One reason I wanted to go to Cuba was that I expected it to be “unspoiled.” Sadly, our tour did not include seeing or experiencing the coral reefs and beaches that are said to be the way they were in Florida in the mid-twentieth century. The countryside we saw after leaving Havana was more a testimony to the days when Spain controlled the island, clearing the forests to make way for sugar plantations. Non-Cubans controlled the land, and by the 1950s, during the dictatorship of Batista, foreigners owned 70% of the arable land.
But Cuba is unspoiled in another sense: you won’t find a Starbuck’s or a McDonald’s anywhere. No billboards except those with government slogans. No ads on TV. Very little of the commercial activity that dominates life in the U.S. so pervasively that no space--think national parks, for example--is safe from commercial exploitation.
Lacking much disposable income, Cuban people live modestly. Sure, they want more of the small and big luxuries we take for granted, but for now they mostly have to do without. When that will change depends on when the U.S. decides to remove the embargo and when the Cuban government loosens its restrictions on private enterprise and tolerates dissent.
The people of Cuba speak with nearly breathless excitement about President Obama's visit to Cuba last year, with Michelle and his daughters. But the leadership was actually alarmed by his warm reception. They are fearful of what may happen if they open the door, and given the history, that's hardly surprising. Oppressed for so long by American big businesses, in league with the CIA and the Mafia, they want to be sure that doesn’t happen again. They don’t trust capitalism or capitalists, and as they watch President Trump put Big Business CEOs directly in charge of our government—no more just pulling the strings in secret or financing election campaigns—don’t they have even more reason to fear?
So, I admire the Cuban people for their resilience, their joy in life, their music and art. Deprivation has turned them into a country of MacGyvers. They treasure the care they give each other, their universal health care, free education for everyone through university, a roof of sorts over everyone’s head, enough food to keep from starving. And they seem to like the leveling of incomes enforced by their rules. They nurture their sense of community obligation by requiring all their children to devote time to public service.
We can learn a lot from them, not least to stop believing the myth that democracy must go hand-in-hand with full-blown capitalism. Our capitalism is out of control right now, leading to the inequality that is widening daily. Regulations strictly enforced can keep capitalism in check, but that is exactly what Trump is so intent on removing.
So take a trip to Cuba and see for yourself a country unspoiled by capitalism but also kept in check by too much government and too little democracy.