Do We Need Toilet Paper? And Other Questions I Brought Back With Me From Cuba

“OMG you went to Cuba?! How was it??” The question that everyone understandably asked upon my return.

A full month later, I still haven’t quite figured out how to answer them. Yes, I went to Cuba. Yes, it was amazing and awesome and weird and enthralling and exhausting and I would definitely go back.

I know, I went like two weeks after the Obamas visited so the vibes (and quickly done building facade paint jobs in anticipation of their visit) were extra interesting.

No, I didn’t make it to the Rolling Stones concert -- they played the day before I arrived -- but I did meet a lot of people who went and loved it.

I recently spent a week in Cuba, as a spousal tag-a-long on my husband’s work related trip. One of his courtroom colleagues (my husband is a public defender) is a translator for the court, and happens to be Cuban. This was her second year of gathering a delegation of courtroom people (judges, attorneys - public and private, a mediator, a reporter, and an administrative assistant) to put on a “conference” in Havana.

Gray somehow convinced her to let me join the gang. I think I was actually helped by the fact that she loooves Gray, my husband, who she introduces to everyone as “Fifty”. “Ju know that movie Feefty Shade of Gray? Eetz very important. This is him - Feefty”. (I came to love this woman dearly, and will soon start harassing her about teaching me how to properly cook frijoles cubanos and letting me practice speaking Spanish). I digress.

So, here I am, with a bunch of American law people, in Havana. The three day conference on how American legal systems use translators left my brain exhausted (from listening about the American legal system on the Spanish channel on my translator earset), confused (because I still wasn’t sure what we were actually doing here), and en fuego con preguntas.

Who are the Cuban attendees? What do they do? How much do they get paid? Do they like the Cuban government? Do they like the Obama Administration? Do they want to see the embargo lifted? What would happen to Cuba if the embargo is lifted? Is it true Cubans live on $20 a month? How does that work? They don’t look poor, and Cuba doesn’t look that bad...so why have so many people risked their lives trying to make it the mere 90 miles to the U.S. on make-shift bolsas, or rafts?

I started my Cuban exploration with a lot of questions. And with a lot of frustration with myself for not having done more research prior to the trip. (I did read this article, which I found to be an accurate and educational depiction of what’s happening in Cuba, and which I encourage everyone to read.)

And there were a lot of voices in my head, from the many stories we’re told about Cuba in America and how we're told to think and feel about the communist country and it’s changing relationship with our own, to my own skepticism that Capitalism is the best system.

I got my masters degree in Human Geography at The University of Georgia, which is known for taking what might be considered a more radical approach towards global policies and economics. I studied radical collective ways of producing food and neo-liberalism in food systems and am open to the idea that other political systems might work better than our own.

But I attempted to ignore all of these voices and preconceptions and approach my visit with an open and curious mind.

I could fill at least 150 pages with the thoughts provoked by my week spent in Cuba, but I will spare you and instead do my best to summarize my honest reactions to what I know was a very narrow glimpse of life in that country.

I learned that most Cubans do live on $20/month. Yes, you technically get free food, but the rations only last you about 10 days. To get your food, you have to get to a bodega (commissary) early in the morning on your assigned day and wait in line. If you show up too late you run the risk of the bodega either closing or running out of food before it gets to be your turn. If you miss your day or the food runs out, you are SOL. Better luck next month. And then you have to figure out how to buy food for 10 more days on your $20/month salary. Just because your salary is much lower doesn’t mean necessities are cheaper. A bottle of shampoo can cost you $3. That’s a big spend.

And what about crime? Cuba does not experience much crime, to my understanding. There are no guns, no gangs. Just poverty. (And poverty defined by who anyway?)

Cubans undoubtedly lack in a world that’s used to having too much. But their life expectancy rate is as high as the U.S., and their infant mortality is lower than ours. I am not condoning situations where people live in fear of having their roof collapse on top of them, or where food is so scarce a man can get away with selling old rags as shredded beef (literally ropa vieja). I only question the definition of poverty as a way to challenge people to think about why and how we think about what it means to be “poor”. And the connotations that join “poor”.

On a couple of occasions, we found ourselves walking through the less touristy streets of Havana Vieja. Beautiful buildings with ornate architecture, colors faded to pastels, and colorful clothing drying on balconies, on either side of the narrow street that often smelled like urine and had rubble from some unfinished construction, that doubled as a garbage dump, every which way.

Calling the streets “beautiful” doesn’t give justice to the poverty that exists in them, but calling them “unsightly” or “gross” or “scary” doesn’t fit either. Every street felt like an Anthropolgie magazine, and I was the white asshole in the middle.

Questions I still have, with some semi-answers:

Is true socialism possible in a globalized world? I don’t think so.

Is Capitalism the answer? Duh, no. (Unless you think it is, in which case the “duh” isn’t for you)

Would Capitalism create a better living situation for Cubans? I wish I knew more about the nitty gritty of Capitalist and socialist theory, or that I had a crystal ball. But here are my meager thoughts, take ‘em or leave ‘em:

No. That’s the short answer.

Capitalism would just create a different way of living. A class hierarchy in Cuba already exists, whether Cubans want to admit it or not. I saw neighborhoods (and stayed in one where my casa particular was located) that were clearly wealthier than others, judging by the intact structures of the inhabited buildings, the yards that came with some buildings and not others, and by the fact that a Cuban citizen told me there are more “middle class” areas and residents. This “middle class” consists largely of military and government families, doctors, people who do well selling items on the black market, and people who receive large remittances from family members living in the US. Capitalism would probably just divide the haves and have nots even further.

A Cuban-American that I befriended on the trip told me that people who make a lot of money either on the black market or via remittances have to be careful to not be too showy with their earnings. If they invest in their house’s infrastructure, for instance, neighbors will sometimes call the cops who will show up asking questions about where the money came from to take on such a project.

A transition to a Capitalist economy, or even an embargo lift, might lead to large agribusiness development. Read: large corporations like Monsanto buying up fertile Cuban land and monocropping the shit out of it. Farm operations starting to use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, things they have not been able to afford in the past which has kept their small agricultural operations mostly organic by default.

How else might it change the country?

One of the coolest things we did during our trip was visit La Fabrica del Arte Cubano, an old oil factory turned hipster AF, that is now a nightclub/bar/music venue/art gallery. Some of the exhibited art depicted scenes of what a post-embargo Havana might look like. Flashy old cars on the streets, the beautiful European-esque architecture, and big bright billboards advertising American things like McDonalds, Coca-Cola, scantily clad women modeling for whatever product you’re supposed to buy. It was spot on.

Traveling to Cuba helped me decide that there’s no “best” way to structure society. Any way you structure it there will be pros and cons, and every option is flawed because humans are inherently flawed. It’s like the Hunger Games. You kill one dictatorial head of state and another one that is different, but equally dangerous, appears.

Since goods are scarce, Cubans get creative. If you have coffee, but not enough to last you the month, you add lentils to the beans and grind them up together. If you don’t have a spatula to cook with, you improvise by finding a palm leaf.

I would like to see more of that type of creativity that in the U.S. When we have a lamp or computer or chair that breaks, we are accustomed to throwing the old away and buying a new one for cheap. We have unspoken rules that say we must cook and eat with utensils. A palm leaf isn’t a utensil, dummy.

We must sit on toilets. We must use toilet paper that we then flush down the toilet. We don’t question these day to day things, and my time in Cuba was a great reminder that questioning these daily processes is important. Every day. Sitting on toilets isn’t even good for us! But thanks to capitalism, we have squatty potties to help our bodies sit on toilets.

Many of the Americans in our group were COMPLETELY and UTTERLY distraught that toilet paper was often absent. Their trips to the bathroom became traumatic. One woman paced back and forth deciding how badly she had to go because she didn’t have the option to use toilet paper or wash her hands because there wasn’t any soap, either. Sometimes we experienced the trifecta: no toilet paper, no soap, and no running water.

I felt like the only person who didn’t seem to mind.

One American exclaimed that the Revolution caused all the toilet paper to disappear and lessened the predictably of running water. The implication, of course, being that Cubans would definitely benefit from Capitalism because Capitalism means toilet paper and constant running water.

Unfortunately, in most of the developed Western world this is true. (I say unfortunately because learning to conserve resources might actually be something we should be doing). But a lot of places that follow Capitalism don’t have toilet paper or running water. Many countries in Latin America are technically capitalist, but often experience the same “issues” as communist Cuba.

So yes, I have a long answer to the question "How was your trip to Cuba?" And I might have come back with more questions than answers, but that's what I love most about visiting new places.

Now, instead of basing my opinion on the perspectives of others, I can now look to my own.

And next time I go back to Cuba I'll be armed with preliminary knowledge of my own, which I will hopefully expand upon to dive further into many questions. Perhaps there's a PhD in my future...

Molly Reifield

About Molly Reifield

Talks a big game about overturning The Man by growing her own food collectively & not wearing a bra. In reality, she owns private property, wears bras AND pants and follows the law...most of the time.

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