Hapless Havana

When my grandparents first invited me to go with them to Cuba over winter break, I mentally cast myself in
By Anna M. Friedman

When my grandparents first invited me to go with them to Cuba over winter break, I mentally cast myself in “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.” I wear a clingy red dress, with a red flower nestled perfectly among my tumbling curls, as I sway my hips during a sensual salsa with the film’s heartthrob, Diego Luna. After all, the heroine of “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” was a Radcliffe girl—I could find a sexy Latin lover too, right?

But once I arrived, the Harvard side of my brain got the best of me. I spent more time thinking about Red nations than red dresses.

Social Studies 10 forced me to spend most of fall semester critiquing modern commercial society and reading Adam Smith and Karl Marx from cover to cover. But actually visiting a place like Cuba showed me that the way theory plays out on the streets is just as important as the debates that rage between philosophers.

At first, I saw a place that had fallen apart. Walking the streets of old Havana, I passed decaying buildings in a city that formerly boasted grand, Spanish-influenced architecture. Instead of sunny-colored stucco walls amidst tall white columns, I saw rotting doorways, paintless exteriors, and decayed molding.

But after a few days of speaking with my Cuban friends, I began to find myself impressed with what Cubans did have. The government provides universal health care, education, housing, and food rations. It even generously funds the arts.

And once I focused more on people than on architecture, I saw that economic poverty had not taken a toll on the wealth of Cuban culture. One Sunday, I watched a colorful parade march alongside the gutted buildings of the city’s main street. Dancers in elaborate costumes twirled alongside musicians playing every sort of instrument to the delight of hundreds of spectators. It was as though this parade erupted from the street.

People in Cuba are poor, but for the most part, they are equally poor. Without class divisions, my friends told me, social divisions—like racism and anti-Semitism—don’t exist.

For one second, I thought that maybe a system like this, that eliminates destructive social conflict, was the answer.

So did Karl and Fidel win me over? Not exactly.

As enticing as I found some aspects of the Cuban regime, I soon learned that its advantages come at a high price.

First, the government compromises essential freedoms, censoring citizens heavily. It’s true that the arts are heavily subsidized—but only those that don’t contradict socialist principles. Cubans can only get restricted internet access. Newspapers are essentially the mouthpieces of the dictatorship.

Security guards stood in the lobby of my hotel to keep Cubans out of the guests’ rooms. I found out that the government does not want its citizens to see cable television. It might show them the trappings of more prosperous societies.

Second, Cuba’s regime stifles innovation. I met a taxi driver who told me he left his post as a history professor because he could make more money from tourists’ tips in a day than he otherwise would in a month. Smith’s observation that people respond to economic incentives really seems to hold true in this case. Economic incentives—and sadly, not solely intellectual or spiritual motives—can bring about progress in areas like medicine, technology, and scholarship.

Ultimately, it’s a trade-off. A society can either have complete equality and no social divisions but inadequate resources, or great inequality and social divisions along with the impetus to continually move forward.

I reluctantly prefer the latter. I know that American society requires inequality to some extent. But our ability to progress can eventually close the gap. We just have to figure out how.

—Staff writer Anna M. Friedman ’08 is a dirty dancing concentrator in Pforzheimer House.