From Capitalism to Communism and Back Again
There is a saying that if you are not a Marxist before you are thirty you have no heart; if you remain a Marxist after thirty you have no head. Aside from whether we were heartless or headless, we were curious. The criticisms are wellknown: communism fosters inefficiency, stifles freedom, and contradicts our “selfish” nature. But as Marx himself said, “A social philosophy which has as its aim the defense of the oppressed cannot be condemned so lightly.”
We wanted to see how communism works, make comparisons, and draw some conclusions. Fifteen intrepid students and two faculty ventured forth first to New York, and then to Cuba, from capitalism to communism and back again. What follows is a essay woven from excerpts from the students’ journals.
No city better symbolizes capitalism than New York. It magnifies the contradictions inherent in a system that satisfies our basic needs by appealing to our more base instincts. “New York is a microcosm of America’s capitalist obsession with the superfluous…The saturation of our lives with commercials has many negative effects: insecurities are created, addictions are supported, and individuality is sold out—all in the name of money,” observed Tyson Smith.
Chase Evans concedes the influence of commercialization: “I say I am not affected by America’s advertisements, but I am around them so much that they’ve probably brain-washed me. I think the fact that Cuba does not have advertisements makes their sense of community and connectedness much better, so they do not have to feel insecure because they don’t have something.”
Alisha Pununzio perceptively observed that while Cuba does not promote products, it nevertheless advertises. “I never noticed any products advertised on Cuban billboards. Instead, the billboards provided political messages and other political affiliations. In New York, shops and grocery stores congested every street. Juxtaposing this abundance to the desolate streets (in terms of stores) in Cuba, was a humbling experience.”
In the days following 9/11, contradictions abound. There is something odd about soldiers baring machines guns in front of the New York Stock Exchange, as though defending business itself. Odder still were the tourists having their pictures taken with the soldiers baring machine guns.
New York is a city of skyscrapers, elegant in their efficiency, impressive in their height and numbers. Havana is a city in inelegant decay. Reef Pace observed, “All you have to do is walk down the streets of Havana to see a demonstration of many of the problems with communism. The buildings are all run down with little prospects for improvement. People are happy but you can tell by looking in their homes they don’t have much. The one thing Left: Tour Guide, Raul, shows the group around Old Havana about Cuba that is different from other third world countries is the country seems to be equally bad for all.” Analecia Adams agrees: “The city is in shambles, water has to be brought in. There’s been no progress for decades it seems. I believe the U.S. is watching Cuba wilt with pleasure.”
Madeline Warren offers an explanation for some of Cuba’s problems: “Waiting in the chair of a small office in an art gallery in Cienfuegos, I was suddenly struck by what felt like a very profound revelation. Every transaction in Cuba is slowed down. Everyone is always confused, and nothing is done with speed or efficiency in mind.”
In New York, music is the province of professionals. In Cuba, everyone is a musician or a dancer or both. Music pervades the air. “Salsa music and dancing spill out of their homes and into the streets everyday. I see music as their escape from hardships,” wrote Tara Hair. “They live difficult, poor lives and music is a happy place for them. Cultures that are stricken with hardships and difficult access to resources tend to have more traditions, songs, and culture in general…Countries with economic prosperity tend to lose their sense of culture.”
Upon sharing a cab, a New Yorker asked Ray Bradford what he thought of the city. “I said that it was an interesting place to visit, but I thought it could get lonely living here.” She responded by saying, “Yes, it’s a very lonely city.” “The irony that a wealthy city with throngs of people on every corner and over eleven million total inhabitants could be “very lonely” speaks volumes about the startling fragmentation in capitalistic society,” noted Ray.
A society in which everyone is 9 Left: View of the sugarcane fields from Iznaga Tower near Cienfuegos equally poor seems to humanize people: “…maybe the citizens of a socialist system are more cognizant of each other’s needs. They car pool, they touch each other on the arm when they speak, and they strike up conversation easily and casually. I read once that the average American has eight friends. It seems to me the average Cuban has about eighty. Another thing that captivated my attention during our walking tour of Havana was the children. I saw a little boy sitting in a tree singing to himself. He appeared absolutely free in every sense of the word,” wrote Jennifer Poplar.
One afternoon we met with some Cuban students, members of the University’s communist party. “It was quite a picture to see them sitting in front of a Fidel Castro portrait—I’m certainly not in the U.S.,” wrote Kirsten Ford. “Someone asked if it bothered them that someone who works in the private sector without a university degree makes more than they do. They answered that it doesn’t really matter because in the end it all balances out for all Cubans.”
For them, everything is paid for; we pay for everything, which prompted Zac Marshall to reflect: “Raul [our tour guide] has a wife and one child and pays no healthcare ever and has an excellent education with a bachelor’s degree, again all for free—that’s very amazing to a person who pays a lot for healthcare and is already thirty grand in debt going towards a master’s degree.”
Free education and free health care, however, may not be enough. Jamie Workman observed, “In Cuba, the National Assembly said that all the people had their basic needs met. From what I have seen that is not true. When I see poor people begging for a small bar of soap, basic needs are not filled. It does seem, Right: You know you’re not in the States anymore. Meeting with Cuban students below a picture of Fidel. however, that their neighbors take care of each other much better than the average American.”
Carla Valencia took matters into her own hands: “I gave some of my clothes and personal items to the workers. They were so happy.”
Charles Blackner was more adventuresome than the other students:. “On the second day in Cuba, I went out of Old Havana to see the real Cuba. I did not approach anyone; I just walked looking at the buildings and environment. It was telling when out of nowhere, a Cuban speaking perfect English asked me to return to Old Havana. If the professors had known this, I know they would have freaked out [not so; we would, however, have remembered Chuck with fondness]. During my walk I noticed that families were cramped into small rooms, and we as Americans would be outraged at the overcrowding.”
The most difficult part of the trip was visiting a middle school the day after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. The students looked at us with incredulity, but graciously accepted our gifts of baseballs and chewing gum. The incongruity between our good will and the symbolism of the scandal resonated with us both.
We returned with a little more heart, and a lot more head. The sentiment upon our return was best captured by Zac: “The first thing we did when we got to our hotel in NYC [having just arrived from Cuba before departing for Salt Lake the next morning] was order Chinese food—delivered— and that was the best damn food I had the entire trip. Good ol’ capitalism.”
By Professors of Economics, John Watkins, PhD and Richard Chapman, PhD, with Tyson Smith (Economics) ’05; Ray Bradford (Economics) ’06; Reef Pace (Economics)’05; Tara Hair (Spanish)’06; Kirsten Ford (Economics) ’04; Zac Marshall (Economics) ’06; Jamie Workman (Art) ’06; Jennifer Poplar (Economics) ’04; Madeline Warren (Management) ’05; Charles Blackner (Finance) ’05; Chase Evans (Economics) ’06; and Alisha Pununzio (Accounting and Economics) ’06