A Cut of Capitalism in Communist Cuba

by Tony Chavira

Time passed slowly while I sat on the plane, unable to think clearly enough about what I would see while in Cuba. My only real experiences with communism as a social phenomenon were my interactions with the parents of my first-generation Chinese friends in Monterey Park, who had come to the United States because they had such a negative opinion of how free and open it was back in China. In fact, many of those same parents read Chinese newspapers every day and watched Chinese news to stay in the loop with developments to judge them from afar. I guess you really can’t leave home after all.

anti-U.S. propaganda

While at the Auto Club taking a passport-sized visa picture for my recent trip to India, I mentioned offhandedly to an employee that I might be going to Cuba later in 2010 (at that time our travel plans were less concrete). Eyes popping wide open, her coworker turned excitedly in my direction with a huge smile on his face. He was a first generation Cuban in America and only had amazing things to say about his home country, the people and the government. From his sparkling five-minute review, it seemed like a place I would really enjoy: a place jam-packed with amazing music, great food, charming people and wonderful sights. Most of all, Cuba would be a place where you felt like an equal. Visitors and residents were the same, treated the same and given the same opportunities. That’s what it meant to be in a communist country versus a capitalist one.

And he quickly put my questions to rest: being cut away from the United States meant that Cuba was still a very communist country. I was just too much of a capitalist pig-dog to understand that. I’d have to see it for myself.

Always immediately inclined to write more about planning and cityscaping issues than other, seemingly less important (in my mind) ones, and yet slightly intimidated by the fact that Ms. Gilda Haas, Mr. Jon Webb and Ms. Sara Wall planned on tackling those issues on our site from their very experienced and very professional perspectives, I decided that I would evaluate the quality of green public spaces in Cuba versus those in the United States. I figured it would be an easy question to ask myself: in what ways were communist parks different from capitalist parks?

Naturally, as we began to tour the country (in our official FourStory tour bus), my definition of the word “park” began to change. Old Havana, with its mix of post-colonial architecture and imperialist military swagger, conducive to violent uprisings as much as casual strolls on brick-laden streets, was infused with small, charming and quaint green spaces with mini-parks surrounding them every several blocks. Walk five minutes in any direction and you could find a little shade, a few benches and the bust of a revolutionary hero, with some information in both Spanish and English about how that person contributed to the people’s liberation. Not only were these spaces infusive, they were actually used. Groups of locals gathered in front of historic buildings to argue about baseball, couples would sit on benches and whisper to each other in the warm sunlight, workers would carry their goods through the spaces or pause on a public bench to drink a little water and rest. I could walk for hours in any direction throughout central Havana and come across pocket parks like these, filled with people and anti-imperialist pride. It felt urbanist, it felt collective, and it felt democratic. Most important, it felt right for a country and system of government that prided itself on equality and hard work.

pocket park   pocket park
pocket parks in Havana

But (of course) there was another kind of urban park space in Cuba that had the exact opposite effect. In other areas of town, the government had erected gigantic (and somewhat gaudy) monuments in areas where there was a mandated height requirement of zero feet. Not to put too fine a point on it, a 10-story monument would stand in a public area with literally nothing around it for a quarter of a mile in any direction. Clearly, this was meant to emphasize the significance of the monument to the country (though it was a tourist attraction more than anything), but the placement of these monuments killed both the walkability and usefulness of whole sections of town. In these silent, open spaces I felt more afraid of crime than in any other place in the city, simply because we were almost completely alone. No one could use the space for anything other than presenting large monuments, so there was no reason for anyone to be there unless they were a tourist snapping a few photos. I’m sure they were conceived to be public parks, but the vastness of the spaces served purely as a deterrent to walkable urban infusion.

José Martí Monument
José Martí Monument, surrounded by space

There was another type of green space, at the edges of the city, that served a similar useful/useless function. As Cuban residents are allowed to own two homes—one in the city and one in the country—countryside landowners sought to find ways to purchase property somewhere in a dense urban area where every unit is already in use by a city-dweller. To accommodate this, the government built condensed clumps of units surrounding the center of Havana, which felt similar to slums. Public spaces and interconnected parks were not part of these development plans, so if these people want some open public space, they have to walk out of their community and into the giant fields and park spaces nearby. Similar to planting their monuments, there was no effort to integrate the community with the green space. Condensed housing is here. Gigantic green space is there.

Naturally, this division in how green space was built into (or separated from) the communities of Havana coincides with the socioeconomic dividing line. Shocked as you might be that one exists in a communist paradise, there’s no way that we could avoid how striking the divide seemed. The Old Havana district is beautiful and post-colonial for a reason: it’s the area of town where many wealthier Cubans live, the area of town tourists spend the most money, and the area of town with the highest quality of restaurants and shops. Slums at the outskirts of town next to vast and useless open spaces did not serve any real economic function, and were therefore cast aside. Literally. The only time you’d interact with one would be if you had to pass through it in order to reach the kitsch 1950s-era resorts that have claimed every last beautiful beach in the country. And you have to pay a resort if you want to use one of Cuba’s beautiful beaches ... they’ve all been spoken for.

In fact, Cuban culture is divided along a very specific line that’s determined by the only two industries the country really has: (1) tourism and (2) everything else. There are separate hotels for tourists, separate taxis, separate restaurants and bars, and separate currencies. You read that right: separate currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso, which is worth about 1.2 U.S. dollars, is set at one to 24 of the Cuban Pesos that locals use to buy their supplies and food. As doctors are paid, on average, about $25 per month, receiving a single Convertible Peso is huge for most Cuban people. On one of my last days in the country, I gave a rickshaw cyclist who was nice enough to pedal me through the streets of old and “new” Havana for an hour 20 Convertible Pesos, and I cannot explain the look of gratitude on his face. He was almost in tears. But when he could be receiving $25 per month from the government, how would I know that my gesture would give him the flexibility to live without worry for a while? I simply didn’t have any smaller bills, was about to end my trip, and knew I wouldn’t be able to exchange Cuban currency in the United States. Besides, he was a cool guy and kept pedaling even after we passed the agreed-upon limit of 30 minutes for 5 Pesos.

bicycle rickshaw
Tony with Francito, the kindly rickshaw bicyclist

As a group, we each noticed this socioeconomic divide the moment we stepped into our hotel—the government-owned Hotel Nacional de Cuba—and were told that it was the most luxurious and expensive hotel in the country. A beautiful place to stay, with charming accommodations and a high standard of cleanliness, the Hotel felt very separated from the rest of the city. On a hill, overlooking the sea and the Malecon (the road alongside the sea), we were living in our own little Cuban fantasy resort. Drinks may have cost twice as much in our hotel than in any other place in Havana, but that didn’t matter. We were in a beautiful, government-run hotel. A hotel meant for tourists, and that’s very much what we were. Never mind the beggars in the street below us ...

Staying in these kinds of accommodations, visibly separated from the rest of the Cuban population, you are forced to evaluate how much different life is in a country that depends so heavily on tourism. Everywhere I went, someone tried to sell me something. Everywhere I ate, the food was supposed to be “the best in the area.” Every museum I entered asked for donations in Convertible Pesos. Every night I had to arrange a fee in our currency ... not theirs.

But why not theirs? In India I used rupees just like everyone else, in Beirut I used U.S. Dollars, and shops in Dubai would pretty much accept anything as long as it could be spent. Most important, how could you consider a country with such a strong focus on tourism that they would print a distinct tourist currency really communist?

The answer to this question reveals why there is such a divide between how the rich live and how the poor live in Cuba. Cuba is a country with two completely separate socioeconomic classes because it uses two separate economic ideologies. Communism, as a method of economic administration, only applies to Cuban residents. If you are not a Cuban citizen, you do not get to be a communist in Cuba. They pay 15 cents for a beer, you pay $2. They are given rations and resources from the government, you have to pay for them. They are allowed to buy property from the government and you are not. You can buy your Cuban hat with the red star on it. You can buy your Che Guevara t-shirt and smoke Montecristos until you vomit. But you will never be a communist in Cuba unless you are a Cuban citizen.

At the same time, you have to remember that you are a Capitalist. The country actually needs you and your money for development. Sure there are estranged lodgings and currencies, but there are also separate police (who are especially brutal, I’ve heard) whose only jobs are to protect tourists. Because you have the money, you get the highest quality stuff the country has to offer. You get more fragrant soaps, you get better taxis, you get imported Chinese tour buses, you get great service, and you get the best dish a restaurant can cook up. In fact, “the best food” in Cuba means a lot when there’s roughly a week between when produce is packaged and when it reaches your plate. In America, you can go to the grocery store and buy something that was in the ground yesterday. In Cuba, the delay between those two points is too wide to expect freshness. So you depend on cans of vegetables, meats that are packaged and seasoned simply, oil that’s just a bit older than it should be ... whatever it takes to make semi-edible food tasty enough. Mostly it was a bad hit, sometimes a total miss.

Hotel Nacional courtyard
Hotel Nacional courtyard

After hanging out in Cuba for a week and taking in supposedly the best the country had to offer, the FourStory staff sat down in the gorgeous cliffside hotel courtyard to discuss what we would be writing about. Naturally, everyone noticed something or other that was interesting or different in “communist” Cuba versus the way things worked in the “capitalist” United States. But the longer we discussed what we saw, sitting in the warm sun overlooking the sea crashing against the Malecon, the more I couldn’t help but wonder who the hell I was to compare Cuba to the United States. We arrived a week prior with an air-conditioned tour bus waiting for us. We were toured throughout the city and finally shuttled to the best hotel in the country. We walked around for a week, met a trillion amazing people, saw a trillion amazing sites, and sampled the highest-grade local fare available. It’s not that we were complaining in that meeting ... everyone had an amazing time and we all felt a bit wiser and better for the experience. But who were we to judge how society was structured, how economic systems fared or how people lived in any country or in any society.

I had asked servers at every restaurant we stepped into what the best dish was, and I was, without fail, unequivocally disappointed. But if we were being given the best food the country had to offer, and the servers legitimately thought they were recommending the best things on the menu, who the hell was I to presume to judge? I’m not living there, I didn’t know what people liked or what they had to do to get along ... I was a tourist on the tourist side of town. And I was being given the best the country had to offer, which was—strange as it sounds—an allocated slice of capitalism in a communist country. Just for us. You pay for the best, that’s what you get. “Best” might be relative, but hey ... get the hell over it already and enjoy what you’ve got, pig-dog.

As for Cuban residents, they get stuck with what they’ve got. I can’t image the quality of their meals, knowing what ours were like, but at least they get a sense of civic pride in the fact that their form of communism actually works, even if the quality of their raw goods can’t compare to that of those here in America. But communism isn’t about buying things. It’s about a society that builds and works and improves collectively. It’s not about commoditization or the bottom line; it’s about coming together to pitch in (as mandated by the Cuban government). You’ve got to take the successes with the failures, and for a country where everyone technically works for “the (same) man,” the Cuban people seem surprisingly casual and open. I guess that’s what happens when your basic needs are taken care of ... it’s just too bad we are only talking about their very basic needs.

not a common sight: fresh fruit for sale in Havana

I took something very specific away from this trip, in comparison to the others I’ve written about here. To be sure, I’ve seen desperately poor people, and I’ve seen tragic conditions mandated by the government, but I’ve never seen the government step in the way it has in Cuba to ensure that the desperately poor don’t have to live in tragic conditions. For better or for worse, the system sustains the Cuban people and gives them the opportunity to get an education and feed their families. They have walkable public spaces, wide open areas, and living arrangements for everyone to use. They have a supply system that feeds everyone. They have a health care system that doesn’t discriminate or reject you based on anything. The minds of the Cuban people can rest easy, knowing that their most basic needs are taken care of if things get rough. They won’t sleep on the streets, they won’t eat out of trashcans, and they won’t lose an organ or other body part because they can’t afford a surgery.

They’re just fine, and for us to presume anything about the way they live means presuming that we somehow live a better life. “Better” is far too relative and far too pretentious a word to ever use when comparing the United States to a place like Cuba. So here’s the truest thing I can say about Cuba, if I had to compare to our country: we might live differently, but we don’t necessarily live any better.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


i LOVE this piece!

seriously, i LOVE this piece.

thank you, tony.

2010-04-15 by florence

Great piece.  makes me wish i was there with you!

2010-04-19 by Jaz

Where do I begin? Why didn’t you mention the fact that there is no freedom of speech, assembly, or travel? Not to mention their “healthcare” system is a total disaster! I recomend you visit this site & get your facts straight about the latter. http://www.therealcuba.com/Page10.htm
Not being a slave or robot for the castro tyrants, I can honestly say that I DO live ALOT better than 95% of those poor people (only the govt elite might live better than I). Ever wonder why tens of thousands of people risk their lives on anything that floats to escape that island hell hole? I really don’t even know where to begin, but get your facts straight before “knowing” how other people live….PLEASE! This article is an absolute insult to my intelligence!

2010-04-22 by Danny

Thanks for the comment Danny!  A few things…

1) You’re totally right about all that shitty stuff happening there.  There are few government-given freedoms, and if words gets around that you’re speaking up you’ll soon get a knock on the door.  Cuba has the second most journalists in jail of any country on Earth (China’s #1), and Castro’s cronies pretty much suck up all of the nation’s excess wealth for themselves simply because they can.  I’m not comparing those things to the political system we have here in the United States.  Our political system is democratic, and theirs is a dictatorship.  I’m only discussing the capitalism/communism distinction.

2) It’s not like the United States is somehow a better country though… their poor people will never be as poor as our poor people, who are allowed to die from starvation with a mental illness and without a home in our city streets as we pretend like the don’t exist.

3) You are doing the opposite of “missing the forest for the trees” here.  You’re so overwhelmed by the cons of the Cuban political system, that you don’t see the cultural or economic pros at all.
America’s spent 50 years screaming about the cons
there’ve GOT to be some pros somewhere.  Besides, I didn’t write this article to say things people have already said about the country.  I’m also not going to automatically presume that the quality of my life is better than the life of someone anywhere simply because I have 24hour running water and easy access to a grocery store.  I understand that many people want out of Cuba, and I don’t blame them for not wanting to live there… but can you really say that everyone in Cuba lives their lives the way page 10 of your websites states?

You just can’t expect to scour the internet only to find articles that will agree with you.  Sorry I couldn’t abide and you felt like this was a waste of your time.

2010-04-22 by Tony Chavira

I acknowledge the fact that you can find pros in almost anything and I’m not a closed minded person. I only wanted to express the fact that you left out a balanced account of what the majority of Cuban people have to endure on a daily basis.

Secondly, the link I provided is not “my” web site and it’s not something I just googled to throw it in there. It’s an insightful look into the healthcare system for the average Cuban citizen. Which is disgraceful & shameful. Of all the things you state the govt provides to it’s citizens, you didn’t mention the fact that even basic, humane things in hospitals such as blankets & pillows, are not supplied and toilet paper & soap are scarce. Even medicines are hard to come by. I’m refering to the Cuban hospitals used only for citizens, not open to tourists.

Thirdly, I do understand & agree with your point about the US and its neglect of the poor. However, that wasn’t the point of the article. I do believe that democracy is the best system of govt that man has created and that the US, for all it’s faults, is by far, a much greater country than any socialist or communist run country.

Finally, I’m not one of these hard liners that don’t have an open mind like you think I do. I just think that this report lacked a fair and balanced approach to the true situation in Cuba going on right now and could’nt stand idly by without at least sharing my viewpoint.

2010-04-22 by Danny

Hey Danny,

I didn’t mean to make it seem like it was your website you were deliberately plugging, sorry about that.

Also, I do definitely appreciate your points.  I can in no way endorse living in Cuba after what I saw there, but I wanted to make it a point to highlight the things people did have available to them and not necessarily the things they didn’t.  Our job on this site isn’t to give perfectly balanced journalistic accounts, instead to focus on specific topics and discuss them in terms of affordability and fair living.  My article was meant to be more of an ideological comparison than a literal one (aside from the topic of incorporating greenspace).  I couldn’t help by compare it to the other trips I made to the Palestinian Refugee Camp and so desperately poor and overpopulated areas of India, so—as my article mentioned—we sat down as a group and decided individually on the perspective we would each take when discussing our trips through Cuba and this is the perspective and mindset I chose. 

Lastly, I don’t necessarily mean to say that you’re closed-minded, but the internet is a difficult place to gauge opinion when comments end with “This article is an absolute insult to my intelligence!”

2010-04-22 by Tony Chavira

One of the tragedies of Cuba is the American tendency for black & white thinking—Communism=BAD; capitalism=GOOD.  Somewhere in the middle could have likely worked very well for Cuba and instead of boycotting and helping to bankrupt the country, how much would have changed for the Cuban people IF America had kept its cool, continued to trade and keep the borders open, operating on the principle that nothing works better to change a commie system into a quasi-socialistic-capitalistic system than Coca-Cola and Levis jeans . . . and iPods and the internet & etc. Honey & flies vs. vinegar . . . Instead, American Hysteria forgot the first rule of semantics:  Communism 1 is not Communism 2 is not Communism 3. And, wierdly, the American Hysteria Crowd always conveniently forgets that while Americans claimed the right of self-determination (heck, fought a war to get it), the Hystericals too often refuse that same right for so many other countries.

2010-04-25 by Ann Calhoun

Hi Tony,

I enjoyed the article and your writing style. And, the discussion with Danny was challenging.  I must say that socialism and communism are not the same thing.  Although, I can’t recall a single democratically elected communist country (Venezuela - makes such claims, but there are questions about the vote counts).  There are, however,democratically elected socialist countries such as Denmark who appear to fare just fine.

Your descriptions of the cityscape were observant and to the point.  The waste of space for gargantuan revolutionary monuments is criminal, given the ongoing housing crisis.  I’ve visited people of rank in their homes, and they have more space than others, but the buildings are still poorly maintained.

2010-04-29 by Mary Watson

Comments closed.


Features | Blog