Want to Try Time Travel? Go to Cuba

Cuba is a very different world. It is a land of contrast, prospects, and lost opportunities.


We have just returned from a week in Cuba. Like many Americans, we were curious about a place so long hidden from us and we wanted to see it before too many changes took place. With the death of Fidel Castro and the first openings by the Obama administration (since tightened a bit by Trump), we expected change was coming fast.

Not so fast, actually. For reasons discussed below, any meaningful change on a wide scale is likely years, perhaps even decades away. That was a surprise to us, but on reflection, it should not have been. Cuba is ruled by one of the most entrenched governments in the world. There are some changes afoot, but for all practical purposes the government runs everything and owns everything. Not exactly an environment conducive to change and growth. We were only there a week and with some limits on access, but I  feel  on solid ground with the following conclusions:

There is a lot of good news, to be sure

  • The people could not have been warmer or more receptive. When you do even a cursory review of US-Cuban relations going well back into the 1800’s, such a welcoming reception for Americans is a nice surprise.
  • Cuban culture is alive and well. Music, dance, the arts are all vibrant and present everywhere. Culture is valued by the people and supported by the government.
  • The medical system, while not as sharp as it was some years ago, is exemplary. Even if one doubts some statistics put out by the Cuban government, it is clear that health care is effective and available to just about everyone. Statistics for infant mortality and pregnant women are, for example, orders of magnitude better than ours in the US. This system has it problems, but it works pretty darn well and is a source of national pride.
    • Coincidently, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column a few days ago in the NY Times about the Cuban medical system. It is a good read. If you read it, go on to read the comments that came in as well. Not everyone agreed with his generally positive assessment, including some with on the ground experience. Still, I think the case is made that they have a good thing in this area. See the NYT article at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/18/opinion/sunday/cuba-healthcare-medicare.html
  • The landscape is varied and beautiful, especially the mountains.
  • We noted that the residents of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba took great pride in their cities and their history. It showed, especially in the public spaces.
  • Education is free at all levels and universal. There is, of course, little academic freedom and the texts are surely propagandized. Then again, we have local school boards denying evolution and talking up the good sides of slavery….
  • The famous restored and maintained American cars of the 1950’s and earlier are as impressive as you have heard. Take a look at our chariot in Havana:

There are real problems as well

  • The economy simply does not work. This is one of the few true command economies left on the planet, at the North Korea level. It is bureaucratic and unproductive in the extreme. Things are cheap, but there are shortages of almost everything.
    • One Cuban told us that if they could get 4-5 million people engaged in farming, they could feed themselves and eliminate most food imports. That would be 50% of their population, a completely unsustainable and unnecessary level of agriculture. Farmers only get to sell freely 10% of their produce. The rest goes to the government, at a price the government sets. No one is inclined to work harder or smarter.
  • Infrastructure is crumbling in many areas, especially in Havana. It has shiny areas, but much of the capital is in poor condition. It appears this has long been the case, and recent storm damages have made it even worse. Similarly, transportation is spotty. Horse drawn wagons are a transportation backbone in much of the country.
  • There are generations now who have only known the current system. Add to that the lack of outside information and very restricted travel. This leads to a large number of people who cannot conceive of other economic or social models, in any form. Younger Cubans are beginning to break out of that mold a little. Increased tourism and some opening to outside information sources will help, but any large scale social and economic transition will be slow in coming.
  • As in any totalitarian system, inefficiencies, cruelties, and corruption are in evidence. It appeared to us that the underground economy was important to keeping things running.

Yet, there are hopeful signs

  • A small number of private shops are now allowed to sell arts and crafts, and other commercial ventures are coming. A number of small private restaurants are spreading. We ate at one, after having a meal the day prior in a state-run restaurant. The difference was night and day. It’s a start.
  • The new president is not a Castro, for the first time in 60 years. He is younger and may prove more open, but no signs of that yet. As long as Raul Castro is alive and running the Communist Party, don’t expect much adventuring by the President.
  • A new constitution took effect this year. Is has some protections for the LGBTQ population, limits the president’s term of office, devolves some presidential powers to a newly authorized prime minister, and even downgrades a bit the central role of the communist party.
  • Just in recent weeks, people are authorized to have WIFI access outside of approved government communications centers. We saw lots of WIFI equipment newly sprouted.
  • High quality new hotels are opening, run by foreign professionals, owned 51% by the Cuban government.
  • The door has been opened a bit between the US and Cuba, in spite of Trump’s measures. Groups are travelling in both directions, contacts are spreading. One Cuban told us her only complaint with the US is that we were signing all their best baseball players, ruining their league! Cubans take their baseball seriously. As a young man, Castro dreamed of being a professional baseball player. What if that had happened?

Overall, a fascinating place. What will it look like in 20 years? That is a coin toss.

    Bill Clontz

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8 replies to Want to Try Time Travel? Go to Cuba

  1. So looked forward to this report. I’m hopeful.

    • Same here, Linda. It appears progress will be slower than I had hoped, but lots of potential there. A change in Administrations in both countries would help, no doubt, but the long walk has begun.

  2. Curious what the travel limitations are. Did you have to go as part of an organized “educational” tour? Were you restricted in your movements?

    • We went with a cruise line that included cultural tour elements, which meets the current restrictions. We actually had no restrictions on moving about, talking to people in any of the cities or rural areas we visited.

  3. When we visited Cuba about 6 years ago (via Roads Scholar land-only) we were impressed by their medical system (as noted in Bill’s comments), their food safety net (ration of commodities to all regardless of income), their relatively high paid artists & performers (from tourist fees and purchases). Like so many islands in this part of the world, life is still challenging for the vast majority.

    • Roads Scholars is such a great outfit. They were pretty well the first into Cuba, with good exposure and really solid programs. Great outfit!

  4. We were in Cuba about 12 years ago. We saw much of the same. We were on a “medical supply” trip so got to see some of their health care facilities. They were very good and very effective. There were neighborhood “urgent care center” type of places, then perhaps a city hospital, and then regional facilities for the most difficult cases. The system was also very coercive, so US folks would pretty much hate it. Neighborhood watch people would report neighbors who were ill, and pregnant women who might be at risk during pregnanacies were brought to maternity hospitals and kept there until they delivered their babies. One thing I thought was fascinating is that Fidel had offered free medical educations to any US citizen who wanted one. Problem was that the US did not recognize the education–even though it was quite good.

    • That is a great story, with unique perspective. Thank you for sharing.

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