Cuba Through My Lens

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Che Memorial in Santa Clara, Cuba. (Photo by Carlos Jiménez Flores)

I am currently in Cuba. I have been here over a week on a mission with a group from the United States who are part of a network of non-profit housing developers. I have been to Cuba numerous times before on different missions. However, this was my first on a housing one.

I have learned a lot on this particular trip. It was an ambitious schedule. The grueling itinerary included the cities of Havana, Las Terrazas, Viñales, Pinar del Río, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. Basically, a city per day. I was able to see every type of housing from urban to rural areas.

It was humbling to see some of the poorer rural houses. A reminder of my maternal grandparents’ home en el campo de Juncos, Puerto Rico. A small wooden house con un techo de zínc (I loved the sound of rain beating on that metal roof). No electricity, which meant no television, no radio, no lights. (The day started when the sun came up and ended when it went down. At night we used lanterns.) No running water, which meant no shower, no bath, no sink, no bathroom. (We bathed in the river, used the outhouse, brought water from the river to wash everything, walked a kilometer to the natural spring to get drinking and cooking water.) These childhood memories brought back a sense of familiarity when we traveled outside of Havana. The difference being that rural dwellers in Cuba have running water and electricity.

Walking the streets of Old Havana reminds me of Old San Juan. The difference being that Old Havana needs a lot of work. Most buildings need repair and paint. There are some sections that have been restored and they look beautiful. Most people in Cuba own their homes, whether it be a house or an apartment. Those who own a house, also own the land it is on. Those who own an apartment do not, obviously, since there are multiple owners in a unit. There are no association dues, so if something needs fixing in the building or around the property, the government takes care of it.

Inside a building in Old Havana. (Photo by Carlos Jiménez Flores)

Inside a building in Old Havana. (Photo by Carlos Jiménez Flores)

There is a lot of construction going on in Havana, which is mainly due to the anticipation of the arrival of President Obama in the coming weeks. There is a lot of preparation currently taking place. Cuba is very excited about Obama’s visit, which is the first visit by a U.S. President since Calvin Coolidge almost a century ago. It is all over Cuban talk radio. Word is Obama will be making some big announcements about American travel to the island, the use of American dollars in Cuba and Guantánamo. There is also a lot of movement at the sports complex, which will host a Rolling Stones concert at the end of the month. They are expecting a crowd in excess of one hundred thousand.

Whenever I return to the U.S. from Cuba, I always get sick. It never fails. Every single time. I eventually realized why after the first couple of trips. It is because of the Cuban diet. Everything Cubans consume is organic. There are no pesticides, no chemicals. There are also no fast food restaurants. Whether you eat at a hotel, restaurant or someone’s home, every single meal is organic. To be honest, I am not health conscious. I do not count calories or go to the gym. But I am aware that what I am putting in my body back home is harming me. I was impressed when we visited an urban farm in Havana. They were growing all kinds of vegetation. It is an experiment that, if it goes well, will be duplicated in other urban areas throughout the country.

My favorite place to visit was Las Terrazas. A community of one thousand residents about two hours from Havana. It is one hundred percent eco-friendly and self-sustained. They generate their own energy and farm their own food. Unlike Havana, the houses are beautiful. No wear and tear. Gorgeously decorated with vibrant colors. It is a very tightly-knit community. What I found most interesting is that in order to live there, you must either marry someone already living there or be someone who can contribute positively to the community. An elected panel of representatives of Las Terrazas makes those decisions. For example, if the community is in need of a doctor or teacher to replace someone who has left, then any doctor or teacher interested in living there would get priority.

Las Terrazas (Photo by Carlos Jiménez Flores)

Las Terrazas (Photo by Carlos Jiménez Flores)

I was most impressed by the city of Viñales. It is the city with the most business owners. In Cuba, people are not allowed to buy property to build a business. For the most part, people are not allowed to buy additional property at all. Since the revolution in 1959, Cubans were not allowed to have their own businesses. That, however, has changed. Cubans can now open businesses in their own homes. Most residents in Viñales have expanded their houses by adding bedrooms and renting them to tourists or visitors. They operate like a small bed and breakfast. The second popular business is owning a restaurant. The restaurants we ate in were decorated nicely, employed staff and had great food. This change has been a huge boost to the local economy.

Trinidad was special. It connected with me, spiritually. It is very rustic. An antique city. Very beautiful. The locals were gracious. Great food, great music, great history. This was another city that, unlike Havana, did not need a makeover. Trinidad is simply a flawless gem. Kind of like an Old Havana vibe without the clutter, the noise and the deterioration.

La Trinidad (Photo by Carlos Jiménez Flores)

Trinidad (Photo by Carlos Jiménez Flores)

I was walking back to the bus after taking pictures of the neighborhood, when I was stopped by two women who lived nearby. They knew I was with the group. When I greeted them in Spanish, they voiced their displeasure with our driver. I asked what happened. They were angry that our driver told them they could not beg our group for money. They were upset he told them to step away from the bus as our group was exiting. I missed the exchange because I was in the back of the bus when it happened. The ladies then said it was unfair of him to take this action because he makes tips from driving the bus and so does the tour guide, I am paraphrasing. It surprised me, I must confess, that the ladies viewed the exchange the way they did. Not the part about the driver not allowing the ladies to panhandle. He was merely taking care of the tourists he was assigned to. What surprised me is the disconnect in the ladies’ perception between our driver working twelve-hour shifts for eight days straight and his earning of tips.

“How dare he keep us from begging for money, when he gladly accepts tips from those same tourists!”

Then it hit me.

Those ladies live in a socialist country. Yet, they did not take advantage of a system that pays their education. They had the opportunity to study any subject, be in any field, with no loans to pay back. They get free healthcare, vision and dental. Yet, by the look of their mouths, it is obvious they chose not to take advantage of that opportunity. They did, however, complain that the government was not giving them enough free food.

Now I was forming a hypothesis.

There is a certain percentage of the population that will always choose to underachieve. They will be “the beggars, the homeless, the panhandlers, the whiners, the moochers, the lazy, the unmotivated.” It does not matter where the person was born. If the individual is unmotivated, then it matters not whether the person lives in a socialist, democratic or capitalist society because they will always be unmotivated. The unmotivated are the bottom bracket of every society. In the U.S., the unmotivated are those who mooch off of the welfare system. They are the panhandlers, the beggars, the homeless (excluding the mentally ill).

Then I started paying attention to everyone else. Most Cubans are hard-working. They receive all the perks a socialist government supplies and earn a salary of roughly 240-420 Cuban pesos which is about $20-40 per month. Although they are barely making ends meet, they are complacent. This is the majority. This is the workforce. In the U.S., the complacent are the blue collar, the farmers, middle America, the 9-5 Monday through Friday folks, the living check-to-check people. Combined, the complacent and the unmotivated, make up 94% of the U.S. population. I will argue the same goes for Cuba.

What makes up for the other 6%? Well, just like in the U.S., there are wealthy people in Cuba that make up the 1%. Do not be fooled by the definition of communism. The wealthy do exist. Chris Rock defined it best when he said, “Shaq is rich” (we all know he has earned millions), but he added, “I don’t want to be rich. I want to be wealthy. The guy who signs Shaq’s check is wealthy.” There it is in a nutshell.

As for the 5%, those are the people who are driven. In Cuba, I saw many examples of driven people. The people we met who had a restaurant open to the public, in their house, are driven. The individuals that expanded their houses and built extra bedrooms for rent, are driven. Those who have businesses in their houses, of which I saw many that included —hair salons, barber shops, repair shops, food markets— are driven. Although our bus driver seems to hold a position of complacency, he is driven. Let me explain. He used to have a 9-5 Monday through Friday job. However, he was dissatisfied. The status quo is kryptonite to the driven person. So he left his position and began working for the tour company as a bus driver, knowing that if he worked hard, gratuity would exponentially compliment his salary. He had a vision, set a plan and executed it. That is my definition of driven. In the U.S., the driven are the individuals that earn $100,000 a year or more. I will also include those driven individuals on their path to that six-figure threshold.

That is my epiphany. No matter what country or type of government one lives in, there will be four types of people: the wealthy, the driven, the complacent and the unmotivated. I do believe there is upward and downward mobility within the categories. One can go from complacent to driven, and then to wealthy. As one can go from wealthy to unmotivated. However, I will add that most people will stay within their bracket for an entire lifetime.

There is much discourse about the undocumented in the U.S. Most of it negative. There is a belief that those who enter the country illegally mooch off of the system, dry up limited resources and commit criminal acts. My observation suggests that unmotivated and complacent individuals do not have the desire, tenacity or the will it takes to make the sacrificial journey. The wealthy will opt for legal entry, which leaves us with the driven. I subscribe to the theory that the undocumented in the U.S. are driven.

The undocumented had a vision, made a plan and executed it. By nature, a driven person is motivated, therefore, they would not mooch off of the system, so no welfare for them (even if they could get it). Although some politicians and media personalities have convinced a big fraction of the country’s population otherwise. They are in this country to work. That does not mean “they” are taking our jobs, as some are claiming. That is absurd. No undocumented worker is coming in and instantly hired as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, or what have you.

The undocumented is the work force that does the labor no legal citizen wants to do. (Ask Florida farmers what happened to their crops the time their state clamped down on the hiring of the undocumented to work their fields.) Deport the estimated twelve million undocumented in this country and some parts of the nation will shut down and not recover. The government will also lose billions in tax revenue. Yes, the undocumented pay taxes contrary to popular belief. Cubans who defect or make it unto U.S. soil benefit from the Cuban Adjustment Act passed by Congress a few decades ago, which costs our government millions of dollars per year. It is time for that law and the embargo to go.

The lifting of the embargo of Cuba by the U.S. is long overdue. It was and has been a disaster. The ones hurt the most by it are the people in both countries. Ask the farmers in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the entire Midwest, who were hurt most when the embargo eliminated their top buyer of farm produce, which was Cuba prior to 1959.

Cuba is beautiful. The people are gracious. The food is fabulous. The culture is rich. My fear is that when the embargo is lifted, Cuba will succumb to the inevitable American invasion and lose its magic. Cuba is not prepared for the massive waves eager to visit the island. There is no infrastructure in place to handle the volume. I am grateful that I have been blessed to experience Cuba before that time comes. I suggest you visit Cuba now.

Carlos Jiménez Flores

Carlos Jiménez Flores

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Carlos Jiménez Flores is a storyteller, filmmaker and poet. He is a graduate of Northeastern Illinois University with a degree in Human Resource Development and Sociology. He currently resides in Chicago.

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1 comments
RadamesSuarez
RadamesSuarez

That writer is a real piece of work. He makes an analogy between beggers in Cuba and underachievers and unmotivated people in the USA. Cuba is a fascist tyranny with socialist trappings that controls the laws of supply and demand, that tells you what profession you can study and if you can go to college ( only good socialists need apply), where even a brain surgeon barely makes $60.00 a month, and where even the hardest working small business owners are so limited by incredibly intrusive bureaucratic laws and onerous taxations that most end up losing their investments, yet he doesn't understand why Cubans might be unmotivated and chucks it off to plain laziness.