Where the Grass Truly Is Greener

By
Paul Reuter, Chairman emeritus and contributing editor

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Last month I was reading all the same economic reports you were. Falling gas prices put the brakes on infla­tion, as consumer prices dropped 0.3% after being unchanged in April. We have also seen positive signs in real-estate sales and home construction. Although home prices are still falling, there are reports of a countertrend in a number of markets. For example, in my town, Paradise Valley, Ariz., I recently counted seven builder-spec homes under construction.

But regardless of some bright spots, the news can best be summed up by the June 16 Wall Street Journal article titled, “Recovery Slows as Global Risks Rise.” The data presented was not very encouraging.

I read these reports right after reviewing my journal notes from a weeklong trip to Cuba. I thought: Hey, most of the 8 million people who live in one of only three countries still under strict communist rule would be happy to trade places with some of us, regardless of what the data reports.

Why? Well, a recent USA Today travel article said it best: “Cuban Travel: A Completely Different World.” Like other Americans this year, we visited Cuba under a more relaxed U.S. government “people to people” program sanctioned by the Treasury Department and con­ducted by a select number of licensed travel guides that organize the visit and accompany the travelers.

Today there are daily 45-minute flights from Miami and another handful during the week that leave from Tampa.

From strictly a tourist’s point of view, Havana and the rest of the country offer much to capture one’s interest. It truly is like stepping back in time; it seems every­thing practically stopped after the Castro 1959 revolution. For example, if you like vintage cars, this is the Disney World of the ’40s and ’50s U.S. automobile market. These are not collectibles. Hardly—they are the taxis and the auto transportation for most citizens.

Many of the wonderful hotels in Old Havana that were “the entertainment places” have beautiful architecture to behold, although many of them also are in need of much work. More dramatic, however, are the miles of prime harbor waterfront property that are vacant or in major disrepair.

It was pleasant to be in a place where cellphones and smartphones are nonex­istent. Internet coverage is available at hotels but limited.

This is the one place you can be sure the “Don’t leave home without it” Ameri­can Express slogan does not apply. There are no credit cards anywhere. The only currency used is Cuban, exchanged at the airport.

On a very positive note, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Education is embraced in this country. Doing something with that education, on the other hand, is a challenge.

The average monthly wage is report­edly less than $40 per month. Virtually all business—and for that matter, everything else—is owned by the govern­ment.

Yes, many told us that they are seeing signs of some private business. The prime example is a host of individually owned and government-approved restaurants know as paladares. These are restaurants that began and continue to run in people’s homes. (And from our point of view, they were the places to get the best food.)

So as I read the economic news of today, I thought about this country, an 800-square-mile island that is only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. I thought about the amount of poverty and lack of freedom that exists there, and how many have died or risked their lives clinging to some boat or other object to cross the 90 miles to the U.S. shore.

If any one wants to understand the true effect of strict communism, then Cuba should be your next port of call.

So yes, in this case the grass is greener here, regardless of what news we read in our world of free enterprise. It’s like that travel headline in reverse: “United States: A Completely Different World.”

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