I began 2003 in Cuba. It's a good practice to launch a new year with fresh insights. Cuba did not disappoint. It was my first visit to the island nation. I did work in economic development and human rights in Latin America for more than a decade, so I had an informed background from which to measure Cuba's social experiment.
But above all, my two weeks in Cuba was like looking into a mirror, forcing me to examine my own values as well as those of U.S. society.
First off, I had to ask myself, what makes for a good society? Most of the positive things I had heard about Cuba's commitment to the poor turned out to be true. I rode a bicycle through the countryside and walked extensively through its towns and cities. Nowhere did I see the shanty shacks I am so accustomed to seeing in the underdeveloped world. Absent as well were malnourished children with distended bellies so common to, say, El Salvador and Honduras. The Cuban revolution has made it a priority to offer a humane lifestyle—literacy and schooling, universal access to health care, and a basic diet—to the impoverished masses. These results are not just propaganda, my investigation showed.
SOME OF THE critiques I have heard voiced about Cuba also proved to be quite true. The government maintains tight control of all legal economic activity. Wages are fixed at a low level for most occupations. I talked at length to a biochemist who now practices massage out of his home. His salary as a biochemist for the state-controlled pharmaceutical industry was around $28 a month. He can make that in a couple of days giving massages. But he lives in fear that he will be caught in an unofficial enterprise. The punishment: a fine and closer vigilance of his future activities.