how real something is or is not, but I think for the latter group, real comes by degrees–and with each visit, things seem more real. Whereas if one stays in an all-inclusive resort, or has some vague reluctance to immersion in Cuban culture, then I don’t things get more real with each visit. Just my opinion, but I do think it has something to do with how a person (or a group of visiting international agrologists) could visit for 20 years and still not see through the veil.

  • Dan, I am glad to see your response to Wendy who clearly belongs to a group of Canadians who are supportive of the Castro regime and do not care to address reality that both of us observe. There is an almost “do-gooder” syndrome lurking in many of them which blinds them from accepting that they are merely observers and makes them feel content as if they are contributing. It was the current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who wrote of Fidel Castro:
    “I know that my father (Pierre Elliot Trudeau former Prime Minister) was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet my Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons (actually Fidel had eight) and his brother President Raul Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.
    On behalf of all Canadians (a totally bogus claim) Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.”
    So Wendy does reflect a certain form of Canadian Liberal view.
    You will note above that having been challenged, Wendy has resorted to pleading her case as a “Professional Agrologist” and terminated discussion – obviously recognizing (correctly) that someone else knows the truth about both Cuban, Canadian and agriculture internationally. Unlike Wendy, I do not have to resort to seeking protection under a professional shell. It is also possible that I have been recognized in other countries for my knowledge of the agricultural industry.
    Many Canadians suffer from living in a large but isolated country with little international experience in their professional roles. Yes, Canada is possibly on balance the best country in the world, but that does not make the population superior, only fortunate.
    There are exceptions, but they are not the rule.

  • As a Professional Agrologist with over 40 years of Canadian agricultural policy experience I could not disagree more with your observations. You are wrong about farming in Canada AND in Cuba. End of this discussion for me…

  • Sorry Wendy but if you’ve been bringing groups there for 20 years, and after all that time, your conclusion is that everyone gets what they need in Cuba, I’d suggest opening your eyes and maybe adding a humanitarian touch to your visits. I don’t think it depends entirely on how deeply embedded in ‘real’ Cuban society one is, or how many times one visits Cuba or where one goes when visiting. Any perceptive person quickly sees two things in Cuba that are disturbing: 1) government often says one thing but does another (this may be true everywhere); and 2) poverty in Cuba is real, and runs deep. Cuba’s poverty is perhaps the sum of a warped dual currency, the embargo, a warped socio-political system, and corruption. Yes, some people will tell stories and try to play tourists to give them money, but overall, it is patently clear that poverty in Cuba goes way, way beyond the hustle and the stories you see and hear in Havana. In my own country I have my own feelings about whether or not to give money to people who are begging or hustling. I often don’t, but now and then I am taken by someone’s charisma and don’t care if they spend my $1 or $5 on food, booze or whatever. Of course if someone smells like booze, I assume that’s where the money will go and I don’t give it. But one can’t always tell, and for me, based on my mood or what someone says, I may or may not do it. However…in another country it is much harder to read all the cues and signals and I have had many Cubans tell me they don’t appreciate foreigners giving money to beggars, so I don’t. But not because I suspect they really get all they need from their gov’t; it is more out of respect for those people who say it’s not a behavior they want visitors to reinforce. But I don’t consider hungry kids in rags beggars or hustlers. I just consider that sad. And anyone paying attention has seen that many times in Cuba in various parts of the country. We can talk about why the Cuban government has let down their people or how their talk of ‘benefits’ and ‘guarantees’ is a farce, or we can talk about parents’ responsibilities and why some parents can make it work while others can’t (as we can in the US)–but in the end, if some kids are basically left to fend for themselves, that is sad, and helping out in some way seems kind. Not a solution in the long run, but geez, when we visit with our disposable income, it should be hard to turn a blind eye.

  • Well Wendy I am amazed to think that some Canadian farmers went to Cuba to learn from Cuban farmers, although I have personally taken groups of Canadian farmers to Israel, Holland, France, Belgium and the UK – where there was beneficial exchange of technology and practice. I agree with you that visits to other countries by Canadian farmers are beneficial as so many of them are still practicing that which they learned from Grandpa. One of Canadian agriculture’s problem’s is a lack of new entry into the industry, unlike other countries where professional managers – often the innovators, can be found frequently. A second problem is the supply management system, which runs counter to that oft-heard demand for “a level playing field”. The consequence is inefficiency in both the dairy and feather sectors – busy doing what Grandpa did.
    Can you describe any of the lessons learned by your groups from Cuban farmers?
    Incidentally, the incompetence of Cuba’s dairy sector and distribution systems were firmly in place when Trump was busy planning the Trump Tower in Moscow.
    The “guarantees” and “many benefits” for Cubans to which you refer are mythical. Methinks you spend time with Cuban officials.
    Going back to dairying for a moment, I recall staying with Jim McCague who sold Rosafe Signet to Fidel Castro for $100,000. As a Second World War fighter pilot, I am sure Jim got a kick out of the deal, being well aware of communism.

  • Fidel Castro also saw fit to force upon his nation an alien and remote political system which was wholly unsuitable for a society like Cuba’s!

  • An entire society should not be blamed because of a single megalomaniac who misruled his island fiefdom for nearly 60 years.

  • For which the Brothers Castro are largely to blame, I’m afraid!

  • They won’t get their free milk/yogurt until they’ve “earned” their PCC carnet!

  • i am referring to skim milk powder of course. and i realize Trump’s economic war against Cuba has disrupted many benefits that are guaranteed to the Cuban people… (The Canadian farmers have been coming to Cuba to learn from the Cuban farmers actually….)

  • Wonderful read into the Honest Reality when Children are Caught Between There Rock & A Tourist Place. Living in a Small Beach Town of Tourist & the same 5 little Raged Children one family of Mixed Fathers ran the Sands with No Parents to be seen, After about 2 weeks of providing Food every day, No money for these Children & I had to find out where they lived, Next to the Mangro swamp I followed them one evening,They where excited for me coming to there home, As my Cuban Wife entered the shack they called home was a lady there mother, Nothing but one table & one chair, Little else The Children slept on the dirt ground with nothing, No Water at home a pail the dog drank from, No blankets or insect protection, lived in Filth. My wife talked with there mother & days later the Police where informed of a Tourist that had seen the Home of the out cast Cuban Children living off the tourist providing the Mother & Men that came & went from there home. I was told never give them money & all I could do was feed them as any clothing I would give them would be sold on them if they where given a gift. Heart Break Hell a Small Cuban Beach Town where the People Knowingly & Turned a Blind Eye. I would Never Return To Cuba if it was Not for the Need of So Many That Can Not Feed them Selves. What Happens when There Government will Not Be Honest To The World & Open up. This One Canadian That has Seen What Cuba has been Hiding for Many Many Years, You Feed The Tourist First & Not Your Children, Now My Money is for the Children Not the Government, The Hell with Cuba & Hiding The Reality of there Children,s Hunger & Needs. Where Has The Tourist Dollars Been Going all these Years Canadians Have Visited your Island. How did I Leave the Children of the Beach,My Rental House I Could Trust as they where the only one that Fed the children as I paid for them to eat out back Most morning, I Paid for food before I left & thinking how long will my money last 5 Children & where was there food there protection there Government was to Provide For them The Children of Cuba. Migule your article Has Hit Home With Pain. Thank you

  • While it is true that Cubans are basically like peoples from most other third world countries, one glaring difference between Cubans and say, El Salvadorans, is the lack of a moral foundation rooted in religion. Fidel Castro saw fit to banish religion from Cuba and in doing so eliminated the morality embedded in the practice of formal religion. Santeria, unlike Catholicism, does not teach the same strong moral lessons. As a result, social decency is a duty imposed through laws and not because of personal conviction.

  • Reality or our conception of it is shaped by many external forces, such as culture, economic-social adaptations, race and ethnicity. Your level of education also plays a big part. There is nothing like to be there, to gain some understanding of what is going on in our slice of capture, of course considering what you have been taught in your place of origin and status in your society. War, failed States, natural disasters, are high distress conditions and most could not venture there. And so we have to rely and find reputable sources to inform us, the public at large. And that is way more than anyone’s BLOG or TWEET.

  • I agree with you Nick, the Cuban people despite their plight, are hospitable, community and family oriented. The tourist resorts do not represent the norm.

  • Yamiry,
    I have spent a considerable amount of my time in Cuba. I consider my time to be very valuable as I will probably only get one life.
    You get all different types of people all over the world – some good, some bad and some in between.
    Generally speaking, I think highly of Cuban people. Yes, I have seen some bad stuff, but I have also witnessed many acts of generosity, kindness and selfless solidarity.
    Therefore your comment is incorrect.

  • Good points but Cuba hasn’t been a society of correctness and ethical values for a very long time. I don’t think anyone who has spent a valuable amount of time in Cuba thinks highly of the people. I have seen children all the way up to government officials stealing from tourists and other Cubans.

    Cuba is no where near being a country that any other country should aspire too.

  • Among the members of my family, are three children under the age of seven. So when can they expect to actually each receive a litre of milk per day? Two other nieces are aged eight and await receiving that litre of yoghurt per day.
    Even experienced tourists can be mislead.
    The visits by farmers whether Canadian or others, have somewhat obviously failed to transfer any technology, or have I missed it?

  • I honestly hope that more people read this article because it is so true and not only in Cuba, people all around the globe seem to have lost any pride in themselves and will do anything for a free ride.

  • Excellent article.
    Miguel raises very valid questions.

  • Beautifully put Miguel! Bravo! As a Canadian Agrologist I have been bringing groups to Cuba for 20 years – mostly Canadian farmers – and I always tell them in the beginning “don’t believe the ‘sad stories for a dollar’ that you may hear on the streets of Havana”. I suggest most Cubans would be ashamed by such approaches and that they should tell the woman who approaches begging for milk for her baby “your baby receives from the Cuban government a litre of milk a day up to age 7 and a litre of yoghurt after that… ” I get it why it happens – Cuba is not alone in this. But I love your words in response!

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