Cuba is an Anomoly

A trip to Havana seems as if life is not really what it seems to be. Maybe Cuba is the incarnation of living in Alice in Wonderland’s world. The city and the country appear to be in a time warp almost like the 1950s in the US. Although almost all Cubans exhibit genuine warmth, charm and civility, which parts of our own country once possessed and seem to have lost in our current period of social and political upheaval. For a moment it is almost possible while visiting the island 50 miles off the coast of Florida to relive the glowing period of American history when adult couples played bridge, men played golf at the club and drank highballs, usually prepared by the “little woman” before dinner. But the polite and truly caring society of Cuba has a more dismal physical and economic backdrop. Behind it all is an impoverished country rich in natural resources. Cuba, in many ways, has a third world or underdeveloped, crumbling infrastructure where wealth is essentially concentrated in the hands of the governmental elite and the military. But the two groups are synonymous since the military controls upwards of sixty percent of the Cuban economy. Their control ranges from ownership in resorts and real estate to business. There is little room for any private enterprise except for a few privately licensed shops, which sell primarily to the tourists, mostly a large number of Canadians. Shops with items for domestic use are very few and most of what they sell are refurbished or second hand wares. Other commercial items offered for sale are cheap plastic imports with little life use expectancy. For the Cuban visitor, it seems that nothing much happens without the military-government being involved. The range of military control includes the real estate industry and general business activity except for the lucky folks who were issued licenses to conduct trade in a quasi-capitalistic, rudimentary fashion. Currently, the licensing process has been halted subject to analysis by the current government to determine its impact. This situation is likely to remain until Raul Castro’s successor is selected April 2018.

There is no question that the Cuban infrastructure is in literal shambles. Sidewalks are torn up and deep gaping holes are prevalent. Havana’s streets are a continuous labyrinth of trenches with pipes seemingly always under repair and construction. Work seems to occur everywhere at all hours of the day with very little evidence of completion. Waves of small crews descend on repair sites but for some inexplicable reason the jobs never seem to be finished completely except for the sand pile waiting for a few shovels to fill the trench and complete the job.

Poverty is seemingly prevalent with average monthly wages hovering near $50 US per capita. Yet Cuban society is a make-do one where every material has a re-use and purpose. There is literally not any physical material that outlives its utility. Top lids of cans can appear in new uses like hats and purses. Ingenuity and the lack of new automobiles, as any observant Cuban tourist knows, manifest themselves in the thousands of delightfully colorful vintage American autos still traveling the Havana streets. Although these cars may add to air pollution, they are a delight to the eye and add vibrancy to the cityscape. Although many of the beautiful homes and buildings are in sad shape, their vivid decorations speak out to be refurbished and brought to life again.

One of the most vibrant attractions of visiting Cuba is the public art, music and dance on the streets emanating directly from the happy citizens! Under strict state control with subsidy training in the dance begins at the age of five and is provided through college. Centro Nacional de Conservacion Restauration y Museologia, a college in Havana, sponsors an art appraisal course for eager students to learn about valuing art. For years there was an exchange of students desiring to come to the US to pursue their artistic efforts. With the edict of the recent administration many of these students and others wanting to travel from the US to Cuba and back will be denied this opportunity.

Is there a solution for Cuba, its peoples and the economy? Perhaps, if the governmental controls are lessened – Perhaps if private capital becomes abundantly available – Perhaps if advanced technology is introduced and implemented – Perhaps if more new goods are introduced into the economy. These are a lot of ifs and maybes but, hopefully, the perseverance and joie de vie of the Cuban people will triumph over their current social and economic woes!

David Woll, President of Woll Enterprises, Inc., was a program sponsor and mentor for a group of students from the University of California, Berkeley campus, who visited Cuba in mid-December. The group was part of an educational program sanctioned by the US or Cuba????????Ministry of Tourism. The group worked with faculty members from the University of Havana to complete projects intended to improve retail and agricultural cooperative sectors of the Cuban economy. Woll can be reached at 317.727.1577 or via email at

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