Monthly Archive for September, 2007

Vale la Pena: It’s Worth It

a distraught school boy in Camaguy by Isaac Holeman.


My academic program here in Cuba revolves around learning Spanish, exploring Cuban culture academically and as a participant, and pursuing an independent photojournalism project. I’ve chosen Cuban Health Care as the subject of my journalism project. Just a few days ago, I was interviewing a prominent Cuban actress and her words struck such a chord with me that I’d like to share them with you.

“I want to tell you a personal story. I am a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in 1992; I had an operation, they did chemotherapy and gave me a medicine called tamoxicin. 1992 was in the Special Period, during which we had nothing. I don’t know why they call it the “Special Period”. “Special” usually means wonderful. But no, it was horrible. Horrible. You guys don’t know the meaning of “nothing”. Sometimes we ate just white rice with oil. And my husband, who is North American, never called his mother to tell her “Mom, we have no money, we don’t have shoes.” Never. He said, “I chose to live here and my problems are my own.” So in ’92 the food ration was minimal.

When they operated on me, all of my coworkers gave me their rationed fish, their rationed chicken- protein so that I could get better. This is worth it. This is worth so much more than money. And I got all of my medical care for free. When I was in the US I had a friend who had terrible cancer and the chemotherapy cost her so much she couldn’t pay for it. The tamoxicin was costing her $499 a month. I took it for ten years for free. I have never had to pay a cent. And now they have me on a drug that costs $800 a month and I couldn’t live without it. So of course there are things that are worth it. There are good things that are worth fighting for.
Nobody has to say “I’m going to die because I can’t pay.” How awful for someone to say “I won’t get treatment because I can’t pay.”And that the US, such a powerful country, doesn’t have a medical system that can take care of the health of its people, well that’s terrible, no?

I know that Cuba has a lot of problems. Tons. I never, ever said that Cuba is perfect. I’m not religious. I don’t believe in perfection. I believe that all human beings have to fight to make life better. This I believe in. And I believe that people are good. And you can’t convince me of the opposite.

I believe that Cuba has achieved a crucial social interaction. We help each other out- everyone. We share, we lend each other clothes. I don’t have much. But if someone needs something I’ll give them everything I have. We have learned in the way to be more human I believe. We know that we have to help everyone and not just ourselves. I think that his has helped Cuba a lot. This is the truth. We have learned that people are different for different reasons, not for racial reasons or religious or sexual. We are more than just that. And these are values that I hope we don’t lose to materialism, this is the spiritual material that we have to fight to maintain. These are so much more important than material values. And I understand material values. I love things, I love them. And I think it’s pretty important to have something to eat, too. But you have to fight more for those spiritual things- the things you believe in.”

Health care in Cuba is far from perfect. The whole country is so poor that they don’t always have money to buy the more expensive drugs, and tourists do get preferential treatment. At the end of the day, however, the structure of their health system says that they have figured out that the people – every last one of them – are the most valuable part of their society. Life in Cuba is imperfect, like life in the US is imperfect, but there are so many things worth fighting for. For example, lets all fight to build a society where “nobody has to say ‘I’m going to die because I can’t pay.’”

The Devil if you Ignored the Details: The Unnecessary Brilliance of Consumerism

Juice, Juice by Isaac Holeman.

The adage you don’t know what you have until you loose it is realized in many interesting ways in Cuba. Some are positive, some are not positive. Some are just weird.

Fruit juice boxes like those pictured above are the fruit drink of choice or necessity in stores and restaurants all over Cuba. It’s the only brand you can get in most places. I think they highlight a very interesting difference between the consumerism we practice in the US and whatever it is they practice here.

Look at the packaging. Functional, familiar, but look at the images. The pictures they are pushing are not fruit. They are subtly unappetizing. The cut in half mango and orange are supposed to be dripping with tangy real fruit juice, which is signified here by the flabby growths. Look specifically at the Mango’s flabby growths, the light source comes from above, a little to the left, and in between the viewer and the box, but the shiny bright spot on the side of this mango obviously indicates that a primary light source comes from the right and perhaps slightly above and closer to the viewer. This primary light source is probably supposed to the be same light that shines on the whole mangos to the left and in the background, but the placement of the three shiny spots is slightly uncoordinated, so each mango seems to have a unique light source. The mango on the right is just doing it’s own thing, I guess they haven’t figured out that you can’t coerce people into buying things that confuse them. A million light sources (see leaves, water droplets as well) for a batch of fruit that should have just grown out in the sun will not bring in the big bucks.

The droplets of dew on the half mango, if you look closely, do not conform to the shape of the mango which means that they are actually dew pellets. In nature (where fruit should come from) I’ve only seen that in the sap of some conifers. Look at the vine the fruit grows on. Have you ever seen a mango tree? Was it a eucalyptus tree?

I can vouch that the juice is very good, and it is probably organic (about 80% of Cuba’s produce is organic, according to a video I watched on peak oil and agriculture in Cuba). I would bet that it is nutritious, but the packaged whole looks so much less natural than the sugar from concentrate+food coloring they push in the US. I guess the poor Cubanos haven’t figured out that people will rarely waste their money to buy more than the can/should consume when so many of a product’s relevant details have been ignored. If they would just open up the economy, the invisible hand of competition would show them that it’s unnecessary to allocate such great resources to managing the quality of the juice. All that is necessary is to pay attention to these few important details that make the pre-purchase experience that much more tempting.

Exploring Authencity, or Choosing not to

Two Strangers on the Malecon by Isaac Holeman.

My Mom once told me about a short story written by a couple that had been budget traveling around Cuba and had some minor fiasco on the street. I think one of of their bag’s broke and some important papers flew into the wind and onto the street. A nice Cuban couple helped them pick up their things, struck up a friendly conversation, and eventually invited them to come to their home for dinner a few days later. After a wonderful dinner and some very interesting conversation, the Cuban couple asked if they traveling couple might help pay for the dinner, Cubans don’t have much money they said. This seemed reasonable, except that the price the Cubans were asking was significantly more than a reasonable restaurant would have charged for the fare. This seemed a little bizarre and unfair to the travelers, but they felt indebted for the hospitality they had received, and it was clear that despite their tight traveling budget, they certainly had more worldly goods to call their own than this Cuban family. They paid what the Cubans asked for the food.

Later, after more witty and exotic conversation, the Cubans began repeatedly mentioning things that other foreigner friends had gifted to them. A stereo from a Canadian family, a TV from England, a load of school supplies for their darling child. Before long it was clear that this traveling couple was also being asked to give great gifts. There was never any real fear involved, not a thought of danger. Just guilt, how foul is that? These Cubans were just being really friendly and then rubbing it in that respective social/economic systems leave people with drastically different access to commodities, often with place of birth being the greatest distinguishing characteristic of the individuals involved. How rude of them to ask for all kinds of things they don’t need, just because they were charismatic enough to very quickly become friends with people who do have those things. Or, how right, perhaps. How is it that people like me develop such a great sense of ownership that we feel indignant when others ask that we, of our own will and expense, put them on an equal playground.

I say people like me because I speak from experience, sort of, maybe. The other night coming home from dinner, one of our friends was waylaid by the classically Cuban conversation starter “wha cantri you fram?” Their child was breathtakingly cute, dancing wildly to the regatton blasting in the distance. The couple were so engaging, we talked politics, religion, and music there on the street while the ladies from our group danced, chased, and hugged their little girl. They also talked about foreigner friends, and ended up showing us the shirt and backpack their Canadian friends had bought for their daughter. I got a bad vibe early and remembered the story above, but my friends were enamored. Before we left they had invited us all for dinner and dancing in their home, told us to bring as many people as we could. They would call to remind us and then would pick us up at the hotel, even though they lived so far away they would need to take hours of bus rides to get to our hotel. When they called to remind us, my friend sensed something very creepy and as of about half an hour ago, we decided not to go have dinner with them. I was sort of expecting to get scammed, but the word scam really doesn’t describe the sick twistyness of it. I still wanted to go, even if to repeat the heinously awkward circumstances of the other traveling couple. Anyhow, I admit relief at not having to risk saying no, or yes, to friends.

ps For those of you who aren’t very familiar with Cuban culture, this set of experiences is no more representative of all Cubans than thieves, pranksters, and neoliberals are representative of all US residents.

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