The Socialism of Cuba

'¡Patria o Muerte!' screamed a passing billboard on my way to Playa Ancon in southern Cuba, without a trace of irony. I didn't bat an eyelash. Propaganda like this was everywhere, as prevalent as plastic surgery advertisements in Miami or financial services displays in Hong Kong. Clearly the revolutionary spirit was alive and well in Cuba.

Cubans today have a fierce pride in their icons like Che, Fidel, and Cienfuegos, and their faces are plastered on every public surface. These revolutionaries took on the American backed dictator Fulgencio Batista as well as the actual United States, and won, which is an incredible feat that demands recognition.

A common thread in billboards was positive propaganda

Fidel Castro initially presented himself as a rebel for democracy, and only advocated for and implemented socialism after he won the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban socialist economic system has saturated their society in a way I have never seen before. Vietnam is technically communist, but there are still Western brand names and competing shops on every street corner. Cuba, however, has a clear lack of tiendas and markets.

In the early 90s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost the special treatment they received from the Soviet Union as a result of their relationship. Cuba took a massive hit as oil and fuel supplies, animal feed and fertilizer imports declined drastically overnight. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds in the early '90s during this 'Special Period.' I think this shows that the Cuban economy is not sustainable as is. There is still a noticeable lack of traffic even in the most congested areas of downtown Havana, due to a shrinking Venezuelan oil market, as well as the limited number of private car licenses issued annually. Hitchhikers line every highway.

Cruising the highway in old cars because new ones are unattainable

The divide between locals and tourists is vast. We dropped 20 dollars on a meal without second thought, while the monthly maximum wage is the same. Yes, that let that sink in. Cuba has a maximum wage rather than a minimum wage. A driver we hired expressed frustration at not being able to procure diapers for his child, while we whipped out iPads, cameras, phones, and iPods for the 2 hour road trip in his car. A road trip in which we were not able to stock up snacks because there were none available to be bought. How bizarre.

Cuba actually has 2 different currencies to keep the tourists and locals separate- the CUC for tourists, and peso for locals, which cannot be used interchangeably, and must be spent in different establishments. Just like I cannot walk into a Cuban sandwich shop with my CUC, a local Cuban could not come into a bar with their pesos. It was a strange feeling to be eating in a restaurant knowing that every patron was a foreigner. The different currencies keep tourists away from locals, as if the Cuban government doesn't want its people to be enticed by the temptations of Western capitalism and lavish spending, or doesn't want foreigners getting too close with the locals and asking too many questions.

The crumbling buildings make for beautiful photos

The communal spirit of generosity created out of necessity in Cuba is enticing, I won't lie. The streets are so safe as a result of the people being provided for, and visitors don't have to worry about pickpockets or beggars. I felt like everyone I met was a trustworthy individual who had my back (wish I could say the same about Americans).

It is tempting to argue that Cubans are less materialistic and less shallow as a result of these socialist policies. After all, a recent survey found that only 16% of Cubans planned on buying a home appliance in the next year. But is that because they don't want to go shopping for new home appliances, or because they can't? Milk, cooking oil, beef and eggs can be elusive, and it certainly inspires Cubans to be more innovative in providing for their families beyond the government rations accounted for in their libreta. Cubans are more creative and less greedy than other nations out of necessity, not because of their innate virtuous state of being.

Our amazing guide in Vi├▒ales with his son

Technically, the people of Cuba are provided for by their government. Healthcare, education, housing, even food allocations, are all subsidized. But there is a dark side to all of this. Civil rights, a free press, economic choice, and political freedom are non-existent, and many dissidents are currently serving time in Cuban jails. Internet is not widely available or accessible to locals or foreigners.

The lack of choice that Cubans have is appalling. Things I took for granted growing up in South Florida, like choosing how I wanted to spend my adult life, where I wanted to live, or what type of car I wanted to purchase, are completely missing just a couple hundred miles south in Cuba. Many Cubans I met seemed resigned to the idea that that's just the way things are in Cuba, as if it's a non-negotiable reality they have been dealt. Cubans have learned to live in the system available to them as a result.

The Vedado neighborhood of Havana displays old school glamour

Visiting Cuba is inherently an ethical dilemma- when you convert your currency to CUC, the government takes 13% off the top right away. Are you perpetuating this system of inequality, as it is largely tourist dollars that keep the system afloat (as well as massive subsidies from Iran and Venezuela and remittances from the US)?

It is easy to pass judgment as a foreigner. The Cuban government is corrupt and oppressive, period. But, stop! It's not that simple. The United States has intervened in so many Latin American nations that anti-imperialist sentiments are justified. Cubans cling to their independence from American intervention, and it is a source of pride for them. Cuban society is a unique system which is all theirs, and theirs alone.

To read more about the lighter side of things regarding my travels in Cuba, check out my Bookworm Vagabond blog.


  1. Loved reading this, McKenzie! So many great points.

    1. Thanks, yo! I'm gonna write up all the fun stuff on my Bookworm Vagabond blog to show the lighter side of things.


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