Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It’s 7 pm on a breezy Tuesday evening. I am sitting in a chair overlooking a narrow street in Old Havana. I look to my right and notice a beige husky loudly barking at its owner, a young couple conversing in a dialect of Spanish that becomes increasingly difficult to follow for non-Native speakers, and witness children play barefoot soccer. The diminishing access to light gradually forces them to retire back to their shabby dwellings.
The architecture surrounding me is antiquated and anachronistic. The windows are broken, the metal on the balcony is rusty and deeply battered down, and the walls are screaming to be repainted. The once grandiose Spanish influenced design is now nothing more than a bundle of slowly deteriorating infrastructure.
The majority of the cars I see on the street were built in the 1960’s. The speedometers, fuel levels, and tire pressure checks are all malfunctioning. The doors are so fragile that only the driver is allowed to close them.
Most of the people live in real poverty. Not a level of poverty that Americans can conceive of. A poverty that appears ubiquitous and cyclical. Where a combination of factors limits basic access to the outside world. Where the concept of wifi or cellular data is foreign, where a portion of one’s basic commodities is purchased from a subsidized governmental store, and where the daily median income barely exceeds a single dollar.
When we go out for dinner, generally, half of the offered items on the menu are unavailable. The restaurant is only able to provide us with what it has been able to get its hands on. And there are no supermarkets, chain grocery stores, or specialty goods providers. It is often not until my fourth attempt to ask for something on the menu when the waiter finally says, “Yes, this is available”.
No one speaks English. The public school system does not require it to be taught. The Cubans have no incentive to learn this language because the tourism industry has been constrained by the U.S trade embargo. Locals don’t think English would benefit them from an economic perspective, because most people believe they will live their entire life without ever stepping foot outside the city walls of Havana, Cuba. They are probably correct.
Despite all this, our hosts have proven to be extremely generous. As a matter of fact, our hostess made me a fully cooked vegetarian meal a couple of hours ago (rice, black bean soup, fried bananas, and a salad comprised of tomatoes and lettuce) and brought it to me with a side of rum. To make this, she probably had to use the majority of her daily income.
I think that the hardest concept for me to digest while concluding my stay in Havana revolves around the notion of the perpetuating poverty trap. From an explicitly visible perspective, I see that one born into poverty in Cuba will remain in poverty until the day one dies. Almost everyone is born into poverty.
When I look at these small kids cheerfully playing soccer until the streets turn dim, barely nine or ten years old, full of life and energy, all I can think about is that this is their home and their lifestyle forever. They will most likely do what their parents do, they will most likely receive as much education as their parents can afford, and they will most likely live how their parents live. The average wage here is $40 for a month. The little boy dribbling the ball down the street will likely never know anything more than Havana.
It has been incredibly fascinating spending about six days here. However, there is nothing beautiful about romanticizing poverty. We are so lucky to come from a liberal country that provides people with at least some sort of opportunity to succeed in the future.