The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Hackneyed Views of Cuba
Douglas Hamilton • 6.11.03

I have no doubt that travel broadens the mind. Not only does it allow you to experience different cultures, languages, ways of living and much more, but it also allows new perspectives to be developed. New opinions and judgements are typically formed as the direct result of travel and these can be used to gain deeper understanding of countries home and abroad. This is all generally for the good. However, short visits to new countries, especially when tourist-based, can also lead to highly impressionistic, superficial and shallow evaluations. This is especially so when perspectives on and information about a country have been heavily distorted in advance by the mass media and political prejudice, whether knowingly or not. Unfortunately, such a situation inevitably arises in the case of Cuba.

There is arguably no other country in the world that has generated such clichéd and hackneyed representations. Indeed, as co-ordinator of the Cuba Support Group in Belfast, I find myself responding on a constant basis to newspaper and magazine articles about Cuba that present distorted, negative and simply incorrect information and representations.

On the back of many short 3-4 week visits to Cuba, I recently had the privilege of living in Havana for nine months. In doing so I was able to immerse myself in the varied delights, hardships and contradictions of life in the Cuban capital. What I experienced was a vibrant, steadfast, humane and ever questioning people, striving to pursue a unique revolutionary way of life and path of development. After more than forty years of an ever tightening economic blockade by the US, the overnight fall of the Soviet bloc and the subsequent disappearance of export markets, Cuba has not only survived, against all external expectations, but has pushed forward its socialist Revolution.

The recent UN Human Development Report 2003 puts Cuba at 52 in the league table of most developed countries in the world, placing it back as a country of 'high human development' for the first time since 1990. In terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, educational enrolment and attainment, doctors and nurses per head of population and many other social indicators, Cuba equals or outperforms many 'developed' countries. Yet, it is important to remember that Cuba remains a 'developing' country in Latin America. That is the paradox. Cuba should not be assessed by visitors and commentators in terms of developed, typically US, capitalist consumerist norms, but against the standards of other Latin American countries. When that is done Cuba comes out extremely well. It's no wonder that millions of impoverished people across the continent look to Cuba as a model for their own future. This paradox of being a 'developing' country, but one with many 'developed' social achievements, also affects Cubans who now have high expectations given their level of education and training.

At a day to day level the priority given by the Cuban government to the well-being of all Cubans is clear through its full subsidisation of many aspects of life. Each person receives a weekly package of free basic foodstuff; all aspects of education from primary to higher level are free and open to all on the basis of ability; health care is free at all levels from visits to the local GP through to major surgical operations; power cuts are still experienced because of energy shortages, but the cost of electricity is minimal; the telephone system is modern, extensive and cheap; public transport is effectively free, with a regular network of buses and 'camellos' costing 40 and 20 centavos respectively for a trip anywhere in Havana, equal to around €0.01, backed up by máquinas, old north American cars which act as collective taxis, similar to black taxis in Belfast, costing 10 pesos (around €0.30); a wide and high quality range of international, especially Latin American, cinema costs 2 pesos (equal to around €0.06); world-class theatre, opera, ballet and all kinds of music concerts cost around 10 pesos (around €0.30); the cost of entry to baseball, the national Cuban obsession, and other sporting events is next to nothing; and there are a range of radio stations and three high quality television stations (one of which is novel in being wholly educationally-based, with another planned for the near future).

These are just some of the aspects of ordinary day-to-day life in Cuba. The issue where most needs to be done, especially in Havana, is housing. Like many Third World capitals, overcrowding remains a problem given factors such as in-migration from the countryside, and a massive refurbishment programme is outstanding. However, almost no-one pays any housing costs, a huge saving in monthly expenditure; something difficult to comprehend in Ireland. One astonishing example of communal social action is the ongoing fumigation of every building in the capital against dengue fever, undertaken by hundreds of young people on a voluntary basis. Dengue fever has been a major killer in other parts of Latin America and Cuba is now the place others go to receive advice and support on how to eradicate the tropical disease.

Cuba's achievements in education, health care, the arts and culture, sport and science can only be understood in the context of its socialist form of development. Cuba is a highly egalitarian society where the differences in the standard of living between doctors, judges, teachers, nurses, office workers and street cleaners are minimal. The sickeningly deep levels of income and wealth inequality inherent in capitalist countries don't exist in Cuba. Cuba's intensely human-based society simply could not have been created under capitalism and are a product of the socialist principles that underlie its Revolution.

Yet, it is true that material resources in Cuba remain constrained largely due to forced underdevelopment from outside, and this is leading to continuing social, economic and personal hardships. However, Cuban society keeps advancing, basing its development on principles and actions designed to benefit all its people and not the profits of foreign transnational corporations or the interests of a small elite class.

Cuba is not a perfect society; how could it be given the continuing and increasing economic, ideological and military aggression it faces from the US, and now the EU. However, in a world of hegemonic US-led neo-liberalism, Cuba continues to show that not only is another world possible (the slogan of the worldwide anti-capitalist or anti-globalisation movement), but that a better world is possible (the preferred slogan in Cuba).

To live in Cuba for just nine months was a truly refreshing and uplifting experience in so many ways; a way of life far removed from the selfish, cynical, corrupt, individualistic and anti-social attitudes that pass for society in Ireland and other capitalist countries today. Cuba demands informed understanding based on fact and relevant perspectives. We in Ireland, as elsewhere, have so much to learn.


Douglas Hamilton is the Belfast Co-ordinator of Cuba Support Group - Ireland and can be contacted at




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

7 November 2003


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Disappeared and Disapproved

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HMP Maghaberry: First Flames from a Tinderbox
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh


Housebreaking Ulster Style
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United Irishmen
Davy Carlin


From A Granny
Kathleen Donnelly


An Enemy of the Republic
Liam O Comain


Some Count, Some Don't
Michael Youlton


If Voting Changed Anything It Would Be Made Illegal!
Sean Matthews


Hackneyed Views of Cuba
Douglas Hamilton


Colombian Trade Unionist in Belfast: Meeting
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2 November 2003


A Memo to Adams: Remember That Every Political Career Ends in Failure
Tom Luby



Anthony McIntyre


Ballot Papers and Elysium
Eamon Sweeney


Republican Prisoners and their Families Put at Risk due to Prison Strike
Martin Mulholland


Trust Without Honesty in the Peace Process?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


The Letters Page has been updated.




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