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

  • January 21, 2014 at 9:54 am

    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”.

  • January 20, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    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.

  • January 20, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    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.

  • January 20, 2014 at 11:31 am

    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.

  • January 19, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    …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?

  • January 19, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    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.

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