Other Voices

The Cuban people survive, thrive by helping each other

Javier Yanez looks out from his balcony in Old Havana, where he displays U.S. and Cuban flags.
Javier Yanez looks out from his balcony in Old Havana, where he displays U.S. and Cuban flags. AP

After six days in Cuba and a short night of sleep, I boarded the bus early on a Saturday morning and left for home.

Just 45 minutes after my plane took off, I could see Miami through the windows. A vibrant modern city along the ocean shoreline with gleaming skyscrapers and busy highways. Only an hour’s flight separates the two worlds of Havana and Miami.

For six days, I had walked around Havana and the surrounding areas.

I saw buildings in disrepair that doubled as homes; shook hands with loving caregivers of children and the intellectually disabled with no running water in bathrooms, let alone air conditioning; and watched as teachers taught eager students without textbooks, with chalk in short supply.

I was honored to join a diverse delegation of community leaders, educators, researchers and people from children and family service programs to learn from Cuba’s strong community-based practices.

Despite the country’s crumbling infrastructure, the spirit of the Cuban people has somehow managed to not only survive, but, in some ways, thrive through their commitment to one another.

The care I witnessed from the staff at the children’s shelter was as warm and loving as anyone could ever hope. It made me wonder just how excellent things could be if the housing conditions, water and food were of the same quality as that staff’s loving care.

Cuba’s birthrate is shockingly low, and the country has the world’s third-highest abortion rate. Abandoned or orphaned children are rarely adopted. Rather, they age out of children’s homes at 18.

These facts juxtaposed against Cubans’ love of family and community perfectly illustrate that most decisions are made based under an umbrella of socialism, as well as on the economic hardships of the Cuban population.

In the case of low birthrates, families are choosing to have (or care for) fewer children, primarily due to the economic challenges and housing shortages. This aging of the overall population causes even more economic concern for the future.

The Cuban government appears to be walking a fine line between maintaining control and introducing capitalistic principles to the country. The recent step toward normalizing relations with the United States is a good example.

Cuba’s new demand of reparations, including $800 billion in compensation, as a condition of full normalization, seems to be a temporary barrier to slow down the process to a speed of their liking. That is a tough tactic, since the country needs new investment soon to improve its infrastructure and economy.

From a U.S. citizen’s perspective, I believe it to be in our best interest to normalize relations. Among other reasons, the Cuban market is ripe for U.S. businesses.

Technology is in high demand, basic infrastructure needs are evident everywhere, and the Cuban people I spoke with want American goods in their stores.

From a business perspective, Cuba seems to be a good market for U.S. products.

I realize this argument is fraught with political disagreement. For those who believe an uprising from the Cuban people will overthrow the government, my opinion is that if that did not happen in the “special period” in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost most of its economic support, it likely won’t happen soon.

Meanwhile, investments from other countries like China appear to be increasing. If we didn’t like Russia having a strong base in Cuba in the 1960s, it’s hard to imagine it’s in our benefit that China have one today.

Put simply, I believe it’s in our national interests to be in Cuba.

I continue to recall images of the people of Havana, who repeatedly and genuinely said how much they love the United States and want us in their country.

We have so much in common with the people of Cuba. After six days, I walked away feeling it is the right time to move forward.

Todd A. Landry is the CEO of Lena Pope in Fort Worth and also serves as board chairman of the Child Welfare League of America. CWLA, in partnership with the Coalition for Research to Practice, organized the child welfare delegation trip to Cuba. Visit Landry’s Cuba blog at www.LenaPope.org.