Will Patten: A glimpse of Cuba

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Patten, a retired Ben & Jerry’s executive and former executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

In January I fulfilled a long-held ambition to sail to Cuba. My “permission slip” said I was a journalist. And so, since my return, I’ve been pondering how best to report on my assignment. Some early observations were easy.

  • Cuba is very quiet. Generally, there are few cars on the highway, boats in the water, planes in the air. No military, minimal police and no sirens. No guns, very little crime.
  • Like the United States, Cuba was born of an idealistic revolt against oppression and, like the United States, the government strives mightily to maintain that idealistic fervor with patriotism.
  • Cubans are huggers and touchers. Voluble, passionate, caring.
  • The vintage American cars that look so fine cruising down the Malecon have all been converted to smelly diesel engines with failing exhaust systems.

Other observations of Cuba were slower to come into focus.

Very little money circulates through the Cuban economy. According to UNESCO, absolute poverty measures poverty in relation to the amount of money necessary to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. If that is true, there is no absolute poverty in Cuba. Everyone is fed, clothed and sheltered. The literacy rate is 99.8 percent (U.S. is 86 percent). Health care is free and available to everyone.

Relative poverty, measured against a socially acceptable level of income, is rampant. On the other hand, what a socially acceptable level of debt? The average American household owes $90,000. Cubans have no debt.

  • I was surprised that the American dollar was only worth 87 CUCs (Cuba’s convertible currency) while the Euro and Canadian dollar were worth 97 and 98 CUCs. But then I realized that without a trade relationship, dollars were more of a speculative investment. They’ll take them but in big denominations only.

Americans, like the dollar, are also devalued in Cuba. Our government has spent 60 years trashing their economy and they remember. They find us interesting but nothing special; a tiny part of their tourist traffic but an enormous part of their history.

So while many of us are rushing to visit Cuba now before America rescues it with our consumer economy, I really don’t think there’s any danger of that happening. Americans have nothing to teach the Cubans.

  • A month after my return from Cuba I read an article by Jonathan Aberman in the Washington Post on artificial intelligence (AI Will Change America. Here’s How). Alberman’s article includes this: “Where are humans to go when most things they do can be better performed by software and machinery? What happens when human workers are not users of technology in their work but instead replaced by it entirely?”

From our very first contact with Cubans, when 10 different people had roles in our clearing customs and multiple carbon paper documents were completed, it was clear that in Cuba, if any job can be done by three people instead of one, it will be.

Technology is driven by the need for productivity. But productivity is not a driver of the Cuban economy; employment is. Maybe the Cubans have something to teach us.

Cuba was as I had imagined it. The people are outgoing, warm and happy but they know that change is coming. As a professor at a Cuban university explained to me, “We know that change is coming. Like New Orleans before Katrina, we don’t know if our dikes will hold.”

VT Digger, March 14, 2017

 

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