Why You Can't Compete With Cuba

If he could have hit me, he would have.

I screwed up.

His finger was pointed right at me. He looked me in the eye and said Listen.

Nobody chooses revolution."

"Nobody gives up everything they know and have when everything is fine.”

I’m sitting in a small, hot classroom at the Universidad de la Habana. There’s only 15 or so of us in the room. Probably another 20 empty desks. 

Nobody else cares about my question. 

Some guy had just given a run-of-the-mill presentation with slides. 

This guy is sitting at a little desk at the front of the room. He's only looking at me. He’s only talking to me. He’s a professor of social and economic history but, describing himself, he’ll first tell you he’s Cubano. He’s talking to me as a Cubano, not as a professor.

He lived through revolution.

Like real capture-trains-full-of-guns-and-ammunition revolution.

Kick-out-the-capitalists-and-teach-everyone-in-the-country-how-to-read revolution.

Not man-that-sucks-Bush-got-reelected kind of stuff.


He tells me to think of everything in my life right now.

To think of everything I know and have and see when I go through my days.

Buildings. People. Food. Water. Electricity. Order.

Then he tells me to close my eyes and only see the darkness. To only see uncertainty.

To not see anything I just saw.

I close my eyes and it's bewildering but I can hardly pretend to know that feeling. If I wanted, and if nothing major intervened, I could ride my demographics through a highly predictable life.

I don't know the darkness he's talking about on any level. Not personally. And definitely not nationally.  

There was a time so dark - so stifling - it is only referred to as "The Special Period." And it is nothing to joke about. The US put anybody it could on one side, and left Cuba, USSR and just a couple other nations on the other side. 

In the words of James Altucher, as a whole country, they had no choice but to choose themselves.

They made guesses and they made bets. Little things and big things. Longstanding investments in biotech and public health. 

Their commitment to education didn’t lead to a 99% literacy rate overnight, but by every day working to get closer and closer to 100%.

Because they don’t have sources of oil, they got creative and started training more doctors than they needed and exporting them in exchange.

As our guide said, “We have things you don't have, like free housing, education, and healthcare. But there are also worries we have. They’re just different than yours.”

It’s crazy to think about countries needing to be different.

Just like us, they have to chart their assets and their deficiencies against everyone else's, and figure out what makes them different. It's tough for people to do. It's tough to not assume we're more unique than they are. And it's just as tough to not feel overwhelmed by how typical we are. 

When you're in Cuba and you realize how small and how unnecessarily isolated it is from all the things it needs, this lofty idea of differentiating on a global scale is truly daunting. 

It feels dark.

Just like the professor said.

And puts your individual journeys in a bit of perspective. 

Because if a tiny, historically ping-ponged little island country can wear all of that struggle and all of that pride openly, seems like we should be able to as well.

I start things and help people.