Are We Happy Here in Cuba?

Veronica Vega

vero3HAVANA TIMES — A good while ago, in front of the US Interests Office in Havana was a billboard that read: “We are happy here.” Of course on it was a picture representing Cuba.

That affirmation resulted in the circulation of a scathing joke that went: If we’re happy here (accompanied with a complacent look) imagine what it must be like “over there.” Of course that “over there” meant the Interests Office and the United States.

I was reminded of this because of a recent post in Havana Times entitled “The Misery of Poverty in Cuba.” Its author was Graham Sowa, a US citizen studying medicine here in Havana at the Latin American Medical School.

Because what I read was a translation, the translator themselves made note of the semantic ambiguity of the term “misery” in English, which allows one to intentionally exchange the words “unhappiness” and “poverty.”

In any case, the translation generated a question in my mind. If my memory serves me right, Graham said that no Cuban has ever told him that they’re “unhappy.” But have any of them said to him “I’m happy”?

Personally, I don’t know any Cuban, however poor they might be, who sees themselves as living in “misery,” although this means recognizing at least a minimal degree of misfortune.

In Spanish, “misery” is too pejorative. A certain foreign friend of mine who was doing a social research in Cuba was amazed to meet people who would show off their gold teeth while the roofs of their homes were about to collapse. The problem is that vanity is one of our most distinctive features.

In addition to indicating physical poverty or unhappiness, “misery” in Spanish also has a meaning that’s unthinkable for any Cuban: cowardice or the inability to fight. To admit to being “miserable” or “living in misery” would be to accept surrender and failure.

But I do believe that moral misery exists in Cuban poverty. It’s that the viable methods for survival have not only eaten away the country’s economic infrastructure, they’ve also destroyed the ethics of at least three generations. The high levels of corruption (tacitly supported by official tolerance) are not just a semantic game.

The word “theft” has been downplayed with false synonyms like “struggling,” “inventing,” “searching.” This is moral misery. I’m sure that First World residents would find it difficult to survive in the conditions in which Cubans live. Similarly, islanders who are used to “searching” would (and do in fact, I know several cases) find it difficult to adapt to a society in which they were forced to live only on their wages.

vero2Someone once told me that in a store in Germany, when the staff realized that a Cuban had entered, they started playing the song “Guantanamera” as a kind of alarm.

Even if this was more of a joke than an anecdote, unfortunately it is based on the truth. Many unjustified measures are also taken in Cuban stores to prevent theft.

A friend told me recently that at his job (a ship repair yard) they had to call the police after a second incident in which tools were stolen. “This puts the department in a demeaning position,” he said to me, “yet no one was surprised about the incident. It’s such a normal thing for people to steal from their job!”

On the bus one time, I was an involuntary witness of a conversation between a woman and a man. She showed him a huge container of soda and two full plastic bags. She then proudly added, “You know I always go back home ‘loaded.’”

Both of them were wearing uniforms of food service workers. For the high percentage of the population that survives and even visibly progresses owing to such methods, ethics are not only abstractions but ridiculous obstructions.

At the bakery, I saw a customer complaining about the poor quality of the bread. The clerk’s response was dramatic: “Come on…don’t blame me, everyone here steals” (referring to the ingredients).

The relativity of the concept of “struggle” has merged the two victims: the government and fellow citizens. Losing control of the first logically runs the grave risk of losing the second. Human degradation, like cancer, metastasizes without distinction.

34 thoughts on “Are We Happy Here in Cuba?

  • Thinking people are sadder than yourself and feeling sorry for them does not make them happier than you

  • I have lived in Cuba and I am married to a Cuban.

  • how would you know if you don’t live there and aren’t cuban

  • Cuba’s problems started with the Washington backed Batista regime, that destroyed and made lives miserable in Cuba – Castro is a saint in comparison, that’s why he hasn’t been overthrown. Plus he made Cuba have world leading free education and healthcare, and kept his people alive and eating even during the USA economic warfare of embargoes. USA started and continued many of Cubas problems, like they have with most of the world (Africa, Middle East, Americas). I would say the USA is almost entirely to blame for their problems.

  • I reject the notion that non-Cubans cannot appreciate or understand the literature of a Cuban. The whole point to literature is that it transcends superficial differences. Gutierrez himself mentioned Kafka, Greene and Hemingway as influences in his own work. By your theory of literature, he could not possible understand those writers!

    FYI, I am Canadian, not American, but I note your tone of condescension none the less. Like Cuba (and America, by the way), Canada is a nation of immigrants from many backgrounds, not just WASP. Personally, in my family history I can count 8 nationalities and 3 races, including Amerindian, so don’t try to pigeon hole me with your racist assumptions, if you please.

    Finally, any knowledge and understanding of one’s own culture or that of another nation can only come from experience. That experience can be direct or it can be learned through literature, music, dance and art. Do not assume you have “lived 5 lives” just because your ancestors, or the general ancestors of your country, have five or more national origins. Such knowledge is not passed on through DNA. It lives in culture. Unless you yourself have direct or learned experience of these cultural influences you remain ignorant as any WASP you sneer at.

  • My WASP grandmother would have disagreed that her worldview was limited. On the contrary, it is the Cuban who often appears to have the limited perspective.(Cuban food as an example) As an African-American, I, too, challenge the notion that criollismo is more enlightened than my afro-centrism. My japanese sister-in-law would also fiercely defend that her oriental prism is more expansive than our occidenttal lens. The very fact you have this opinion shows narrow-mindedness. Americans are a mezcla of all that is Cuban and Italian and Chinese and Greek …and so on.

  • You’re completely right, Javier. For the ‘Americans’ satisfaction = material wealth and consumption – see Moses for example. And their cultural machine is constantly exporting this bogus concept globally.

  • he does write about desperation but his concept of felicidad y satisfaccion is not one the same as the american concept andyou as an american cannot hope to understand it,

    gutierrez literary essence follows a line of criollismo of a kind only experienced in very few places ariybd world, and united states is not one of them, despite the proximity the WASP worldview is very limited in its scope and definition, to understand a cuban , you have to lived 5 lives,

    live once as a bantu or yoruba
    once as a spaniard
    once as a moor
    once as a taino
    and finally once as a cuban to sum it all up

    you have not lived any of the above as far as i can tell

    that being said
    he’s criticisms are all legit, and his books are beautifully written

  • Gutierrez does indeed write about the unhappiness and desperation of the people around him, including the central character, his alter-ego, “Juan-Pedro”. However, Gutierrez does specifically avoid any overt political commentary, aside from cautious ironic comments such as “these days the word ‘protein’ is considered a state secret, not to be mentioned in public”.

    Because of this careful stance, Gutierrez is able to live and write in Cuba without police harassment, even if few of his books are published on the island.

  • Don’t be ridiculous Gordon. Right now in La Habana there is a toilet paper shortage and a cholera epidemic. Go ahead, make yourself comfortable with old Granma newspapers and be sure to wash your hands very well, I’ll take the $14 trillion debt anyday.

  • If Cubans were aware of all the debt in America – both private and government they would be very happy to live in Cuba – Si !!!

    Gordon Cubaking Robinson Port Alberni B.C. Canada

    email :::

    [email protected]

  • And supporting such mistakes such as the US embargo on Cuba. Tell us another story, please.

  • Yes you are.

  • I’m not American.

  • So are you saying that my facts are correct and I am just saying them wrong? Yes, the US has made mistakes too. Are you happy now? If that is what it takes to make you feel good, just read the NY Times every day. There is always news about what is wrong in the US in all of our newspapers so you should not have any problems maintaining your joy. In the meantime, the Cuban national newspaper Granma, controlled by the Castro regime, has NEVER published a criticism of anything the Castro brothers have done! Never! In view of this imbalance, I have taken upon myself to even out the scales. As long as I don’t lie, what is wrong with that?

  • “Dog Meat” (auto-translated from the Spanish, so blame google, not me for any awkward phrase.)

    No more replies

    Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

    GAME pool with a stranger. Just throw the white ball against gangs. We caroms. I like dead two bands return effect. Seem difficult. But no. Pure geometry.

    I lose the first game. Payment beers. We are in the doorway of a bar on the beach. In July there is much heat and humidity. No breeze runs. Fifty yards away the waves rolled gently on the sand. But no one hears and no smell of salt. Nothing. Only this type billiards against me. A girl in her twenties enters the portal and sitting at a table. She is accompanied by a man and a woman were all young. Must be Oriental: half Indian, half mulatto. Serious. Do not speak. Peasants holiday newcomers. Explore the terrain. They ask for something to drink. She watches me. I also look at her. She’s beautiful, but I do not want problems with young women. Six months ago a doctor I inserted a metallic pearl under the skin. Two centimeters behind the glans, at the top. He charged me five dollars. His office is a little gross, with flies and guasasas. Surely there are cockroaches and mice. I said, “Tomorrow I come to heal, if not I give you five more infected.” He did it perfectly and there is the pearl. It’s actually a stainless steel ball four millimeters in diameter. Only I have to enter the glans and calculate touch to rub the pearl against the clitoris. And ready. They have an orgasm after another, make pearl addiction and persecute me. They want to repeat the dose every day and do not know where to hide. So. Sometimes life moves incoherently. With ebbs and flows. Not always. Only sometimes.

    Now I must be careful. A tiger must carefully choose their prey. Ignored the eastern Indian and I still have the crazy pool. I concentrate. I make an effort and do not look over that girl. There are thousands like her. I caroms. Scored twice. Three balls remaining. The other strip and fails. Tyre and scored a goal. Two balls remaining. Five more shots and two balls in the pockets. The guy paid me a beer and leaves. The Orientals also fried. I am drinking. There is a music unbearable. I leave half beer and leave. Definitely not like. Always drink rum. They are half past eleven at night. At the front there is a nightclub full of young people. A little beyond is a kiosk that sells fried chicken and drinks. Lena works there. On alternate days. We talked a few times. His eyes are green. Or blue. Two children. Forty years. She was a nurse and is cheerful, to some extent. Customers well controlled. It keeps them at a distance. Especially since it always works behind the counter. Has been kind to me. He smiled at me two or three times and talked. I like. When I’m not in love I like almost all. Just stop liking when I focus my energy and my spirit into one. Sometimes it happens. For a while. After a fresh start again. It is tragic and stressful. I approach the kiosk. I ask an employee for Lena.

    ‘Tonight not work. Enter at seven in the morning.

    -Thank you.

    I keep walking. Young People. Heat and humidity, flies and smell of rot. I’m very lazy so hot. Sometimes I’d go back every summer to Sweden. Despite the boredom and the panorama so insipid and sullen deliberate use to grant visas. Just thinking I need air. I walk to the seashore. Walkway over sand, breathing deeply. I close my eyes and filled his lungs.

    So I stay quiet few minutes. I hear the faint sound of the sea and feel the serenity begins to displace anxiety. I hear a door slam and voices of women. Discussed. I look behind me and there are lesbians. Fifty meters from the sea have a small house next to a ruined cafeteria, closed for years. On the other side of the house have a piece of land and a coconut enyerbado. Under an old Chevy parked coconut 55. Destroy. We adapted a diesel engine of a Russian tractor. It was once green and white. A group of lesbian fun. All very manly. I do not understand how they manage in bed. Sometimes we talk about old cars and mechanics. Now out in droves. There are five. Ruffling. Very happy. They like the herb and alcohol.

    Iran to play around. Do not disturb the rest of the Chevy.

    Again I close my eyes and still breathing. I think I’m calm enough and I go to sleep. Midnight. One of the morning. I do not know. I rented a house at the bottom of lesbians. I turn off the light. I lie. Until the mattress and the sheets are hot. Again I need air. A plane flies over the people. I hear the muffled hum of the turbines. Descends. And darkness closes. I feel close to madness. Panic. There are moments of lucidity maximum. If you get to that point you can go crazy because there are no more answers. It is how to get down the road and know that you can not advance even one step further. And back is impossible. I relax. Breathe gently. I think the madness away. I am very tired and pulled his tail and start to piss in the park on the corner. It is a small park with three or four cast iron banks, and caleta grape trees. Orino constricting. A jet long, intense, strong. Two skinny and young pelandrujas having fun like they were under a shower. They resemble those Indian oriental watching me in the pool. But a little skinnier. And very funny. The piss I like my dick out a hose inexhaustible. They are soaked in hot piss and laugh out loud. It’s late at night. Some people spend walking calmly beside us, but nobody looks. Then a policeman. A tall black, serious and strong. I indicated with a hand gesture to stop to pee and I approached him. I thought, ‘Oh, this is fucked. “Stop pissing, I shake, keep the animal, and approach. The guy asks me if I’m crazy.

    -No, man, they like.

    -Answer correctly.

    Enjoy his uniform and gun and jack black rubber gas spray and handcuffs and walkie talkie. He is standing in front of me like a movie supermacho, legs open, very seriously. Spectacular.

    -Okay, no acere. They like.

    And who knows what else. I do not remember. I guess I just kept sleeping.

    © Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

  • He is a brilliant writer,from what ive a read from him, he never says cubans are not happy, but what he describes is a state of mind alien to any american, its a mash of living for the day which includes, struggle, happiness, frustration, sexual liberty, political and economic confinement and many other things that draw a complex picture of cubans that is definately a shade of gray and not as black as you make it seem

  • How the USA organizes it’s multiple healthcare systems is a worthy subject of debate, but on a blog about Cuba, it is irrelevant. The subject of this thread is “Are We Happy Here in Cuba?”

    Cuba. Not USA. Cuba.

    Doesn’t it occur to you that your knee jerk reaction to any criticism of Cuba is to immediately attack the USA? Psychologists call that “displacement” and “projection”. It’s not helpful. It’s a sign of dysfunction.

    America has it’s faults. But when was the last time you heard Obama, or before him Bush, respond to a criticism from the opposition by whining about Cuba? (the answer is, “never”) .

    Cuba’s problems originate in Cuba. The solutions are to be found there, too.

  • Since you’re an american citizen why dont you start off with removing the people and insitutions who are responsible for making mistakes in YOUR OWN COUNTRY which is the U.S, cubans will eventually find out what they want to do, they are most definately not at the mercy of two americans called moses or griffin,

    besides dear moses, the problem with the comments you make is that theres a certain of aura of distortion present in them,
    see the problem is you focus on a narrow part of the narrative thats convinient to your argument, while taking focus and context out of the equation,

    the point is U.S hasn’t been anything but a malevolent, leeching, exploitative neighbor to cuba, and you need to understand that there are a great things we the citizenry of the U.S need to change about political and economic system of our OWN country, before trying to meddle in somewhere else, specially if that place has been affected by u.s policies,

  • there doesnt seem to be any intelligent from your side of the argument
    if you want to talk about terrorism, why dont you start off with the fact that those who did 9/11 did not come from iran, iraq, syria, they came for saudia arabia, A u.s ally, your mind is a void man cut of all the talk with the suicide bombing when you dont know what you’re talking about,
    and i couldnt care less about adam lanza, you didnt seem to get the point did you

  • Adam Lanza was a loser in America. In certain other countries, dictatorships like Cuba, Syria or Iran, he would be a member of the ruling clique or recruited as a suicide bomber and hailed as a hero by his enablers. Which are you?

  • Over 40,000 US citizens of all ages die each year due to lack of a single-payer healthcare system, but not to worry–the US healthcare establishment is rolling in obscene profits.

    Where are you tears for these victims of the putrid capitalist system?

    You and your tag-team co-thinker seem to pick and choose the murders you wish to bring into the Cuba discussion.

  • Well said, Klan.

    Oh, and Moses, the phrase is “long walk on a short pier,” not “off” it. It is a dictatorial crime to debase a folk phrase. ha!

  • Kian, you are on the wrong site. Your issues with the US are debatable but you have a right to express yourself your own way. This site is HAVANA TIMES. I know my history. It is a history replete with human error and human triumph. The hope is that we move forward avoiding repeating the same mistakes. One way to ensure that the same mistakes are not made is to remove the people who made the mistakes. Cuba has suffered under the same leadership for 54 years. Is it any wonder that they are stuck making the same mistakes. Again, criticize me if you please, but do so by telling me where my comments are wrong. Not liking what I say is your problem, not mine.

  • All your comments have been based around a central theme of Cuba bad, castro smash, and indeed castro is a dictator, and he has made the cuban people suffer, i am willing to admit that, but unlike you, i also understand the cynically dirty, disgusting and nasty politics of my own country the U.S in the 20th century as to have been the cause of much underdevelopment and misery not only in Cuba but in Latin america as a whole

    Learn your history first, put reality and truth into context and you will understand Castro’s crimes dwarf in compared to the crimes inflicted by the u.s corporate machine and its government

  • First of all Sandy hook is a prime example of the sociopaths our american society produces, there are hundreds if not thousands of these ticking bomb madmen around,
    the same cannot be sad of other countries

    And lets just say that youre right, and this lone madman is the only reason for sandy hook
    Griffin what about the gulf of tonkin incident ?? a false flag attack that led to the death of 40000 american soldiers and thousands of vietnamese civilians, lets not bullshit ourselves, the u.s corporate machine run government has had his hand in blood for decades,

    the only advantage u.s has is its richness in resources and a measure of liberty that its citizens enjoy, and thats bound to change if it outlives its convenience,

    its very ironic a year before the july 1994 there was the
    Waco massacre happening here in the U.S, educate yourself on your own goddamn hole before poking your nose in places you dont understand

  • Here’s his website:

    Gutierrez lives in Havana. Some of his books have been translated into English, but some are only available in Spanish. Alas, my Spanish is very limited. His style has been described as “dirty realism”. He disavows any political position and insists he writes only about the human condition. His stories can be tragic, hilarious, erotic, angry, revolting and then suddenly deeply touching and sympathetic.

    An interview he gave for a Brazilian tv show is here:

  • Thank you. I have not heard of this writer before. I will go on Amazon now to see what I find.

  • Kian, this is a blog about Cuba. My comments reflect my personal experiences in CUBA. Please tell me which of my “venomous” comments is untrue? Otherwise, take a long walk off a short pier.

  • A far worse murder of the innocents occurred on July 13, 1994 when the agents of state repression deliberately rammed a tugboat full of Cubans trying to escape the island. Unlike Sandy Hook, which was the act of a lone madman, the Tugboat Massacre was carried out on official orders of the regime leadership. Many more examples exist if you care to look them up.

  • moses get the hell off your bullshit, you’re just here to spread venom, you’re right everything in the states is so much better than cuba, when was the last time something like sandy hook happened in cuba? U.S is home to the most addicted,morally bankrupt and ignorant people on earth, cuba has a lot of problems, its time for the dinasours to give up leadership to a new generation of thinkers. Moses you’re the most uninspiring commentator of read from

  • Moses,

    Have you read any of the books by Pedro-Juan Gutierrez? His stories describe the daily struggle to survive in Centro Habana, a life which is anything but “happy”. They make a perfect antidote to the false cheerfulness the average tourist thinks he sees. Think of it as an essential tropical vaccination.

    My first trip to Cuba was spent at a resort, with a day trip to Havana. It was interesting, but I got a sense there was a lot more to see that was not on the official itinerary. On my second trip to Cuba I skipped the resort and stayed at a casa in el Vedado. I spent my days exploring the city, walking, taking co-operative taxis and talking to normal Cubans. I discovered that normal is not happy.

    Normal is struggling to feed your family. Normal is trading a service for a commodity or the other way around. Normal is being always on the lookout for a tourist to scam. Normal is working two or three jobs. Normal is stealing from your employer, because you know damn well your employer (the State) has been stealing from you and your family for 54 years.

    Cuba is not a normal country.

  • Despite the pasted smiles in effect to attract tourists dollars, the majority of Cubans in Havana are basically sad. You can see it in their faces. Every day is a struggle to find decent food or staying ahead of a house that may collapse or clothes that need to be replaced. The basic comforts of life that Americans take for granted are harder to come by in Cuba and getting harder by the day. I get sick at my stomach when I hear tourists say who spent a couple weeks in Varadero, Trinidad or Pinar del Rio and return home with stories of how happy and content Cubans are. If they only knew! Outside of Havana, life is a lot less stressful but the sacrifices are the same. Daily shortages of one thing or another. If it isn’t the gas for cooking, it’s the water to bathe, or the electricity to watch TV. Perish the thought that a Cuban should think for themselves and question the authority or legitimacy of the regime. Besides, when most of your energy is spent fighting the daily struggles of food, clothing and shelter, who has anything left to ponder matters of politics. Here’s the question: how sad do you have to be to think that it is better to fight sharks, sun and the high seas in an innertube than to spend another day in Cuba?

  • “But I do believe that moral misery exists in Cuban poverty. It’s that the viable methods for survival have not only eaten away the country’s economic infrastructure, they’ve also destroyed the ethics of at least three generations.”

    “Human degradation, like cancer, metastasizes without distinction.”

    So well said, Veronica! Thank you for your profound and thoughtful essay.

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