How Cubans Tick

Cuban Generosity

Have you ever noticed that the less people have, the more generous and less materialistic they are? I can think of a host of adjectives for the Cubans in my social circle such as gregarious, innovative, hard-working, family-oriented, and selfless. But more often than not it’s their generous solidarity that strikes me as one of the most commendable traits of their culture.

I first noticed this phenomenon over 2 decades ago when I was traveling alone on a bus in eastern Cuba. I was the only foreigner on the bus. It being my first season living here, I was still very unfamiliar with the local national monetary system and when the bus stopped and everyone got off to purchase local refreshments, I just stayed on board since I had almost non-existent language skills and no local currency with me, which it seemed that everyone was using. As the Cubans were re-boarding the bus a young mother traveling with her toddler must have noticed that I didn’t get off like everyone else and as she passed my seat she handed me a cold Cuban malt and continued on back to her seat. She expected nothing in return, she was only being kind. I was astounded that a total stranger whose resources were surely so much more limited than mine would be so generous and thoughtful.

Since then I’ve had countless opportunities where I’ve been on the receiving end of Cuban generosity and each time I think that it’s one of the best things that’s come out of this socialist revolution. I sometimes need to remind myself to be more generous and understanding, like my Cuban friends.

A lot of people consider it their duty to pick up hitchhikers here. Those who drive state vehicles are often in the obligation to do so. My husband is occasionally asked by friends and neighbors to drive them to the airport (which is over an hour from our house) and he always happily obliges. Sometimes my ugly selfish self comes out and asks him why he would do that for the sister of someone he knows (not even a family member) when there are other alternatives, such as our entrepreneurial neighbor who operates his own taxi. He knows that most of the people who ask him to do this have very limited incomes, can’t afford a taxi and probably would have to take several buses or hours out of their day if he didn’t offer to help out with the transportation. There have been a few occasions where I’m pretty sure a couple of people have taken advantage of my husband’s generous nature, but he still doesn’t let that stop him. Once when he was unable to help out due to other obligations, he offered to give a man who lives on the street behind us money to take our other neighbor’s taxi to drive a family member to a medical appointment, but then the taxi-driving neighbor wouldn’t accept the money and did the favor for free anyway. It sometimes miffs me when the same people call my husband up twice in a week to ask for drives here or there, when it’s clear to me that they could have taken the bus instead of inconveniencing us. But it doesn’t seem to bother him too much, so I usually let it ride.

Yesterday while visiting a friend outside of Havana I was talking to his 80+ year old mother and her sister who recently had a fall and fractured her hip. They are both widows, and the sister has no children. She said she was very lucky that a former neighbor and friend of hers who now lives in Miami found out about her condition and forwarded a care package and money which helped her through a very difficult period. The huge majority of the elderly in Cuba are looked after by family members until their death, despite the fact that this duty sometimes comes at a great economic sacrifice. Most Cubans I know consider sending their elderly family members to nursing homes to be akin to abandonment. Only in extreme cases would they consider a nursing home in lieu of home care for an elderly family member. Before we left our friend’s house, we couldn’t get away without a bag full of avocadoes from their tree that they insisted we accept. We stopped at the Casa del Pintor, a paladar we like in Bauta, for dinner on the way home. As the meal was ending our friend ducked into the bathroom for a moment, and I advised my husband that he should quickly settle the tab with our server since I knew our friend would try to pick it up if we didn’t first. The two of them ended up trying to shove money at each other, fighting over who was going to pick up the $23 CUC bill for our shrimp/lobster/beef dinners and drinks as I laughed my way out of the restaurant. While our friend is very lucky and has a well-paying job I don’t like taking advantage of his generosity, hard as it sometimes is to convince him otherwise. I joked on the way out that he could pick up the tab the next time, when we pick a more expensive restaurant for dinner.

Cuba sent almost 400,000 soldiers to fight apartheid in Angola and will always hold a special place in history, right alongside Nelson Mandela, for being on the right side of that battle. I was watching the July 26th speeches in Santiago de Cuba today, a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the battle that began the Cuban Revolution. My father in law was one of the young guerrilla fighters from that failed attack on the Moncada Garrison who was amazingly lucky to come out of the hospital from where he was stationed to fight alive, and his just-off-the-press book “El Unico Sobreviviente” about his epic escape journey back home is being launched during the festivities. As I watched all of the foreign leaders deliver moving speeches about solidarity and contemplated just how many countries had come here to express their sincere thanks for Cuba’s selfless support, despite all of the economic obstacles this country faces, I was touched by the fraternal spirit of the current Latin American leaders and their struggle to empower the middle class. Many are trying to follow Cuba’s lead in free education and health care for all. The thousands of Cuban doctors who have been sent to the rescue during some of the most serious crises in this and other parts of the world is simply unprecedented. One leader said that while Cuba may not have money, it has people and the very fact that they are so willing to share their precious human resources so freely with other nations in need is commendable.

The generosity of those less fortunate should be an example that each and every one of us follows. It’s definitely humbling when someone much poorer than you opens their home, wallet, or shares their meager possessions. So pay it forward as often as you can. It’s a hard thing to remember sometimes but the more you do it, the better a place this world will be.

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