Round Cuba with a Crutch…

My son’s broken leg had not healed quite as quickly as he assured me it would, so we found ourselves travelling to Cuba in the company of a crutch and a neoprene-velcro walker boot..any concerns about how this would hamper the trip began to be dispelled within moments of reaching the arrivals hall of Jose Marti International as we were immediately whisked forward to the front, bypassing the queue…we struggled to think of anywhere else this would have happened & Andreas was by now used to not expect any special treatment as he commuted around London…as we travelled around, the boot- the likes of which had never before been seen in Cuba judging by the interest it generated- sparked many impromptu conversations… whereas the best available fischer crutch -which he had sourced specially from a different hospital- was not as useful as I had hoped for spotting him in a crowd as there seemed to be quite a lot of them about…

Before I went to Cuba many people were interested to hear what it was like…the subtext was possibly ‘Is life there as bad as some of the press portrays it?’ In thinking of how to assess this, it seemed useful to compare Cuba to Mexico- the US’s other southern neighbour, which has followed an economic & political path more approved by the US and is not subject to an economic blockade.

In practice, it is quite difficult to find easily comparable data.  Mexico’s population is 103.9m and Cuba’s 11.25m according to the World Bank. This suggests different issues in ensuring a basic decent life for their citizens in terms of eg access to healthcare, education & social protection.  The OECD’s ‘better life index’ states that Mexicans have an average income of $11,106 but great inequality, with the top 20% earning 13 times what the bottom 20% earn. Unfortunately it doesn’t include Cuba in this index. The CIA has Cuba’s per capita income as $9,900 compared to Mexico’s $15,300 but that is also based on 2010 & 2012 data respectively. The World Bank categorises them both as ‘upper middle income’ countries with Cuban’s income at $5460 (2008) compared to Mexican’s $9,420 (2011) and life expectancy of 79 and 77 respectively. But, of course, its not all about the money…

On our first day in Cuba I was shocked to find people queuing for bread- but I never saw queues again apart from at that bakery… I am still thinking about the wheat problem- it has to be imported but I keep wondering if it would be possible to grow some?- and clearly although there is progress, agricultural productivity can be further improved overall if they can achieve the difficult balance of prices & incentives.  The abiding impression is of an integrated society with little differentiation…everyone was well dressed & I did not see those visible signs of poverty evident in so many countries trying to succeed with a market economy…many shops looked rather understocked but, taken together, supplied the necessities of life…although it helps to have access to the convertible peso as those shops had a wider range of goods, albeit at higher prices…I am still puzzled that it took me 4 days to find a hairbrush though[!]

It helps a lot to speak Spanish in Cuba, that way you simply get to speak to many more people & have more indepth conversations…also the casas particulares -the nearest comparison would be B&Bs but casas are so much more, including functioning as a personalised travel agency!- were a wonderful way to meet and talk to ordinary Cubans. I would say they complain about their Government about as much as we do…many people we met have family overseas and they seemed very clear about the relative merits of living in Cuba or in a ‘richer’ country and that as much as is gained materially is lost in other important ways eg in the sense of community, social connectedness & mutual assistance…one day at the beach I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation which seemed straight out of an Arthur Miller play- with the older, expatriates complaining of how things used to be better & how much they had to pay for the hotel these days and the younger, resident niece[?] cheerfully not rising to any of the bait…

As we travelled around I became rather fond of the painted slogans everywhere such as ‘ideas are important’, ‘prudent love is not love’- [jose marti], ‘the party exists in the knowledge that its purpose is to be the soul of Cuba’, ‘computers are the science of the future’- much nicer than advertising billboards trying to make us want more ‘stuff’…and our impression was that there were many pictures of Che Guevara, not so many of Fidel Castro…

Cuba outperforms its GDP ranking in the aspects of life that matter most- health, education, welfare & equality. It also has a rich cultural life but I have to say the food is generally not so great- Mexican food is so much more inventive. In contrast, Mexico has a much higher GDP than Cuba but does not ensure the welfare of its citizens and is very unequal so ranks lower in the human development index- 61st to Cuba’s 59th [UK is 26th]- and many live with constant insecurity & fear of the drug cartels which the authorities seem unable to challenge.  Where would you rather be?