While In Egypt, I discussed how different poverty looks from one country to another. I remember first arriving in Cairo and thinking I was looking at slums and abject poverty, and then realizing later that I lived in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest countries on the continent.
Here, poverty looks different too. It’s hard to judge individual poverty since almost all buildings are crumbling and in disrepair. Then there’s the small matter of this being a communist country–a doctor’s salary is going to be on par with a bureaucrat, an athlete’s with a teacher.
Then there are the signs that are different here than in the US. Clothing, for example. It simply isn’t all that available. There isn’t a lot of variety to be had. Falla, who I think is doing okay financially in his capacity as a professor, radio personality and musician, always looks sharp. He wears suit jackets and dress pants, and often dresses all in black, especially to perform. Then you notice he always wears the same shoes, which is not a big deal. But then you notice they’re usually the same black clothes. Finally, you notice those aren’t dress pants; there are cargo pockets on the sides. So if Falla, who clearly takes pride in his appearance and has done well for himself and his family, can’t get a couple full suits, how the hell can anyone else?
What do you think poverty looks like in the US? We often hear that it’s invisible. Many families go to great pains to look outwardly normal, to remain in the same tax bracket they once occupied even if it’s only in appearance. We hear about parents going without food so their kids grow up healthy, and picking up second and third jobs so their kids wear normal clothes and go to college like everyone else.
What does poverty look like here? The peanut man, yeah, he’s probably poor. The people with undocumented residences, also known as ramshackle huts? Yes, they’re not doing well, but they’re way out of sight, especially from tourists. Sometimes you notice that a friend is incredibly thin, even though they hide it well in their well-worn clothes.
But then I remember, I live in Vedado. This is a wealthy neighborhood. In the economic center of the country. A country that is often chastised for its “greed” with reminders that it is prospering in comparison with other Latin American countries. In Padrino’s neighborhood, the rooms are tiny and the plumbing is almost non-existent. In Alex’s section of our own Vedado, people have gaping holes in their floor and possessions are often stolen.
I’m still trying to calibrate for the Cuban scale of poverty, and even trying to grapple with class and poverty in this, the alleged utopia of the poor.