By: John Elliott

The poor in Cuba are very, very poor, but it does not feel like a country blighted by poverty – not, for example, like India, where I live. People have suffered a repressive political regime with a virtually closed economy for over 50 years, and the youth have to go abroad if they want the sorts of opportunities that are now available for aspirational Indians at home. 

Practically everyone, including government employees, doctors and university professors, has desperately low levels of pay, but offsetting that in terms of poverty are free health services and education. Some poverty is visible as one travels through rural areas and towns (see Santa Clara street scene below), as is the lack of organized agriculture.

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After an all-too-brief eight day holiday, I came away last month wanting to go again to this welcoming and friendly country. In the towns, many with old squares and streets of distinguished-looking buildings and gaily painted houses, there are cafes and music seemingly everywhere, a sea of color, and a calm that comes from a lack of traffic. 

I was not however visiting as a journalist, and did not have wide ranging interviews, so these notes are the quick impressions of a tourist.

 Don’t say “Cuba” at Miami immigration!

“How long will you be here and where are you going on to?” the US immigration officer asked me when I arrived in Miami for a Kellogg School of Management innovation network (KIN) conference before going on to nearby Havana. 

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Che Guevara sculpture in Havana

“Five days, and on to Cuba,” I replied. “To where?” he asked rather sternly. “Cuba,” I repeated, unthinking. He asked me again, rather more threateningly, still holding my passport and completed immigration pass in his hand.

“Oh,” I said, nervously smiling, “sorry, the Caymans, Grand Cayman” (my onward transit airport). That generated a rather grim condescending smile, and my papers.

Such it seems, is the ambivalence of officials in Florida to their socialist neighbor that the US boycotted and shunned for over 50 years till diplomatic relations were restored last July. Links were severed in 1961, the year that Cuba repelled in just three days a botched CIA-sponsored paramilitary invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south side of the island.

That was followed in 1962 by the Cuban missile crisis, when the risk of a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union was averted in a deal that sealed both Cuba’s independence and the US blockade.

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The towering 1980s vintage Soviet Russian embassy

All of that can lead soft lefties to feel empathy for revolutionaries, celebrating the Bay of Pigs fiasco in a museum by the sea at Giron.

One can instinctively criticize a country that could blockade an island for so long, and also condemn the Cuban Americans who fled, mostly to Florida when Fidel Castro took over, and whose political influence in Washington kept the island isolated.

Another reminder is the mausoleum at Santa Clara of Che Guevara who, with Castro and others, led revolutionaries in 1959 to victory against General Fulgencio Batista, the country’s dictator.