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Why Visiting Cuba Made me Feel Guilty and Grateful

Produce for sale American style

Published in ChicagoNow, January 26, 2017

Just back from a Road Scholars tour of Cuba, I went to the smallish Jewel near me to restock on groceries. And I felt ashamed. My friends and I often complain that the store is lacking things we can find in larger stores. I have even talked to the manager when my favorite brand of cereal, diet soda, or toilet paper is not available. Now I will keep my mouth shut and feel very grateful for what I have.

In Cuba we met people who were educated, resilient, engaging, friendly, talented, and creative. But one of the things they lacked was resources. Their homes were crumbling. Their job opportunities were limited. And their food stores looked like this:

Ration store in Cienfuegos, Cuba — “Standard Products”

This is what the ration store, for people to buy basic goods with the book of coupons issued to citizens, offered the day we visited. Another larger grocery store in Havana featured one aisle of canned corn and one aisle of vegetable oil. The produce market was selling these items:

Cuban produce available at market

Cuban restaurants did their best to feed our group of American tourists palatable meals. We tried not to complain because we knew we were literally taking food out of the mouths of the everyday Cubans. I had expected the food I love at Cuban restaurants in Chicago, but when you only have salt to spice your food and there are no plantains available, you can’t create a meal using old family recipes.

My guilt about the blessings and comforts I take for granted only increased when I shopped at what I used to view as a barely adequate American grocery store. Not only could I buy most any produce I needed, but also the prices for the average American were comparable to what a Cuban earning the equivalent of 20 dollars a month would have to pay.

Choices in one aisle at my local Jewel

And check out just one aisle pictured above in my small, neighborhood Jewel. These were my choices for salad dressings and condiments. If we received a small salad with a meal in Cuba, the only dressing they offered when we asked was two small bottles, both of which contained oil. Remember, that was what they were able to buy that week at their grocery.

In Cuba, skinny and unhealthy dogs wandered about listlessly. We were told they belonged to no one and everyone. People in the community fed them when they were able to spare some scraps of food or they foraged in the trash.

Dogs of Cuba

American dogs, like their owners, have an abundance of choices. Here are some options at at my local market:

Dog food aisle at my local Jewel

What a sad contrast between the wide array of dog food items at my home grocery store and the meat selections for Cubans at the market we visited:

Market Place in Cuba — “All for the homeland”

I know there are Americans who, like the Cubans, struggle to feed their families in the midst of all of the bounty most of us take for granted. I know there are starving people all over the world who would be most grateful to eat the spotted bananas our grocery stores throw away. It’s just so easy to forget and complain when the cereal I like is not available among the hundreds of choices that are.

I went to Cuba to learn. I wanted to see a country stuck in 1959 before it changed. I wanted to check out the famous cars from the 50s that Cubans somehow manage to maintain. And I was not disappointed.

But I also couldn’t help feeling like an ugly American, complaining about bathrooms without toilet paper, soap, or running water, or being frustrated when the hotel Internet didn’t work. For me, this was a minor inconvenience. For Cubans and so many others, this is their way of life.

When people ask me how the trip was, I have to say educational and eye opening. I learned an incredible amount about the resilient Cuban people and their way of life. But mostly, I learned to remember how lucky I am and to feel grateful.


by Laurie Levy
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