The advantages of being poor (I)

Veronica Vega

illustration by Yasser Castellanos from the series Cubanos de a pie (ordinary Cubans).

HAVANA TIMES – If I said that my country’s dysfunctionality has afforded me great opportunities for spiritual growth, most would think I’m being ironic. However, it’s true.

The slings and arrows that daily put my patience to the test (and even my physical condition) vary from running after a bus that’s escaping, the frustrations encountered at every step in the perplexing matter of shopping for basic items, or the disappointments that my palate confronts from what I have opted to call the practice of “fallacious offers”, in which I am an involuntary participant (our extensive training in euphemisms should serve for something).

Among these disappointments, for example, is the experience of asking for a “mango juice”, as written on the notice board of a private coffee shop, and upon tasting it realizing with disappointment that it’s nothing but mango jelly mixed with water. Or “pineapple juice” that turns out to be pineapple drink; that it, the remains of a pineapple, including the peel, boiled with sugar and rice. Or those coffees that – incredibly – have managed to be worse than the food we obtain through the ration quotas.

But the prize for patience and resistance should go to the housewives and househusbands of Cuba for the challenges imposed on us by the mysterious varieties of rice that are sold to the population. The old recipes for the elaboration of this noble grain – recipes inherited from our ancestors – are no longer valid.

If you cook it with equal parts water and rice it remains raw; but if you put in twice as much water as rice, it turns to mud. I’ve tried adding a third more water, and it’s then raw in the middle. A little more and it’s mud again. A little less, and you get disperse zones of raw rice.

If you turn down the heat as soon as it boils, it also remains half raw; if you leave it to cook more, it becomes half mud, half burnt. And on top of everything, when the blessed product cools off, even if you stir it with a fork it hardens in a such a way as to resemble cement.

But remembering that phrase about one’s will being an obstacle to that of the universe, I submit myself to the whims of this rice and in silence I spin new strategies for conquering it. I turn up the heat for some minutes so it will cook, then I turn it down for a few other minutes so it doesn’t burn. I stir it several times with a fork, or even with my fingers, fistful by fistful, stoically.

I observe the form and the coloring of the rice that they give through the ration book. I buy in different municipalities, but all my attempts are useless: it’s all the same Vietnamese rice, be it issued as part of our basic supplies, or purchased at the “liberated” products market (of course, at the same price as the impeccable Brazilian rice).

So, when I lift the lid and feel the impulse to throw the entire pot off the balcony, I count to ten, close my eyes, breathe. I remember the “black night of the senses”, or the voluntary abstinence through which San Juan of the Cross awakened the subtle senses of his conscience, bringing states of indescribable joy. Or I reflect on the lesson that Saint Francis of Assisi found in the birds, who live happily on just a crumb of bread, a sip of water, and the immense liberty of the sky.

More even than that, I remember the problems brought on by eating too much (in Cuba too there is a high obesity index), the diseases that this produces, and in the biological ravages of stress. And to finish off, I remember what is scientifically postulated about food and its processing in the human metabolism: we utilize a minimum, and all of it ends – in the toilet bowl.

12 thoughts on “The advantages of being poor (I)

  • For most Cubans, it worked out relatively well. In the period from the end of the Spanish rule to the seizure of power by the Castro regime, the standard of living of most Cubans improved greatly. The wealth was not evenly shared, of course. About 1/3rd of the population lived in rural poverty, but there was a large an growing middle class.

    You also make the false assumption that the entire Cuban expat community in Florida were wealthy capitalists and land owners back in Cuba, which is untrue. Most were middle class professionals and small businessmen. Some were former rebels who had fought against Batista and then grew disillusioned by Castro’s broken promise to return democracy to Cuba. They fled the rise of the Communist dictatorship they saw Castro imposing on Cuba.

  • While not quite aware of it, you actually got close to the core of the problem. You noted that Cuba and the majority of other Latin American countries remain mired in poverty , even thought many of these countries receive a large volume in remittances (mostly form relatives in the US, by the way).

    Yet for some reason, these countries stubbornly remain poor and under the control of despotic regimes.

    The reason is the lack of democracy and the failure of the rule of law. The few countries which have managed to lower poverty are those which have achieved some degree of democracy and respect for the rule of law. Sadly, these countries soon veer away from democracy and the rule of law, trend back towards despotism and soon find themselves mire in poverty again. Venezuela and Argentina are two prime examples.

    The establishment of democratic republics have produced the greatest growth in material wealth in human history. The collapse of democracy and the failure of the rule of law has always coincided with the loss of prosperity.

  • Castro-style socialism was successful in making the majority of Cubans poor by taking wealth from the upper and middle classes. By every measure, Cuba is worse off under Castro. The only real difference is that most Cubans share equally in their poverty so, relatively speaking, seem to be better off. Formerly, Cuban doctors earned a good living and rightly so were better off economically. Today, under Castro, doctors earn less than bartenders and cabaret dancers. I understand that your point is that before the revolution there were very, very poor and illiterate Cubans and there were very, very rich Cubans. You would have me accept that today since the majority of Cubans are just very poor, things are better. Capitalism will leave a few behind, but it will also allow those who choose and deserve to do well the opportunity to reach their professional and financial potential. In addition, absent the tyranny of the Castros, Cubans will have the freedom to choose their own path. That alone is worth the risk of change.

  • When the wealthy Cubans in that expat community lived in Cuba with their money under capitalism (ie. 1958), how did that work out for most Cubans?

  • The Cuban diaspora is per capita the wealthiest of all Latin Americans expats. It stands to reason that because of this, in a liberal capitalist environment, the island of Cuba would stand to gain the most from their expat community. The wealth of Hondurans living abroad pales by comparison. I agree that poverty can counteract liberty. However, as I said, ask a poor Cuban: “what do you prefer…poor and oppressed or poor and free”.

  • Cuba is not the only Latin American country heavily dependent on remittances. It is the number one source of foreign reserves for El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and many other Latin American nations where millions remain mired in poverty. Remittances have yet to successfully economically transform any Latin American nation so there is no reason to believe it will be a viable solution to Cuba’s problems. And it is true that Cuba has a far better educated population (and lets not ignore the irony that this is only because of socialism), although only a minority will benefit under capitalism. Many of the others will leave Cuba as part of the brain drain from the Third World to the First World that has been occurring for decades.
    As for freedom, it is relative. Ask the average poor Haitian who is malnourished, lacks access to housing, education and healthcare how their so-called freedoms to vote, to travel, to free speech, to freedom of assembly, to own property are working for them. In many ways, the poor in capitalist Latin American countries are less free than Cubans because while they have freedoms on paper they not only lack the money to take advantage of those freedoms but they also lack their basic needs.
    In Colombia’s presidential election last week, only 41 percent of registered voters bothered to vote. Why? Because the majority of Colombians know it is a meaningless exercise that is presents a facade of democracy while in reality leaving most people disempowered. Ironically, socialist Venezuela is the country that has by far the highest voter turnouts in all of the Americas, including the US and Canada.

  • Cuba, as a new entry into the world of capitalism brings a far better educated population able to produce and earn at a much higher level than the people of Honduras or Guatemala. Moreover, because of folks like me who continue to support Cuba through remittances, Cuba will have access to a far larger pool of resources than any of the other countries you mentioned. Finally, even if I am wrong and you are right and Cubans are at best, economically no better off than their Latin American neighbors, at least they would be free. Talk to a Cuban and ask them this: “All other things equal, would you prefer living in a free country or what you have now.” I think you know the answer.

  • GDP is a terrible way to measure the economic well-being of a nation or people. It is emphasized in capitalism because it measures the wealth produced in a country (which is what capitalism is all about), but it tells us nothing about the distribution of that wealth. Therefore, a country can appear to be an economic success while only a small minority of economic elites are pocketing an overwhelming amount of the wealth generated. For example, Colombia has the fourth-largest GDP per capita among 32 Latin American and Caribbean nations, but according to the World Bank it is the seventh most unequal country in the world. Why? Because only a small minority of elites and multinational corporations pocket the wealth generated by the Colombian economy while millions of Colombians are homeless, malnourished, sick and forced to endure violence.
    This was the reality in Cuba in 1958, where half the Cuban population were unemployed most of the year, uneducated, malnourished and lacking healthcare and other basics while the country’s elites and US corporations pocketed the nation’s wealth. This is how capitalism works in every Third-World country, whether democratic or not. It only benefits a majority in the wealthy imperialist nations that ensure the global economic structures serve their interests.

  • In 1958, Cuba had the third highest per capital GDP in the Americas and the highest in the Caribbean. Today it ranks with Haiti, just below the Dominican Republic.

    Besides, the issue is not Cuba under capitalism vs socialism. It’s Cuba under dictatorship vs democracy.

  • Comparing Cuba to the United States is like comparing apples and oranges. The consumer culture (i.e. Wal-Mart) of the United States is not the norm in the capitalist world, it is a consequence of the US being an imperialist nation. The norm in the capitalist world is the life of the average Dominican or Honduran. If Cuba opens itself up to capitalism and the Wal-Mart culture Cubans will not live like people in the United States, most of them will endure the hardships such as malnutrition, disease, high infant mortality rates, illiteracy, extreme poverty, violent crime and homelessness that are common in countries like Honduras and the Dominican Republic. These countries represent the reality of capitalism for a majority of the world’s population, not the United States.
    Also, Cuba’s agricultural production is not out of line with other countries in Latin America. While Cuba imports 60 percent of its food, the Dominican Republic imports 45 percent of its food and Honduras imports over 80 percent. Cuba’s socialist system is not responsible for all of the country’s problems. Life would not be any better for most Cubans under capitalism, it could even be worse. Just ask impoverished Hondurans, Guatemalans or Haitians what life is like under capitalism.

  • When my wife first arrived in the US, we went to a Wal Mart superstore for some wine on the way home from the airport. We sat in traffic afterwards and I asked her if she missed Cuba already. She closed her eyes, smiled and said she was focusing on the Wal Mart we just left instead of the traffic in front of us. It is the little things, like low-quality rice, that Castro sycophants who frequently comment here at HT ignore but regular Cubans must endure that impact the quality of daily life for Cubans. Even being stuck in traffic on the Bayshore Freeway, which at 9pm was a disaster for me was a non-issue for her since we were in a comfortable and relatively new convertible with the top down. It beat the hell out of being stuck in a crowded P-11 bus with a bunch of smelly strangers. The revolution has failed Cubans in a lot of ways, some big and some small.

  • I’m not sure what advantages Veronica was driving at, but it was interesting to read just the same.

    Some facts & figures on Cuban agriculture:

    “Cuba imports some 60 percent of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion annually, mainly bulk cereals and grains such as rice, corn, soy and beans, as well as other items such as powdered milk and chicken.

    Last year, $500 million of the imports came from the United States under an exception to the trade embargo that allows agricultural sales for cash.

    Unprocessed rice production was up almost 50 percent at 642,000 tonnes in 2012, compared with 436,000 tonnes in 2008 when Castro stepped in for his ailing brother Fidel, and production of beans rose during the same period by 28 percent to 127,000 tonnes, the only significant progress reported.”

    So while some sectors of Cuban agriculture is improving, the gains are not everywhere, and the government will have to go further to make any real impact.

    “In a paper delivered at a local economic conference earlier this year, Cuban economist Armando Nova said farmers should be able to purchase supplies at will, instead of having to wait for them to be assigned and delivered by the state.

    “You have to free up the entire production cycle, not just parts of it,” Nova said.”

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