Cuba Navigates between Markets and Solidarity

By Fernando Ravsberg

Cubans in a community project. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — When I arrived on the island, back in 1990, one of the things that made me fall in love with the Cuban people was their never-ending source of solidarity, firstly with their families and then towards their friends, neighbors and even strangers in need.

After the Pope’s visit in 1998, the Rioja ship was seized by Cuba and half a dozen Argentinian sailors were left stranded in Havana Bay without a penny. They were like this for seven months because their embassy refused to repatriate them.

They managed to survive this entire time thanks to the solidarity of Old Havana’s modest residents, from the fishermen who “fixed them up” with some fillets, from the woman who gave them one of her 5 children’s bread rolls or the old woman who used to let them shower at her house.

And it was this same solidarity which prevented there being thousands of starving people during the extremely difficult time of the economic crisis in the 1990s. The Cuban people shared their food, even if it was just an egg and a handful of rice.

Children were especially looked after. Grandparents, parents and uncles and aunts would go years without trying even a bit of meat so that the younger one could eat it, many of whom are now 30 years old and don’t even know how they didn’t end up with malnutrition.

At that time, the financial aid sent by emigres was essential for the survival of their families on the island and even to keep the national economy afloat. In the early ‘90s, remittances were one of the very few sources of hard currency that the country had.

Silvio Rodriguez in concert. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

None of the extreme anti-Castro media campaigns in Miami against sending aid or Washington’s bans stopped emigres from continuing to support their families, even at the risk of violating US law.

Today, things are changing in Cuba, the introduction of market reforms and the inevitable social differences this implies are forcing us to think only about ourselves. Market laws have been the cause of extreme poverty and wealth in today’s world.

Cubans had lived with the paradigm of everyone “being equal” for decades. Over recent years, the country’s economic reality has become “normalized” with the appearance of social classes with very different incomes and opportunities.

It’s said that human beings live how they think but I refuse to accept that just because a group of Cuban people are doing well that this will force them to become selfish. Although this could happen if Cuba isn’t able to “update” its values.

“Business people” [black market buyers and sellers] despised and persecuted yesterday, are today respectable self-employed workers. Likewise, those who emigrated one day looking for a better financial situation stopped being called “scum”, even recovering their right to be repatriated.

The Cuba on the horizon can be better but it shouldn’t leave the Cuba it was behind. The challenge now is to move forward without losing its essence and solidarity could be a very resistant cement to use for the foundations of any system that will be built.

Sometimes, I’m in a rush because the new Cuba is fast approaching and other times, I am afraid of losing what the country is. Then I interview Papito who has built schools, museums and transformed the worst street in Old Havana into an alley of hairdressers.

Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

I visit Fernando Funes, the intellectual-farmer who is putting new ideas into practice in the old Cuban fields. He teaches his neighbors about sustainable farming, he puts them in touch with the “market” so that they won’t be exploited by third parties and so that they will receive a fair price for their products.

I see Silverio in a old Giron bus traveling through mountain towns in El Escambray with theater performances made in “El Mejunje”, that cultural center in Santa Clara that’s an example of inclusion which he defended, without a cloak or sword, when homophobia caused a rift in the Cuban people.

I think about Fuster filling the Jaimanitas neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana with mosaics so that his neighbors can live among art and colors. And I remember Silvio Rodríguez who is paying for tours of poor neighborhoods in Cuba out of his own pocket to force us to look at what we don’t like to see.

Sometimes, I’m worried about the future of Cuba but when I think about the fact that there are people like these here, my fears disappear.

2 thoughts on “Cuba Navigates between Markets and Solidarity

  • Everyone who saw the worst and the best of the Cuban people in the 90;s must be concerned with the rise in selfishness, egoism, divisions that is permeating the country.

    While no one is claiming the past was better, both the government and civil society must uproot the increasing economic disparity, the root cause of this malady.

    Rather than centering our attention on the new well to do, the entrepreneur, India and Pakistan developed decades ago a Micro Credit System, that has elevated millions of people out of poverty.

    The concern of the Cuban government that society can be penetrated by dirty US-AID funding and similar, should not justify, that honest, generous desire to help, be stifled, persecuted and hurt those most vulnerable.

  • I too remember the early nineties, and the incredible solidarity and sense of community which I’ve never seen elsewhere. I too fear for its loss in Cuba.

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