A Cuban Reality Tour

When traveling in Central America, I like to have the help of guides from Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE), which offers what I call “Reality Tours.” These tours connect travelers with locals in government and non-governmental organizations to sort out confusing issues of the day by hearing both narratives of difficult issues. I’ve been on four CGEE tours — and hired CGEE guides for private tours on two other trips — and it always enriches the experience hugely. On this trip, we had visits set up by CGEE’s Havana partner, the Martin Luther King Center, and we enjoyed the services of guide Reinier Menéndez. Reinier took us to Afro-Cuban Santeria priests, to communal organic farms, and to a local medical clinic to talk to — and learn directly from — the locals.

Rick Steves and Reinier Menendez

Simply traveling through a country like Cuba for a week comes with a constant barrage of thought-provoking experiences. The American capitalist notices lots of people just sitting around staring at traffic (but perhaps it’s no greater than the percentage of Americans just sitting around staring at daytime TV). While religion is entirely legal in Cuba, locals in this secular state are thankful that the Church doesn’t have the political clout it enjoys in other Latin American societies. To the average Cuban, the Church means the Roman Catholic Church. They view the Church as being a barrier standing in the way of gay rights and the pro-choice movement. And they think of it as an institution historically friendly to the oppressive government, providing that notorious-in-communist-ideology “opiate of the masses” encouragement not to feel the pain of structural poverty.

Group on farm

As a confirmed believer in capitalism (if not the “savage capitalism” that Pope Francis warned against during his recent visit to Cuba), I am struck by the Cuban “work ethic.”  Pay is low…and so is productivity. As locals like to say, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Any foreman knows that if a tree needs trimming on the farm, an incentive of 200 pesos will get no reaction. But a promise that workers can go home early when the job is done works powerfully, as people just want to get back to their families and enjoy a nap. We were told that, for Cubans, the priorities are: #1 party; #2 rest; and then, only if you have energy, #3 work. But things are changing. Older Cubans I met seemed to strive for social goals over personal goals, while younger ones are gaining an appetite for Western materialism and consumption. Everyone sees the siren of capitalism fast approaching — and threatening the laid-back Cuban soul.

Cuban doctor

Meeting with a community doctor, we learned of the passion to have good health care available to all and the trend toward teaching wellness and prevention to the general populace. Chatting with this doctor, who happily took home a paycheck of $50 a month, we learned that Cuba is proud of its ability to export doctors and help other poor countries. Today there are 50,000 Cuban doctors working outside of Cuba.

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