On the Road: Authenticity

Jun 16, 2014

Havana – Mexico

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Gatito sits on a plastic covered couch. She’s back in Cancun looking through the glass outer wall of an Elektra, a one-stop shop for bank loans, cheap credit, home décor, motorbikes, and electronics. Outside looks so different after the last few weeks. People move faster, they wear fewer smiles; pure joys are supplanted by hurried desires.  Cars are everywhere, big and new. Storefronts house things and OXXO’s sell food and snacks on almost every corner. Passing by the window so fleetingly, so flippantly, are all the things desired of the average Cubans she met. Work, freedom of opportunity, and a car are available along with cheap food. Yet, it all feels so hollow, so cold and callous.

She reminisces of the morning’s drive to the airport in Havana through the crumbling facades and old cars. She remembers being so moved, so enchanted, so absolutely enraptured by the city as if the walls were coming down not from decay but to give her a hug. The landscape pulled at her heart strings, it yearned for her and she yearned back.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Yet, she was simply a guest. A traveler in a place that was not hers. She was able to touch and taste something that has become all too foreign in her homeland. Purity, solitude, simplicity, authenticity. It’s the joy you get from picking your own carrots for a salad, it’s comforting and grounding. The presence of the moment often providing as much joy as the act itself.

For those living in her daydream the reality is less serene, if not bleak. They have no flight home, no job waiting for them, no place to go. Gatito’s embracing city walls are for them city canyons made of invisible prison bars. One wants to pick a carrot, but the reality of having to physically grow, pick, and process every bite you eat is an all-consuming, labor intensive and debilitating endeavor. We pick a carrot, but we shop at Whole Foods.

So while Gatito yearns for the simplicity and purity of the past, Cuban’s yean for the opportunity, safety and convenience of the future. The truth is we all want what is novel; what is unique, what we can’t have. Cuba is in need of change.

The Socialist and Capitalist systems, often these two worlds are cast as diametrically opposed, a choice between one or the other, any middle ground seen as cowardice and impurity of purpose. Even Gatito hears the talking heads yelling and bloviating on TV about the socialist takeover, the foreigner in the Whitehouse or the lunatic one-presenters on the right.

But here’s the secret. It’s a false choice. What works for ratings is not reflective of the real world. And it’s dangerous.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Cuba wants and needs change, economic liberalization and reintegration into the world economy yes. Yet, if Cuba is forced to choose either extreme, it will be torn apart, its charms and magic forever lost to history. Instead, like most successful things in life, it must find a careful balance based on its own principals, with proactive leadership and an informed citizenry. We are told we must choose between “pure capitalism” and “pure socialism”. Gatitio posits, Cuba must choose its own path that draws both from Capitalism and Democracy as well as its own unique history. Remember, so much of the beauty and life that Gatito has experienced derived from that system. To understand why Gatito implores us to look at some personal experience, the well-traveled doll that she is.

North Korea is the closest approximation of “pure communism” existing in the world today. Though, even they admit it is socialist, “communism is the ideal yet to be obtained”.  The state has absolute control over all information. Music, radio, TV, print, internet, spoken word, movies, they control everything to the letter without exception. Absolutely no information passes into or out of the country without express consent of the government. So too is their grip on commerce absolute. All jobs are government, all wages government, all services are government. Life is nothing shy of nasty, brutish and short. People toil in the most abject poverty and misery in total ignorance of the outside world. Thousands of people are shot in the head or starved to death each year for trying to escape. If you are caught or accused of dissent in any way, your entire family will live out their lives in concentration camps for not one or two, but three generations. Here we find the communist extreme.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

On the opposite end of the spectrum Gatito asks us to look to Russia.  Counterintuitive as it may be to look to the formal Soviet Union for pure capitalism, but following the fall of the Soviet empire the rapid transition to free markets was exactly that. Unchecked, unregulated and instant. Everything was up for grabs, no limitations were set and no oversight occurred. There was no established structure, restraint, or rule of law. What followed was a massive and hostile consolidation of wealth and natural resources by those in positions of power. Everyone else was permanently shut out of the new Oligarchic class. Stratification becomes immense, hostilities grew and massive fault lines were drawn across the nation. As a result, Moscow is the world most expensive city with more billionaires than anywhere else in the world, yet for the poor Russia is one of the most desolate, inescapable and horrific places you can imagine. No respect, no opportunity, no upward mobility, debilitating mistrust and social strife and destitute living conditions. Anyone who gets any education or finds any money makes their first action to leave Russia. Gatito road the trains there, one of the best and most expansive systems in the world, though it links the whole country it is very expensive and only the rich, primarily Muscovites, can afford to ride it. As they do they traverse the poor areas of the country without ever getting off the train, the only thing that exits the train is the urine and excrement from the toilets which do not empty into a storage tank, but rather are cheerfully discarded right under the tracks to pollute the poor’s water supply. The situation is absolutely revolting.

In contrast, Gatito would have us look at China, the transition from Communism to Capitalism has been slow and well planned. Markets were opened, basic labor formed the foundation and overtime trades became more diverse and more skilled. Some foreign training and investment was sought, but restrictions still exists to this day, ensuring real estate and businesses are primarily owned by Chinese nationals. In the last 40 years China has seen, within its own boarders, the largest human migration out of poverty in all of human history, building a strong upwardly mobile middle class along with the super-rich. When people become educated or rich, they want to keep their ideas and skills in China. Chinese identity is as strong as ever and despite its myriad problems and abysmal human rights record, progress marches on. As citizens gain financial standing and security, they have become more and more vocal about human rights and other injustices, and the government, though slowly, has begun to respond. This trend is likely to continue and accelerate. These personal experiences suggest that both extremes end in a crushing human reality, while charting some identity based middle ground creates the greatest opportunity for success.

Free markets do not exist in the ether and they were not handed down scribbled to the backside of the Ten Commandments. They are a human construct, and a brilliant one at that. The rules for such a system are made by, and upheld by, people. Without proper oversight the system fails to work. We have and do accept this as truth. We limit monopolies, we require repayment of loans, we pay for public works with tax dollars, we outlaw harmful byproducts of industry like lead that wreak havoc on the community with unseen externality costs. The Capitalist system, the system that for all its follies has brought prosperity, upward mobility and safety to more people than any other system ever devised by man, cannot work in a vacuum, it requires human-set constraints and rules.

Cuba wants and needs to transition. Its people deserve a fair shot at life, happiness and self-determination. Yet, turning to capitalism has many very real risks if mismanaged. Without a watchful eye every building in Havana will be filled with Holiday Inn’s, McDonalds and 7-Elevens. There is nothing wrong with these chains, and foreign investment is desired, but if the primary draw of Havana is its unique character, than that will be lost as well as its appeal. Furthermore, with too rapid of an expansion or without limits on direct foreign investment, real estate prices will rise precipitously and locals will be pushed out of the market, forever relegated to second-class servitude in their own country, a slave transmuted to an indentured servant. Worse though, Cuba could lose its soul. The smiles of the locals wiped away. Big embraces traded for big paychecks and openness exchanged for skepticism. Yet, make the barriers to high and investment won’t come, progress won’t occur, people will be left jobless and families will starve, discontent may grow and another revolution could plunge the country into another half century of darkness.

This is the dance we all are in, even if we don’t know it. The US, Thailand, Germany, Aspen and Vail, all waltz on the dance floor of balance, none of us inhabit absolutism. Yet there is rarely an eager instructor to show us the steps. Those who have learned the moves are often reluctant to teach as a new protégé could challenge their dominance and supplant their position or worse. This is the burden of plenty. The more you have, the more you have to lose.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Democracy and Capitalism are not solutions, they are roadmaps, the best systems we have devised to provide an opportunity for success. The truth is reform in Cuba could lead to restoration or ruin, to prosperity or poverty to preservation or assimilation. At the end of the day it is up to us as individuals and as citizens to be stewards of our environment and take ownership of our locales. We must come together as communities and friends and determine what we want our homes to be, then set off on the tough work of making that vision a reality. Along the way we will falter, we will be led astray, and we will be wrong. Yet with our eyes to our collective zenith and with positivity in our hearts and resilience in our heads we must continue to march on and do the hard things.

And if we engage as an informed citizenry, and an active populous, and a proactive government, and an invested community, and as loving friends, coworkers and neighbors, we will eventually get to the place we deem providence. For the Cuban people it won’t be easy and it won’t be the same as anywhere else, but it will be theirs. They will have built it together, creating opportunity for themselves and their future kin. And hopefully, doing it in such a way the preserves, not degrades, the history, culture, vitality, and spirit that is Cuba. Only the Cuban people and their leaders can be masters of their domain, only they can create the world they want to inhabit. So to with us. Self-determination is a responsibility, not a gift.