The Caribbean Conundrum of Cuba

By Paige Welch, Global Co-op

(Any views or opinions expressed in the following article are strictly those of author and do not reflect the beliefs of Northeastern Global Journal.)

Being a Spanish major with an interest in history, I have always dreamed of going to Cuba. The island is a fountain of culture and has played an important role in geopolitics since Columbus landed there in 1492. In addition, it is a forbidden land for most Americans. On January 9, 2018, I landed in Havana and started my work at the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez (Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation). At the moment of my arrival, I reached the apex of my studies as a Northeastern student. I could now make a claim that many Americans cannot and live in a way many Americans have never lived.

Within a week of being at work, I had the chance to meet a leading Cuban economist who has taught at Harvard and Princeton. Before he gave a talk at our workplace, we had the chance to chat. My first question: how do we find eggs in Cuba? He smiled.

A few weeks later I walked to a large farmer’s market and bought the produce I would be using for the week. As I was about to leave, I was confronted by a figure of questionable repute. In the hushed tone of a drug dealer, he said: “I have eggs.”

“No, no thank you,” I replied. “No? I have potatoes,” he insisted. “I can live without potatoes,” I said.

When the Soviet bloc fell in the early 90s, Cuba lost its main trading partner, which made up roughly 85% of the country’s income, as well as the subsidies that the USSR had provided to the Cuban government. Cuba descended into the “Special Period”, the worst years being from 1993 to 1994. During this time, malnutrition was endemic – something that had not happened since before the Revolution – and shortages abounded for basic items like soap.

Exacerbating the damage to Cuba’s situation is the embargo. Now within its 60th year, the embargo not only applies to American companies trading with the island nation, it also applies to companies from other countries that trade with Cuba. Even if a country decides to break the embargo, they can still be deterred from trading with Cuba if pressured by the State Department.

Though grossly oversimplifying, these two main factors forced Cuba to revolutionize its economy and base it upon risk diversification, which means that Cuba will import and export with a variety of companies, not necessarily based upon lowest prices, but rather upon whether or not the company will continue to trade with Cuba. As a result, grocery stores in Cuba never have the same items year-round. This applies not only to foodstuffs, but to most processed goods as well.

Of limited supply also is connectivity, with Wi-Fi being a commodity that is only accessible in certain public parks, and in fewer private institutions. Even when at these venues, the connection is often poor, and webpages stall in loading or do not load at all. While the Cuban government does have a plan in place to extend internet access to its citizens, but in its current state it remains limited.

Having constant access to information and everything else I may so desire in America has led me to be complacent at times. If a web page takes longer than a few seconds to load, I start to become impatient. Even if the internet is slow, I still have the luxury of accessing content in the comfort of my own home. If I am cooking and in need of an ingredient, I can simply buy it at a nearby grocery and there will be shelves of produce, bread, meat, cheese, milk, cereals and every other type of foodstuff imaginable. This is not the case in Cuba.

Living in Havana for the past two months, I have not only learned how to navigate the city, but also the unique situation which Cuba has been in for an extended period of time. By being in a situation where there is a perpetual shortage of food supplies and physical infrastructure, I have had to become more resourceful at work and at home. I know where and how to find things and shop where the locals shops – places where tourists rarely enter and a foreign accent is greeted with surprise.

Through a lack of internet connectivity, I have learned how to multitask and manage my time better. I am less distracted at home and at work by having limited access to the internet; however, my work becomes difficult when I do research and the internet is not functioning. My patience has increased greatly from this experience. Cuba has given me a greater appreciation for what I have at home and at work.