HAVANA TIMES — On Sunday, I was invited to be part of the panel for the Cuban television program Circulo de la Confianza (“Circle of Trust”), organized at Havana’s Fabrica de Arte cultural center. The topic discussed was progress: what the concept meant, whether Cuba was making any progress with its current reforms and what we ought to do to have progress in the future.
Despite the rather dense nature of the topic, the room was full of Cubans of all ages and stayed that way till the very end. Many expressed very well-argued opinions, but the comment that received the loudest applause was the idea that no progress can be had without citizen participation.
I again heard people say they wished Cuba could become a “normal country”, and was surprised to hear them maintain that this entailed giving everyone access to the Internet, having a salary that affords people a decent life and that allows them to travel to other parts of the world.
I think it is very positive that Cubans should aspire to a kind of progress that benefits everyone and not merely a minority, but, if they achieved this, they would not be a “normal country” but the exception in a region that boats of the unique privilege of having the starkest inequalities on the planet.
Some of the world’s largest fortunes co-exist with the most terrible of abject poverty in our continent. A telling example of this is Brazil, the region’s great economic power, where Lula and Dilma have just pulled 40 million people out of extreme poverty and still have a lot of work ahead of them.
Those who speak about Cuba becoming a “normal country” should not be thinking about the normality of Holland, Sweden or Canada.
It would be complete madness to expect an underdeveloped country with very few natural resources to reach such levels of wellbeing.
The only “normality” Cuba could attain in the short or mid-term is the kind we find in the region, in Latin America, where not everyone benefits from progress, many receive salaries that aren’t enough to get through the month and only a minority has access to the Internet or the luxury of traveling to other countries.
Latin American societies tolerate child labor and children on the streets, without a roof over their heads, schools or medical attention. This is “normal life” for millions of people living in the slums, favelas and shantytowns of the continent.
During a trip to Peru, I visited the Ica desert, an oasis with an Internet connection whose speed, coming from Cuba, left me startled. Among the dunes of this same desert, right in the middle of nowhere, we also came upon a shanty.
The normal state of affairs in our continent is extreme violence: safety has become an electoral campaign issue even in peaceful Uruguay. The examples of Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil or El Salvador are more than familiar to us.
I know that, as a foreigner, I have no say as to where Cubans should be headed, but I can nonetheless express the wish that Cuba not become a “normal country” but rather an anomaly, where progress benefits all citizens.
I want for all Cubans to have access to the Internet, to be able to travel freely and, most importantly, have a salary that will allow them to lead decorous lives. That said, I don’t want for health, education, services for children or the safety of citizens to be sacrificed on the altar of “progress.”
To impel progress together without losing what has been gained is the great challenge facing Cuban society, and the aim will only be reached if everyone sets out to build a “different country”, a country that is different from others in the region and different from what Cuba has been to date.
Such progress, as the audience expressed during the debate, must involve everyone in the decision-making processes. This does not guarantee heading in the right direction but it is always more difficult to go astray when the path is decided by everyone.
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