Consumerism and Frivolity in Cuba

Yusimí Rodríguez       

Getting off of work. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — I don’t know whether the transition many are waiting for in Cuba is coming or whether it’s already going on right under our noses, without us noticing. What’s clear to me is that people’s socialist mentality, if it ever actually existed, is disappearing.

Soon, we will look around us and find it hard to believe that the country where anything resembling a bourgeois attitude was harshly criticized, small private properties were eliminated as throwbacks to capitalist times, wearing clothes and shoes from “abroad” was considered tantamount to counterrevolution and an austere lifestyle was encouraged (at least among the general population) is the same one where people are swept up in a wild consumerist spree.

The pace of this stampede is being set by a new, well-to-do class composed of different actors: employees of the tourism industry, successful artists, professional athletes (we can now say we have professional athletes, without fear of saying something politically incorrect), government officials working abroad, and the owners of prosperous businesses. The common denominator is financial solvency.

The mothers belonging to this class have ideas like dressing their little girls and boys in long dresses and suits and ties for their graduation…from the sixth grade.

This is what’s happening at the school my friend’s daughter goes to and, like the craze over South Korean soap operas, it could easily spread. The suits can be rented at 20 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), that is, a little over 20 dollars.

Some may consider this a laughably small amount of money that any employed Cuban could afford, and they may be right. In fact, 20 CUC is what many Cubans employed by the State earn…in a month. There are some who earn even less.

My friend didn’t have the talent needed to become an artist or a professional athlete. She only had enough of it to complete a degree in nursing. She didn’t leave the public health sector to go work in tourism or care for people with Alzheimer’s and other conditions (and the relatives who can afford it) in their homes, a highly lucrative activity right now.

Cuban students. Photo: Juan Suarez

She can’t go work abroad because she is a single mother (luckily, for Cubans would lose yet another nurse otherwise). Her salary barely gives her enough for food and paying the water and electricity bill every month. Many of the clothes and the shoes her little girl wears are gifts from patients and friends, and my friend can only pray she will not outgrow them any time soon.

She can’t even dream of buying any clothes for herself. Her daughter will be turning fifteen in four years, and my friend’s been saving for three to be able to pay for the dresses, dance, photos, party and everything demanded by the tradition, which dates back to the days in which young girls were officially presented to high society and has somehow managed to survive in our socialist reality.

Renting a dress for her daughter’s sixth-grade graduation is another round in her fight for survival. She should have brought it up at the parent-teacher meeting, as all the low-income mothers should have. But none of them said anything. They will take on new sacrifices to rent the clothes, buy the right shoes and pitch in for the party buffet.

If there is one thing we Cubans have learned, it’s to avoid swimming against the current, to avoid voting against an idea that seems to enjoy unanimous support, no matter how stupid it strikes us. What’s more, people are increasingly ashamed to admit they’re poor.

It would be unfair to tell a girl who has been a good student year-round, who has done all her homework and gotten good grades, that she can’t go to her own graduation party.

Hope. Photo: Juan Suarez

But, what keeps my friend from sending her child to this graduation in the clothes she’s bought for her through sacrifice or those she’s gotten as gift, clothes that are suited for a party and are in fact more comfortable than a long dress and high heels, when the point is that she have fun with her friends? Nothing save the obsessive idea that her daughter cannot have any less than the other girls.

The country we are slowly but surely moving towards is sad, a country characterized by the lack of freedoms of socialism and the social differences that, from what I was taught at school and have always heard in official speeches, are inherent only to capitalism.

It won’t suffice to ask the more well-to-do parents to disguise the expensive snacks they buy their children, or to eliminate the two-currency system, to make these differences disappear or become less pronounced.

I don’t know what makes me sadder, that State employees in crucial sectors like education or public health don’t earn decorous salaries, or that they should feel they have to join the consumerist race and keep up appearances to reach the finish line at all costs, and that the finish line should be set by the more prosperous.

I thought twice about writing this post. I asked myself whether, by doing it, I wouldn’t be falling into the trap of justifying the egalitarian logic imposed on us by the government for years and the obstacles placed in the way of individual advancement. Worse still: was it not tantamount to regarding the prosperity of others as a crime?

I believe prosperity should neither be penalized nor glorified. The more well-to-do parents cannot be the ones who decide what is to be done and how students will dress at a graduation party, quite simply because they are not the majority, they do not represent Cuba’s prevailing economic and social reality.

It is the responsibility of the majority not to allow others to impose goals beyond their possibilities on them. The consumerist race began a long time ago, and Cuba has joined it without much delay. That consumerism and frivolity are compatible with the socialist label is a good thing to keep in mind. We should also remember that no one is forcing us to take part in this race.

22 thoughts on “Consumerism and Frivolity in Cuba

  • John wrote, “Socialism, even the totalitarian forms as practiced in the old Soviet Union and Cuba…”

    Well then, I am glad to see I am knocking some sense into your head and you finally admit Cuba & the Soviet Union are indeed examples of “socialism” …of the totalitarian and non-democratic form, of course.

    So you see? There are different kinds of socialism and no one variant hold the copy-write to the label, “socialist”.

  • Thank you,

    “National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NASDAP), known as the Nazi Party.”

    Hitler offered up a lie. As have others that sell a socialist paradise only to find themselves caught under rule of a dictatorship.

  • I contend that the Cuban dictatorship is in a process of transition from their Marxist-Leninsit past toward a “Chinese” style system. However, unlike China, the Cubans do not appear interested in opening the country up to direct investment. The military is expanding their already majority control of the economy. The elimination of more and more products from the rationing list and the soon to come elimination of the dual-currency indicate hard economic times ahead for the majority of Cubans.

    Over the past 2 decades, the medical and educational systems in Cuba have steadily degraded. In effect, the regime is dissolving the socialist past of the old system. Eventually, Cuba will be run by the military which will dominate the political apparatus and will control the economic sphere, all with little to no social programs. In short: Fascism.

  • For the last time, I have
    read plenty of the ZNet Forums. I DO NOT AGREE with the basic precepts which
    drive the interpretation of facts. ZNet attacks Obama as being too
    conservative. FoxNews calls him a socialist. How is this possible? Different
    interpretation of the same facts. Only an idiot can’t understand what I am
    saying. Even the ‘frickin weather is subject to interpretation. One man’s
    chilly day is another man’s arctic blast. Get over yourself. Your ‘truth’ is a
    crock of BS to most people, including me.

  • …who made you the final arbiter of what is and is not true?

    I can’t believe you refuse to see the difference between a country that continues to deny its people the choice you have in obtaining knowledge and someone who has determined that you are full of kitty litter.

    The question you ahold be asking (or answering) is why is verboten in Cuba ….ummmm?

  • I see you continue to try and correct others grammar as If to confer some sort of authority on your posts.

    As I’ve mentioned many times,before Fascism mad Communism are simply two sides of the same coin. Your grade school understanding, or willful blindness, of communism doesn’t allow you to see this reality.

    As you’ve stated pure socialism has not and will not exist, at least not in our lifetime, exist as long as human nature continues to rule us as it does

    You’ve been watching too many Star Trek episodes.

  • ” BTW. who says Z Net is any more truthful than NYT? That’s why it’s called BIAS.”
    FYI, the truth involves factual information and not fiction.
    I will repeat : If you do what I do and take in the information from the corporate media that dominates well over 99% of what is to be found on TV and radio and from which most Americans get their info and THEN go to ZNet and read what you find there on the same stories .
    I have been a student of the media for well over 40 years and know how and where to look for facts that hold up under close scrutiny and OVER TIME .
    A bias does not, in any way, indicate whether the truth or untruths is being presented. What matters is the truth of that reporting. of events, the causes and effects.
    That you will not even look at the alternative to the corporate press that I suggest is indicative of a closed mind and a fear of being wrong .
    What do you have to lose from making a two-week comparison between what you rely on for your information and the source that I contend will show you that your sources in the corporate media are unreliable.
    I spend more time getting info from your sources than I do in reading the totality of ZNet every day in order to have a solid footing in what both sides are saying .
    I would like a straight answer to this question of why you will not or cannot read the material at ZNet .
    Again, what is the difference between a Cuban government that refuses to allow an alternative to Granma and Juventad Rebelde (sp) and your self-censorship that denies you an alternative to the official version of things in its effects ?

  • Agreed.

  • 1) The word Castro’s ( sic) should not contain an apostrophe because it is a plural and not a possessive.
    2) The U.S has a strict capitalist economy with SOCIAL and not socialist programs put in place to ameliorate the effects of the capitalist-caused poverty and to prevent the widespread social unrest that would result from not addressing these inherent shortcomings of capitalism.
    3) Pure socialism has never existed since , if you understand the philosophy , it must include a bottom-up worker-led economy and that sort of system has never existed .
    4) Fascism, most commonly understood, involves a military dictatorship coupled with a capitalist economy .such as existed in Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy. Academia never refers to Stalinist state forms such as Cuba and the Soviet Union as fascist for this reason and woukd you wish to appear knowledgeable , you should also refrain from doing so.
    Call them totalitarian or dictatorships containing the distributive elements of socialism and you’d be correct.
    5) Venezuela has a predominantly capitalist economy with a few more social programs and parallel grass-roots government organizations than do other capitalist countries. It is not socialist because it has a top-down economy and government as a whole.
    6) I also believe and agree with you that Raul and future governments will keep the socialist aspects of the revolution and allow the individual Cubans the right to run their own businesses as long as they are not exploitive of other Cubans as socialist morality dictates.

  • Moses,

    In told you exactly how to determine whether the NYT or ZNet tells you lies or truth and that is to read BOTH.

    It is instructive to note that you are doing everything to avoid doing this.

    As an example of what I advise , the following was reprinted at today’s ZNet and contains truths that Forbes will not print.
    I challenge you to find anything not true in it.

    Wealth of Forbes 400 billionaires = wealth of all 41 million African-Americans

    By Chuck Collins
    Posted in: Race/Community, Racism, US | No comments

    The billionaires that make up the “Forbes 400” list have as much wealth as the entire African-American population of the U.S., over 41 million people, according to a new analysis by Bob Lord of the Institute for Policy Studies. Lord calls it “Dr. King’s Nightmare.”

    In the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, wealth owned by households of color declined dramatically, as home values collapsed. The wealth of the richest 1 percent also declined in 2009, but rebounded quickly in subsequent years.

    As Bob Lord writes in Other Words, “The net worth of just 400 billionaires, a group that could fit into a high school gym, is on par with the collective wealth of more than 14 million African- American households. Both groups possess some $2 trillion, about three percent of our national net worth of $77 trillion.”

    The only U.S. African-American on the Forbes 400 list is Oprah Winfrey, who has a net worth of $2.9 billion, placing her 184th on the list. She is one of 7 Black billionaires in the whole world.

    The U.S. has a persistent racial wealth divide, rooted in the legacy of discrimination in asset building, starting with slavery up to present day discrimination in mortgage lending. The homeownership rate for whites is 73.3 percent, 43.1 percent for African-Americans, and 47.6 percent for Latinos.

    But present-day inequality is the poisonous result of eroding net worth among African-American and Latino households and an exploding concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, and within that, among the richest 400 billionaires. The average net worth of the Forbes 400 richest rose $800 million to a record $5 billion in the last year.

    African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but have only 2.7 percent of total wealth. The median wealth for an African American household, according to a 2010 survey, is $4,900; for whites, it is $97,000.

    If current trends continue, the Forbes 400 will soon have as much wealth as the entire Latino population of over 53 million people, 17 percent of the U.S. population.

    Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good (, and the author of the new book, 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do about It. Chuck is also a co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good, a network of business leaders, high-income households and partners working together to promote shared prosperity and fair taxation.He is co-author of The Moral Measure of the Economy and with Bill Gates Sr. of Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes

  • You write, “I don’t know which is worse: the no-choice situation in Cuba or the ignoring of the truth that is freely available in the U.S. for the lies of the corporate media.” Instead of making up these crazy ideas in your head, just ask a Cuban. They will tell you that ‘choice’, even unexercised is better than NO choice at all. When I grew up there were 3 or 4 TV channels and at times I complained that there was nothing to watch on TV. Today my kids have more than 100 kid-friendly cable channels. Y’know what? They complain too. Would they prefer one channel over what they have? Of course not. Still they complain. BTW. who says Z Net is any more truthful than NYT? That’s why it’s called BIAS.

  • The US embargo has helped the Castro’s rule the Island. It has remained in place because of domestic US politics. If the US really wanted to take Cuba, it would have done it by now. The reality is that it has no such interest.

    The US now has a mixed economy with many socialized programs. It pure fantasy that it is some type of extreme capitalist entity.

    The problem with pure socialism is that it does not work. Time and again fascist offer up the false promise of a fairer redistribution of wealth only to learn that the path is actually one of shared poverty. The road to serfdom as the poor souls of Venezuela are learning.

    The conclusions of this article with the concern of the end on socialism on the Island are silly. Castro is introducing common sense reforms, the Island will maintain a strong socialist leaning while allowing for limited market reforms to compliment the state. If the public can avoid over indulging in the sin of envy, a little differentiation in life style based on personal effort and work ethic will do no damage.

  • Not only through education and newspaper articles a country can alleviate this issue. By isolating the country from the rest of the world and implementing an economic system that brings poverty to the nation, the gap between rich and poor has now increased.

  • Moses ,
    If you like the NYT , you like the corporate media and all the lies it presents.
    You should go to the New York Times EXAMINER website for the cure to the crap in the NYT on a regular basis just so you know what you are reading.
    ZNet may well have a left bias since it is largely an anarchist news and information site but then, the truth does have a left bias..
    The major difference between the NYT and ZNet is that I and the NYT Examiner website can go to the NYT and show you gross inaccuracies and lies on a daily basis while you cannot do the same with ZNet. .
    If you use the corporate media such as the NYT as your regular/only source of information , you wind up grossly misinformed and disinformed .
    I would suggest to you that you compare the articles on the same subject matters at the NYT and at ZNet for factuality for a week or two and try to single out one topic for a lengthy comparison.
    It’s what I have always done to see who is telling the truth and since ZNet has proven to be the most reliable source for factual information, it’s what I recommend .
    You may like the NYT because it’s what you have become accustomed to but it does not tell you the truth except for the Dow Jones averages and sports .
    It is a totally establishment voice when it comes to foreign affairs and capitalism as it has to be and for that reason is not to be trusted.
    I don’t know which is worse: the no-choice situation in Cuba or the ignoring of the truth that is freely available in the U.S. for the lies of the corporate media .
    But then, the truth appears as lies to people who have been told and believe lies all their life.
    An example: Jeff Greenfield , the producer of Frontline or one of the other corporate media hour-long one-subject news shows was asked why he never had Noam Chomsky on and he replied ” Because he’s from Pluto”.
    That same questioner went to Chomsky and told him what Greenfield said and Chomsky said : ” He’s correct and for this reason : Were I to tell you that Moammar Khadaffi was a terrorist , a war criminal and someone who should be hauled up in front of the World Court, you would know exactly what I was talking about since the media is full of stories about him.
    But were I to tell you that (the then Sec of State) Geroge Schultz was a terrorist, a war criminal and someone who should be hauled up in front of the World Court, you’d think I was crazy ( or from Pluto) .
    It would take me twenty minutes just to detail the crimes which Schultz was guilty of and that program allows five minutes or less for each answer. ”
    The above is paraphrased but is the essence of what was said and it points out why the corporate media could not invite Chomsky on , how deeply indoctrinated the U.S. public is and how shallow the reporting is in the corporate media even on these hour long, one subject programs.
    You have the freedom and the choice of viewing more than just the official version of things but you might as well, be a Cuban with just Granma available to you for the little you use that freedom .
    As Noam Chomsky puts it , it’s brainwashing and censorship under freedom of the press and in your case, self-censorship.

  • Jessica Isaac

    Love the article!!! couldn’t be more interesting and realistic.

    I use “colegiales” my entire life for school and my educacion fisica shorts were home made by my lovely aunts.

    I live outside of the country nowadays and i visit my family twice a year. We have extended families in Cuba but i can’t not afford to bring presents for everyone. However, i bring little things from the dollar store and hiking trough farms i give them away to the very poor people. Often down in Cuba family and friends ask for the most insignificant and unnecessary items. It seems ridiculous to me that people prefer to have a gold chain rather than a good place where to live. I always say to them that i can’t waste my savings in such things because i work to hard to even dress as humble as i do. I have to be strong otherwise they will suck me alive. If they need a medicine is no possible to find there i will try to bring it from Canada because i know i will contribute to the health of someone. On the other hand, i never make promises because i don’t know what the future holds for me. I grew up suffering watching at my parents working so hard to just give me a plate with food every day. I said to my mom that i didn’t want 15 birthday party… my father is a teacher and his salary never has been enough to even eat. I never felt embarrassed to say i was poor but i feel lucky and proud of the education my parents gave me. I never stole , prostitute myself, or stopped studying. My brother is 13 and he is part of that wave of materialism and consumerism that is strongly developing in Cuba. I have to say it is not their fault, There to many factors to explain. I don’t bring brand clothing for him, no jewel , no luxuries… just what is important.

    This is from a Cuban to those that can provide a little bit to his relatives in the island: “Don’t leave a Cuban (any of them)know how good is your financial situation. Make them know how hard you work to earn your money”

  • You criticize US “media” in general yet promote an AMERICA-based left-wing site like Z Net. Do you understand that a website like Z Net which, by design, is anti-capitalist, anti-mainstream US policy would not be allowed to exist in the very countries that the site supports? Noam Chomsky, whom you hold out as some sort of political guru, would not be permitted to be as anti-Castro in Cuba as he is clearly anti-US here in the ‘States. No reasonable person should dispute that all media have a degree of editorial bias. This post highlights the ongoing anti-US editorial bias of the Castro newspaper Granma. The real crime is not in the bias Granma presents. The crime is that Granma is the ONLY editorial view permitted in Cuba. You like Z Net. I like the New York Times. As Americans, we have choices. Cubans do not have that choice.

  • Socialism, even the totalitarian forms as practiced in the old Soviet Union and Cuba work a bit too well to be left unmolested by capitalist imperialism .
    The Soviet Union came back under its Stalinist and Leninist ( totalitarian and elite-led respectively) centralized socialist form from near total destruction of its infrastructure and 50 million killed after two World Wars to be the 2nd largest world economy in just 25 years .
    Cuba’s similarly Leninist form has been the sole factor in that country’s ability to resist the 54 year war on its economy by the United States . Well that and the fact that the Cuban people themselves have decided not to go back to feral capitalism which was the cause of their revolution in the first place and which is the cause of most revolutions.
    The Tao teaches that a wise person knows that enough is enough which is anathema to capitalist under which no amount of money is enough. Consumerism -the desire to have more and more -is driven by the fear of not having enough which is central to capitalism and which democratic socialist economies prevent .
    You don’t need to have seven bags of flour if you know that flour will always be available to you as needed and neither do you need a million dollars if you know that the society guarantees the well being of everyone.
    That’s a big difference between capitalism and socialism and second only to the fact that at its center, capitalism is undemocratic and totalitarian to the extreme and socialism/communism/anarchism have democracy as the central tenet.
    The U.S has an ostensible republican form but in reality is an oligarchy . It is paired with totalitarian capitalism that has 10% of the population owning 80% of everything ( thank you Moses)
    Cuba has an ostensible republican form but in reality is a totalitarian form of government . It is paired with a socialist -style means of distribution that ensures an equitable distribution of the wealth of that country albeit in a very unsocialist totalitarian fashion .
    The U.S war on Cuba’s economy has been successful as far as increasing hardships on the Cuban people across the board but a failure in having that population reject the revolution as a result.
    This is because the Cuban people, unlike most U.S citizens are well aware of U.S foreign policy that would have the Cuban people throw away the gains of the revolution, their health, education and societal benefits and throw away the far greater equitable society they now have for the totalitarian and immiserating feral capitalism the U.S wishes to impose.
    In the end , it comes down to whether one believes that the U.S has the right to decide for Cubans what kind of economy, government and society they want.
    The Cuban people have held out for 55 years now and show no signs of surrendering to Moses and the GOUSA and it is my bet that the U.S economy and society will collapse before the Cuban economy and society does.

  • i am glad you wrote this article, my partner is from cuba and when he is in america he is like a kid in a candy store, with not enough money!..He takes things back to Cuba, as mediocre as the items are, to him they are jewels, what he doesn’t realize is, that “things” get old quick and break and wear out. What a shame for those trying to impress other people with pretty clothes and big watches, as those are the people that fuel the rich and have nothing of value in the end.A very well written truthful article.Sadly he just had the experience with his beloved family, where he realized that “goods”can not heal social wounds.

  • Good point Moses! Sadly, some fine people on both sides of the straits suffer. I do believe the solution is to let all USA citizens visit Cuba and spread the good word about what potential the Island has to offer the world. I was never a fan of Marxist/Leninist philosophy. One final thought, if the present regime doesn’t acquiesce they will literally be wiped off the map. Cuba is no longer isolated!

  • The term “consumerism” has several definitions.[4] These definitions may not be related to each other and confusingly, they conflict with each other.

    One sense of the term is to describe the efforts to support consumers’ interests.[4] By the early 1970s, it was the accepted term for the field and began to be used in these ways:[4]

    “Consumerism” is the concept that consumers should be informed decision makers in the marketplace.[4] Practices such asproduct testing make consumers informed.

    “Consumerism” is the concept that the marketplace itself is responsible for ensuring economic justice and fairness in society.[4] Consumer protection policies and laws compel manufacturers to make products safe.

    “Consumerism” refers to the field of studying, regulating, or interacting with the marketplace.[4] The consumer movement is the social movement which refers to all actions and all entities within the marketplace which give consideration to the consumer.

    While the above definitions were being established, other people began using the term “consumerism” to mean “high levels of consumption”.[4] This definition gained popularity since the 1970s and began to be used in these ways:

    “Consumerism” is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or economic materialism. In protest to this some people promote “anti-consumerism” and advocacy for simple living.[4]

    “Consumerism” is a force from the marketplace which destroys individuality and harms society.[4] It is related to globalization and in protest to this some people promote the “anti-globalization movement”.[5]

    If & when the Cuban people have economic freedom, they can develop the positive aspects of consumerism, in particular consumer protection, quality products and lower prices. For now, the government sets prices arbitrarily high, sells low quality crap, and there is not protection against fraud or faulty merchandise.

  • The spiritual deprivation that Cubans have suffered since the onset of the Batista dictatorship and intensified from the beginning of the Castro tyranny are owed to the continuous lack of personal freedoms and basic human rights. However, in free countries elsewhere there exists an identical consumerism so the lack of freedom can not be the only reason for the increase in unrepentant consumerism in Cuba. It is simply human nature to be attracted to ‘shiny objects’. The fundamental flaw with the Marxist-Leninist ideology is that it purposes to ignore human nature to promote community over individualism. While human beings have shown a willingness to sacrifice individual needs for a community benefit with regards to public safety and even education, most people are not so willing to sacrifice happiness and personal achievement to help their neighbors. The Castros, likely well aware that socialism would not work in Cuba, chose these political labels because it gave them convenient cover to accomplish what they really set out to do. They wanted power and control. In the name of a failed political paradigm they have controlled the Cuban people for nearly 56 years. Recent increases in unabashed consumerism in Cuba is simply the cracks in the dam leaking more water. The Castros are running out of “fingers in the dyke” to control the leakage. Their days are numbered and they know it.

  • Is consumerism an attempt to quench a thirst that is created by a deprivation that is not material? If so, the “force” is not easily identifiable.

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