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Life in Cuba: Commentary


Hooded dolls with violent toys placed in front of them portray a peace message in an art gallery exhibit in Holguin city. The banner facing the dolls (show here as an inset) proclaims: “Arms kill, toy arms kills innocence,” acknowledgement that people in Cuba, as in other parts of the world, are coming to recognize the impact on children of war games and ‘pretend’ violence.

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February 22, 2005
-by Dan Dyck

Holguin, Cuba — Depending on who you talk to, life in Cuba is great, good, or ripe for improvement. Much depends on context.

When you travel in another country, a balanced perspective will avoid comparing apples to oranges. Compared to life in some other Latin American countries, Cubans are well off. Compared to a reference point of middle class Canada, Cubans would appear impoverished.

Up to a limit, each Cuban has some of their basic needs met by the state: monthly staples enough for 15 days, ‘free’ education through university level (though there are some state defined prerequisites that need to be met), basic healthcare, no taxes, low cost public transportation, a peaceful society (I never once saw armed militia so common in some Latin American countries), and, in principle at least, guaranteed paid employment to supplement the basics provided by the state.

Cuba describes itself variously as a “third world” or sometimes “developing” nation (Gramma, the official English language newspaper in Cuba, Feb 6, 2005 edition).

Can life in Canada be compared to life in Cuba? It can. But is such a comparison valid, or even fair, given the two countries vastly different political ideologies and economic status in the global marketplace?

Cubans live in a socialist (or communist, or under a benevolent dictatorship, depending on who is providing the description) system which places the collective good of society before personal initiatives and individuality. To that end, people have to give up some personal freedoms and a good degree of choice for a measure of stability vested in regulation and control.

There is contentment in suffering, when it is shared by most and borne of struggle toward a vision. Poverty (relative to Canadian standards) brings in its wake a focus not felt by people who are well off.

If Cubans have fewer problems, is it because they have fewer choices? Life seems to consist of simple pleasures and pure values – values our society overlooks or takes for granted.

One travel web site I came across comments well on the values of Cuban society – and resonates in general with my brief experience in Cuba:

“These [values] include listening to people because you have the time; talking to people because you have a desire to communicate; caring for others because you know what it feels like to be uncared for; helping someone in trouble because you know you should.

In Cuba there is still an extended family; television doesn't rule; conversation is still an art form; and people are still involved in each others’ lives. Cubans are an educated people who have the ability to accept all things as they are. They want for nothing except [perhaps] more of what they don't have. They enjoy a simple meal, a conversation with a friend, an intimate time with a loved one... They are not distracted by the many things First Worlders are so dominated by. They don't have mortgages like millstones around their necks; they don't live on credit… Cubans enjoy the present… ever hopeful of a better future.”

This paints a fairly rosy picture. But I also sensed a certain resignation and an indefinable spiritual ambiguity.

There are problems. Cuba has an extremely high, by world standards, divorce rate – in some circles blamed on cramped, multi-generation housing (in Canada 45% of all marriages fail; in Cuba, 75%, states one web site). Government officials are becoming increasingly worried about addictions. Domestic violence is a concern.

So what can the church offer in this kind of environment?

Upon reflection, and considering my first, and very brief “snapshot in time” Cuban experience, it seems that that church can contribute by doing what the church should be doing anywhere and everywhere in the world: offering people healing and hope. By presenting an opportunity for self awareness and spiritual transformation, lives can and are changed for the better.

I hold no degrees in social work, theology, or education, but from my ‘Average Canadian’ perspective it seems to me that the root of society’s essential ills anywhere in the world can often be traced to its family systems.

Help bring stability to families and you have fertile ground for right relationships that begin to weed out addictions, family breakdown, neighbourly disagreement, community discordance, violence, and so on.

The gospels provide a healthy cornerstone on which to build the foundation for healthy families, but few in the world, Christian or otherwise, are fortunate enough to proclaim widespread success.

May God help us set aside those things that distract us from offering healing and hope in a world of confusion and conflicting interests.