This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. . . . In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.
–Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Somewhere in my experience in Cuba, each of our travelers have had some type of epiphany, some rising awareness of a different reality. I’m not here speaking of the “Cuban Reality” which I recently wrote about in attempting to bring my Cuba chapter to a close, but something more personal. As I chatted with my new friends, we found new understandings of what we once believed and affirmations for what we had always expected.
To illustrate, on one of our last breakfasts in Havana, our guide Beatriz asked us somewhat bashfully if what she had seen on the hotel televisions was true, that the cosmetic products advertised could actually make women look younger. Moisturizers are rare in Cuba, and the wind and heat work hard on the skin of women. But we had to tell her that many advertisements are persuasive, but rarely authentic, rarely trustworthy. Such an anecdote perhaps affirmed what Beatriz already suspected of capitalism, and it raised an aspect of it in my own consciousness.
In one sense, the people of Cuba espouse a complete trust in their non-transparent government. They are told month to month what will appear on their ration cards. They are told that when the government wishes to remodel/rezone/retask a building, they will be relocated and they will receive new homes. They are told when the services to care for stray animals will be suspended, or when vision care may be ended. The government takes care of its people, they know, and so they can trust it.
There is no need to advertise (beyond the socialist orthodoxy, that is). There is the acceptance of the reality. As Beatriz told us when one of our group asked where Fidel and Raul live, no one really knows. There have been many assassination attempts, and so they live in seclusion for reasons of security. As important, she waved the question off: “We don’t really wonder about it.”
This is a trust that we will likely judge naïve, and it is also one, I believe, which fed her question about what she sees from our culture. Most Cubans receive little information outside of the government line, but more and more are exposed to mainstream capitalist media as Cuba is compelled into tourism. Beatriz’ question is the result and perhaps the beginnings of Cuba’s wondering what other choices are out there. (Recall that while many from around the world may visit Cuba, not many Cubans are able to go abroad anywhere legally or financially.) I am not equating this to the “child growing up,” but I am suggesting that it does mark a significant paradigm shift for Cubans.
My own epiphanies, however, come from the other side of Beatriz’ question: the first is an acknowledgement that the practice of capitalism depends upon distrust and deception. We are persuaded to spend, often against our own interests. I need not elucidate the varied and lurid tactics employed by Sonic Hamburgers and Abercrombie, Aquafina and PETA. But, unlike Cubans, we have been trained to distrust, to enter relationships with a skepticism and doubt, and I wonder if we are healthier for it. There is a difference between the valid and essential skill of critical analysis (which we must always employ in evaluating our culture’s texts) and human trust.
The second realization which follows from this is where our own trust ends and skepticism begins. We are quick–too quick, I think–to denounce everything Cuban because of a history of socialism. The country and its people are far more complex than this simplified judgment. More, the judgment can dangerously imply the opposite, affirmation of everything American. (I use the term “American” advisedly, as nearly everyone in South and Central America also identifies himself as “American;” many see our exclusivity in its use as elitist.)
So where do we unconsciously place our trust when our problems are beyond our ability to change? Some with politicians like Palin or Obama or Paul, all charismatic, at least. Some in religion and some in Wall Street. Nevertheless, none of these forces are without powerful critics, and our debate about them, at times, is constructive.
Most of us do not buy into the Nigerian 419 scams (“My Dearest Sir or Madam, I need your PIN number to deposit $32 million…), but years after they began, they are still earning $400 a minute from duped Americans. More of us are conned into reverse mortgages, perhaps because they are hawked by former Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Dole. Still more of us literally buy in to the “iPhone4,” 4G and 5G, and insert-your-latest-technology-gadget here endless parade of top-dollar promotions, knowing full well that six months from now they will be replaced with a new (but absolutely positively essential) application which will bottom out the price of what they just purchased. A postmodern mantra: “Need what previously didn’t exist.”
How is our naïveté any different from that we might judge in a Cuban who sees Oil of Olay advertised for the first time, who enters into the relationship with trust, and is open to exploitation as a result?
There is cruelty in the world, in countries autocratic and democratic, in systems socialist and capitalist. By viewing us as objects for their goals, they work to deny our humanity.
In one sense, many Cubans understand that the human virtue of trust is still worth judging a virtue.