In January I finally visited Cuba with a tour organized by Human Agenda in Palo Alto. I have been meaning to visit the island for at least 25 years since I wanted to see Cuba before it turned into the 51st state of the US or before it got colonized by international corporate and financial capitalism and lost its unique character. The trip could not have been more timely. I had booked the trip in October of 2014 and just two months later, President Obama announced a major shift in the 50-year old US policy towards Cuba aimed at reestablishing diplomatic relationships and ease some of the economic and travel restrictions.
What I found most surprising about my visit was not what I learned about Cuba but what I learned about the US. The reality of Cuba is so different from what I expected that I was forced to recognize the ideological straightjacket that binds us in the US. We seem to be living in an ideological bubble constructed by the state and by the corporate media that shapes our understanding of the world and alienates us from it.
Ironically, the most surprising feeling I got while visiting Cuba was that of freedom. After Edward Snowden’s revelation about the massive surveillance we are subjected to in the US, and my becoming aware that all my email, social media and phone communications are intercepted, recorded and analyzed either by the NSA or by the private sector Big Data industry, a willing provider of intelligence to the US government, it felt refreshingly free to be in a country where such total surveillance of the population was not in place. This is not to say that there is no government monitoring of society in Cuba – I had no way of knowing the extent of it through my direct experience. But the simple lack in Cuba of the technological wherewithal to implement such level of surveillance made me realize how little freedom we really enjoy in the US.
When we talk about freedom in the US we tend to refer to freedom of expression, freedom of consumer choice, and freedom of political expression. While there are clear limits to those freedoms that only our ideological straightjacket prevents us from seeing, we never talk about freedom from wants and freedom from fear.
In Cuba the government provides free education and healthcare to all its citizens and sets a ceiling on the cost of housing to 10% of the renters’ income. Every Cuban citizen also receives a ration book that entitles the bearer to purchase highly subsidized basic food provisions covering about 40% of one’s dietary requirement. No one in Cuba has to take on student debt to get an education, or fear that getting sick might lead to financial ruin. Although Cuba is undeniably a poor country, thanks to the rations and the housing rental policy there is virtually no homelessness or hunger in the country. In contrast, more than 45 million Americans are food insecure and the urban homelessness problem in the US is pervasive and getting worse as home prices and home rental prices continue to increase in the major US urban centers. The Cuban constitution also guarantees the right to work and to a comfortable place to live.
Clearly, the cost and challenges for the Cuban State to provide such level of social services and to run in a centralized manner a large segment of the economy is making it hard to fulfill all the ideals expressed in its constitution.
If you are curious about the ideological bubble we live in, here is a very fruitful exercise. Try reading the US constitution and the Cuban constitution side by side with no preconceptions and pay attention to the social values expressed in each of those foundational documents. The seven articles of the US constitution were written more than two centuries ago by a minority of white male landowners intent on protecting and enhancing their economic interests. The Cuban constitution is based on the 1940 Cuban constitution and went through a number of revisions in the last half century with extensive public input and participation the most recent one in June 2002 in response to aggressive and interventionist remarks by President Bush.
The most moving part of the trip was getting to know the Cuban people and appreciating both their deep humanity and their generosity of spirit. Most of the people we met, especially the older generation, were still passionate about the socialist project – the idea that a society could mobilize its collective resources to provide a dignified existence to everyone in society by guaranteeing basic human, social and cultural needs of its population.
Cuba is currently going through a major social and economic transformation in order to find a path between a State run centralized economy and a free market capitalist economy. The path they are exploring is one where State run economic activities are being turned over to state workers themselves and transformed into worker-owned cooperatives. Visiting a number of such cooperatives was the focus of our trip and I will write more about it in future articles.
I would encourage everyone reading these notes to book a trip to Cuba and get a sense first hand for the amazing people of Cuba and this remarkable social and political project that has survived for more than 50 years US policies aimed at demonizing and undermining it.