I spent an hour in the supermarket yesterday, and was struck again by the contrast with what we saw in Cuba. As I sipped an early afternoon cup of milky Starbucks coffee, it felt warm and cozy to be roaming the aisles, perusing the cold wall of yogurt selections, the stacks of canned goods, the rows of spices and condiments, the festival of colors in the produce section. The familiar environment and routine of grocery shopping helped numb the waves of distress I've been feeling since the election.
When we first arrived in Camagüey, our bus was stuck behind a truck unloading bags of sugar for a provechos (provisions) shop in a very narrow street. This gave our guide, Yanet, an opportunity to tell us about food distribution as we watched and waited.The system in Cuba is so different from ours, I'm not sure I've completely grasped how it works. Each neighborhood is supplied with basic goods according to the needs of the population: from the perspective of our commerce-based system, we would call it “rationing.” Healthy adults, for example, have less milk assigned to them so that children and pregnant women will get as much as they need.
One shop provides chicken, fish, dairy, and eggs (it has refrigeration); another has sugar, beans, rice, bread, spaghetti, and cooking oil. Provechos distributors are government run, and the people who work there receive salaries. There are also street vendors offering fruits and vegetables they have bought at a central market where farmers bring their produce. These are not assigned, and the sellers earn profits from them.
Education and health care are high priorities in Cuba. All Cubans are entitled to the health care they need and as much education as their abilities warrant. Despite the country's relatively low standard of living, these systems compare favorably with those in “developed” nations such as our own.
Those who attend university pay for it by spending two or three years in community service roles after they graduate. Sports (especially baseball) and the arts receive government support. The cost of attending games and performances is minimal, since players and artists receive salaries. In the short time we were there, we saw three dance companies in rehearsal, toured a music conservatory (high-school), visited numerous private galleries, and enjoyed live music at nearly every meal (well, except breakfast).
People in Cuba live more simply than we do; of course, the tropical climate helps. Also, being there raised my awareness of the cultural conditioning we have here to always want more. “Consumer confidence”counts as a measure of success in the context of the American economic system. Now it seems to me a euphemism for acquisitiveness. Because so many Americans are one health crisis away from losing everything, it makes sense that we would feel anxious about “stocking up.”
Yanet gave a little homily toward the end of our trip about how Cubans don't worry so much about what they don't have, but appreciate what they do have. I try to imagine what it must be like not to worry about health care, education, or shelter (all managed and distributed by the government). And I try to imagine how it could free my spirit to be relieved of wanting, saving, getting, and spending. If this kind of liberation is possible, I would much prefer it to the emotional numbness and fleeting pleasure of shopping!