My husband and I recently returned from three and a half weeks in Cuba. We take an annual holiday like most families, and each year we like to go backpacking in a different country. This style of travelling allows us to experience the local culture(s), life and the unexpected. While the resorts are nice, and we did enjoy a couple of days in one, I still prefer sitting in a local square taking in the atmosphere while eating something delicious from a local food stand. In Cuba, it was delectable ice cream, vibrant sounds of a dominoes game, maracas, singing, people passing by and the constant aura of want versus need.
It was that last bit, the difference between want and need that caused me much reflection as I toured the largest Caribbean island. People don’t have much by way of material goods in Cuba, but they have much more than many of their Latin American neighbours. For example, in Mexico and Peru I couldn’t walk three steps without being approached by a school-aged child selling cigarettes or trinkets. Sometimes one of their brothers or sisters was going to school while they worked to pay for that education. Education is, in my view, a need. Every child should be in school. In Cuba, every child was.
In downtown Vancouver, you can’t go one block without seeing someone who is homeless although housing is a basic need. In Havana, I did not see a single person sleeping in a doorway, alley, nook or cranny. Sure, the exteriors and often the interiors of many buildings in Havana are in disrepair, but don’t judge a book by its cover — or a building with chipped paint and crumbling molding. Inside, you will likely find comfortable furniture, frescoed walls and a solid roof. Not much, but more than a sleeping bag, some card board and shopping cart.
Education, food security, housing, health care: everyone has them in Cuba. Fancy cars, flat screen TVs, laptops, and gourmet cuisine, on the other hand, are rare. But even more rare than a good pizza, was talk of elections.
Although my Spanish is limited, I did get the chance to speak with a few Cubans about their national political scene. Needless to say, no one spoke about previous or upcoming election campaigns, nor did they speak about the debate between national political parties. These don’t exist in Cuba.
Contrary to usual BC political chat, young people expressed frustrations about being unable to travel while others believed in the Revolution and looked up to Che Guevera and Fidel Castro as exceptional liberators.
This difference of opinion alone can lead to an interesting query about a society’s need for democracy. Some may argue it isn’t necessary for a society to function well. My view is that people need democracy more than they need a dictator. And here lies the most interesting issue for Cuba’s future. Change is inevitable, but whether that change will result in democracy or another revolution or another dictator is the question. And so I kept asking, if Cubans need change, what do they want. On this front, no one answered.
Michelle Mungall is the NDP MLA for the Nelson-Creston riding