A look at Cuba’s model of wellbeing

Dr. Patricia Arés Muzio

ON many occasions, I have asked my students what might be the principal reasons to support for saying that it’s good to live in Cuba. The majority of the responses refer to universal health care, education, social security. These are precisely the pillars of our socialist model, but they constitute, for many young people, common realities of our daily lives, thus becoming altogether customary, frozen in the popular discourse, practically irrelevant as a result of constant repetition.

I would go so far as to say that there is a Cuban model of wellbeing that has been incorporated with such uncritical familiarity that it has become invisible to us, paradoxically more often noted by those who are no longer here, after having lost it, or by visitors who live in other realities in their countries of origin. In daily life in Cuba, most conversation is generally about the difficulties, above all those of an economic nature. Very rarely is there talk of our assets or strengths.

Some of my professional experiences have led me to think a great deal about our socialism, seen as an alternative culture and civilization. When, as psychologists and other specialists, we were involved in the process of securing the return of Elián González [2000], this issue emerged as a significant one.

More recently, ideas about Cuba’s model of wellbeing have reemerged in my practice as I have conversed with older Cubans who have returned to the island; with children who, as a result of their parents’ decisions, must leave to reside in another country, and young people who have returned from Spain after having experienced being thrown onto the streets there, without money to pay their rent.

I recall that when Elián was in the United States, his grandfather Juanito told him over the phone how he was making a chivichana (an improvised box-car on skate wheels) for the boy to have upon his return. The next day, Elián’s Miami relatives appeared on our television screens giving Elían a life-like remote control car. When his father told Elían his dog missed him, the next day the boy appeared with a Labrador puppy. If he said he had bought Elían a little Elpidio Valdés book, the next day there was Elián dressed up as Batman. Nevertheless, his family’s affection, the love of those waiting for him here, the solidarity of his young classmates and teachers, were more powerful than all the material things in the world.

Conversing recently with an older man who made the decision not to return to the United States after living there for 19 years, he told me, "It’s true, Doctor, you can live more comfortably there, but that's not all there is to life. Over there, you’re nobody, you don’t exist for anyone."

He told me he spent long hours alone in the house, waiting for his children and grandchildren to return from work or school. He was left imprisoned because they told him not to go out, since, according to them, he was too old and they wouldn’t let him drive. The neighborhood, he said, looked like a deserted model town, he hardly saw anyone at all, and no one would take the time for a conversation.

On a visit to see a daughter living in Cuba, he decided to stay. He told me he was exercising in the park, playing dominoes in the afternoons, helping his grandson and two little friends with their homework. He had found some mates from the "old guard" and with money sent from the States, he helped his family here and had enough to cover his expenses. Here are his very words, "Some acquaintances told me I was coming back to hell, but in reality, Doctor, I feel like I’m in heaven." Clearly the lifestyle he is now living is not heaven, but it does offer greater wellbeing.

One day, a young boy was brought to see me, the son of two diplomats, who was on vacation here. He didn’t want to return with his parents to the mission where they were working. He was rebelling, on strike, saying that they should leave him here with his grandmother, that he didn’t want to leave, didn’t like being there. When I asked the parents about the boy's life abroad, they explained that he lived locked up, for reasons of security, and hardly had any friends to play with after school. His cousins, who he adored, weren't there. Since he had been back in Cuba, he was as free as a bird, his parents said, going to the corner park with his neighborhood friends, going out with his cousins, playing baseball and football in the street. He spent the day surrounded by his grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors. During my interview with the boy, he told me that his cousins said he was a fool for wanting to stay in Cuba, passing up the opportunity to live in another country. He said, "When I'm here, I really miss the pizza with pepperoni, but I would trade a million pizzas to stay and live right now in Cuba."

A young man who had returned from Spain told me that he had been left without work and, of course, didn't have the money to pay his rent. The landlady gave him three months to come up with it and when he couldn't, he was evicted onto the street. But the saddest thing was that no one, none of his friends lent him a hand, saying that given the economic crisis, "he would have to figure something out as best he could." He was obliged to return to his parents’ home in Cuba, since his only other option was sleeping in the subway. "In the end, it’s your own people who are willing to take you in," he affirmed.

I've been thinking about this testimony which could very well serve many young people who see nothing good whatsoever about living in Cuba, who only imagine a better life abroad, overvaluing life there as successful, with great opportunities.

I ask myself: What do we have here that is lacking in other places? What did the diplomats' boy, the older man and the young one who returned from Spain, discover during their time abroad, that those of us living here don't see?

Does the lifestyle offered by contemporary capitalist societies truly constitute a model of wellbeing, despite being sold in the mass media as the promised dream of progress? Are we talking about the good life or living well? Of a life full of things or a full life? Is it necessarily economic and technological development which guarantees personal and social wellbeing?

I will attempt a synthesis of these professional experiences to shed light on what I believe are some of the fundamental elements of Cuba’s model of wellbeing.

First place: the feeling of inclusion, of not living anonymously

This is an issue of profound spiritual and ethical connotations. When you arrive in a Cuban neighborhood and ask for someone, generally you are told, "He lives in that house."

All Cubans have a name and a life story because we all belong someplace, be it a family, school, community or workplace, and have social participation. We have all assumed responsibilities during our lives, attended neighborhood meetings, visited the family clinic, voted in the same locale, bought our food at the same markets or had the same person pick them up for us. Surely, at some point, we've all said, "The same faces everyday..." but that is precisely where a vital element of great solidarity and humanism resides.

Social anonymity - which the grandfather I interviewed described when he said "You don't exist" - is far removed from the way we live in Cuba. It is the experience of living without a place of your own, without being recognized or noticed. The opposite is not necessarily a physical place, but rather a symbolic one where there is belonging and participation, a place that gives meaning to life. Living 'nowhere' is feeling isolated, alone, strange and this is one of the problems the world currently faces. Even places where many people co-exist are no longer meeting places, but rather true nowheres. It is incredible that in a subway where hundreds of people see each other everyday, few say a single word, most showing more interest in their technological media than in human interaction.

Other non-places are airports and malls, cathedrals to consumerism. Many people around you and absolutely no contact. If you fall, people hesitate to help you up, since so many laws exist to supposedly protect people, from an individualistic point of view. People are afraid of being charged with sexual harassment if they touch you. Non-contact and indifference are legislated.

Today, the social reality in other countries has left people more excluded than included. Given the existence of social inequality as a consequence of Cuba’s current economic reality, our policies promote social inclusion in an effort to overcome differences of gender, ethnic origin, physical ability and sexual orientation. Cuba, as a social system, is attempting to construct a world in which we all belong and in which spontaneous human reciprocity is promoted by the very conditions of life. In other geographical locations on the neoliberal world map, people are divided by class, interpersonal relations are eroded by a variety of differences and some are separated from others by invisible borders, which damage cohesiveness and participation.

Diverse areas of socialization

Areas of socialization are important in life, social structures are a resource and support for everyone, given that it is within them that people can develop their full potential. Currently, families live in isolation in many parts of the world, and the higher the standard of living, the greater their cloistered lifestyle. Nobody knows their neighbors, who is who; within the home members do not have much interaction, given that the technological invasion is such that a father can be chatting with a colleague in Japan and not have the least idea what is happening with his son in the adjoining room. Studies in various countries have revealed that the daily average of direct conversation between parents and children (particularly fathers) does not exceed 15 minutes.

One of the major impacts of the current hegemonic capitalist model is lack of family time or other community areas; during the week the family as a group does "not exist." Long and intensive working days, multi-occupations in order to meet ever-growing consumer demands have banished former family rituals and traditions. Psychologists and sociologists have stated that the greatest impact of this reality is infant isolation and the absence of links with older adults. Many middle or upper class children arrive home from school without seeing an adult face until late in the evening, or have a child minder who provides food but who cannot supplant the affection and attention of parents.

Technology has appeared as an antidote to solitariness, but lacking restrictions imposed by adults, this can lead to an addiction to video games, increase violence and stimulate early eroticism. Access to public places, streets and parks as meeting places are infrequently available for children and adolescents, given the lack of citizens’ security. Space and time universes in the urban network directed toward youth are perceived by adults as places of threat and danger rather than places for recreation and the construction of social ties. In Cuba, parks and plazas continue being areas of socialization for different generations.

Cuban families are interwoven within social networks of interchange, with neighbors, organizations, schools, relations, and including the émigré community. Characteristic of the Cuban way of life are socialization areas, or a social network in which nobody is excluded or unnamed. I would say that, in addition to the family as home, the basic nucleus of Cuban society is the social and neighborly interchange network, which represents one of the major and invisible strengths of the Cuban model of wellbeing. It is here where the greatest success of the social process is located, taking the form of social solidarity, social containment, constant social interchange. This capital is only perceptible to those who lose it or embark on a different lifestyle outside of the country.

In spite of unresolved economic difficulties and problems, the family exists in Cuba. Family life becomes intensive after the school or college day, when children and students begin their family-community life. Family life in Cuba does not take place behind closed doors. Those doors are also frequently opened to fumigators, neighbors, family nurses, grassroots leaders or self-employed vendors. People have to leave their homes daily, to go to the store or collect food items from a neighbor, dispose of the garbage, visit the pharmacy, fetch the children from school. Family life in Cuba is multi-generational, persons from all age groups interact and older adults do not live in senior citizens’ homes, their real place in general being the community.

Social solidarity as opposed to individualism

In the present day international arena, individual wellbeing is given greater importance than social wellbeing. The predominant economic development model places people before the desire to live "better" (at times to the cost of the rest) and above collective wellbeing. The discourse is, "I’m not doing anyone any harm, I don’t want anyone interfering in my life, I like it, it’s good for me, it’s my body, my life, my space," and electing a conduct which will maximize their benefits and income. "We" has been replaced by "I." Egoistic conduct in the present hegemonic world is identified and praised as "instrumental rationality," when in real terms what this rationality conceals is great social insensibility.

Social solidarity exists in Cuba, although we are currently living in a kind of parallelism between solidarity conduct and the insensibility of certain persons. The socialization of transport, or the botella (hitching a ride), for example; plus making neighbors part of one’s family, sharing neighborhood private telephone lines, passing on school uniforms and certain medicines, offering one’s house as a temporary classroom in the wake of a hurricane, are all examples of cooperative interchange. A young girl studying at the Lenin Senior High (a weekly boarding school) told me that her group of friends equitably shared out everything they brought from home and thus all ate the same, independently of whether some brought more and others, next to nothing. The most important aspect was friendship and sisterhood. This was a generalized practice.

Creativity and collective intelligence

In Cuba, in addition to conversing and having multiple social interchanges, we have the luxury of serious discussions with a number of people. Everyone knows something about something, everyone can express an opinion or have good ideas. Cubans have a political culture, a sports culture, and others are well informed about art. We have an accumulated cultural capital, part of our social heritage and invisible wellbeing. We are not an ignorant people, given the educational levels attained. Cuban men and women are impressive in their capacity to converse, express ideas and beliefs. One of my major problems as a clinical psychologist attending to patients is that time flies, because we are used to conversing. Some people bring me a written list so as not to forget something they want to say. We are used to giving ourselves time and this has become a luxury in an age when nobody has spare time, where the hurried syndrome is apparent.

During visits to give lectures in Latin American countries or in family study classes I have taken there, students express a family-social reality which leaves me perplexed, on account of the burden of accumulated social problems which cut across social class. From what I hear, I have realized that we are light years apart, because the issue is not an economic one, but one derived from ignorance; accumulated mental poverty; social stigmas; class, gender and race prejudices; violence against women; magical solutions to problems which lack any scientific basis; child sex abuse; polygamy; genetic defects resulting from irresponsible sexuality or incestuous relationships; all of these are daily problems. They are problems associated with social neglect, the absence of social prevention programs. What is daily life for them is the exception for Cubans.

As a professor, I feel that our population is educated and developed and we live that almost without realizing it. Although the quotidian may seem insignificant, it is the great backdrop of history. Young émigrés usually become aware of a very distinct social reality with which they have to do battle.

How to promote the cuban model of wellbeing?

The objectives of Cuba’s new economic model include increasing productivity. The major challenge of this model is to strengthen our proposal for wellbeing, which represents an alternative to the dominant anti-model, a concept shared and reiterated by virtually all indigenous peoples on the continent and in the world. This concept comes from a long tradition within diverse religious manifestations.

All of these visions, including the Cuban one, is that the global objective of development is not constantly having more, but being more; not amassing more wealth, but more humanity. It is expressed in terms of living well instead of better, which implies solidarity among all, reciprocal practices and the desire to attain or restore environmental balance and at the same time improve the living conditions of the population. However, improvements in living conditions are not going to resolve the problems of a social nature we have accumulated. The economic dimension cannot be isolated from the social, cultural, historical and political dimensions, which endow development with a comprehensive and interdisciplinary context, in order to recover the sense of wellbeing and decorous living as a fundamental objective.

One does not have to be a social scientist to notice that, apart from living conditions, there are many families in Cuba who, more than material poverty, are mired in spiritual poverty. Some families suffer from mental poverty expressed in life strategies distanced from the most elemental decent conduct, in consumer habits removed from the country’s realities, close to having surplus objects, removed from shared wellbeing in their aspirations. This is the source of the culture of banality and frivolity reflected in the current hegemonic model.

The accumulation of material problems arising from the acute economic crisis of the 1990’s has substantially deteriorated values at the social level. Values are not principles, but must be accompanied by behavior to avoid them losing their effectiveness. If practices contradict principles, then we are facing a crisis of values.

Cuba is not removed from the hegemonic influences of the current unipolar and supposedly global world. We must continue trying to build an alternative model of wellbeing, despite all the influences which generate the colonization of subjectivity; one of inclusion, despite the modulating effect of our social policies. Ideals are valueless in the market, only consumer capacity. Non-consumers become "unrecognized" human beings, excluded from any kind of social recognition.

In the present-day world, there is an over-saturation of information, some of which is very good, but a large volume which is plagued by mediocrity and superficiality. The media of the current hegemonic model foment banality with the aim of selling more. We are crammed with entertainment, soap operas, series and violent movies which possess incredible enchantment because they entrap, but we run the risk of being drawn into idleness and addiction (to drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, easy money, games of chance, video games).

When the Nobel Peace prize winner Gandhi pointed to the seven capital sins of contemporary society he was precisely referring to the global context in which we are immersed: riches without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without utility, commerce without morality, science without humility, adoration without sacrifice and politics without principles.

In general terms, publicity and the market associate wellbeing with pleasure, with being successful, having status.

It is a fact that if we do not have a strong culture, the tendency to think that wellbeing lies in having and letting ourselves be ensnared by consumerism grows like a weed. We are subjecting ourselves to ignorance. The ethic of being requires a moral foundation, training, family education, an education of greater magnitude in general, and that is what we have to promote as a society.

Fomenting social solidarity

With the strengthening of self-employment in Cuba, the community signifies a vital area for many families. Family-community-organizations-work are fortified in their links. However, new social landscapes constitute an excellent opportunity for strengthening community life, in addition to promoting work to the benefit of shared wellbeing. Cuba contributes the difference in the context of solidarity and the social responsibility we have incorporated.

It is necessary to promote a culture of solidarity and social responsibility which will serve as an antidote to the penetration of the culture of the market. It is important that people maintain their solidarity ethics, that the collective project does not fragment.

Fortifying community areas

Families and the community have increased in importance in Cuba as scenes of life. When visitors observe the community way of life here, they sometimes comment that life in their country used to be like that, but for more than a decade now, people have been living behind closed doors. And houses are empty during a large part of the day. In the main, this is due to the emergence of new technologies, ever-increasing hours of work, more frequent changes of job and home, ever-growing and more densely populated cities. The exacerbated growth of individualism is making it increasingly difficult to have a sense of community. Community has been reduced to the minimal family nucleus, and in these circumstances it is very easy to fall into isolation, which brings with it loneliness and depression, creating an extensive social collapse, with results as drastic as increased violence, drug abuse and mental illness.

When people of all ages, social and cultural groups feel a sense of belonging to a community, they tend to be happier and healthier and create stronger, more stable and cooperative social networks. A strong community contributes many benefits, both individual and to the group as a whole, thus helping to create a better society in general. The great challenge is not to close the doors, not to lose sensitivity toward others, the neighborhood and the environment, to continue being concerned for the common good.

Different forms of insertion in the economy have not noticeably deteriorated the existing social tissue, Cuban society is not a stratified one of social class, but woven together in family, neighbor and social networks, maintaining an ethic of solidarity.

One important aspiration is to find innovative solutions within the community for many existing social problems, fundamentally based on the concept of the community empowering such solutions. For this, greater community dynamism is needed at the local level.

It is important to maintain citizens’ involvement in social life, to preserve caring for these areas, respecting senior citizens, children, women, people with disabilities and above all, maintaining a sense of social responsibility in educating younger generations.

Taking into account all these aspects, I believe we have a great social responsibility to uphold the Cuban model of wellbeing, that the country has unprecedented conditions for marking the difference, which is precisely by continuing to resist the colonization of culture and subjectivity, and that the great challenge is to continue proposing other models of human beings and collectivity which genuinely lead to the paths of true humanization.

(From: Granma Internacional)