The Romanticization of Poverty

As a passionate advocate for equality and acutely aware of the toxicity of capitalism, principles, similar to Fidel Castro’s above have always resonated with me. I had naive fantasies of living in a country where the internet was limited, the architecture decrepit and equality ubiquitous. So, it should come as no surprise that when in Cuba this past month I was reluctant to admit to my American citizenship. On arrival I was enchanted by Havana’s 'patina-ed' scraps of metal, chipping paint and broken windows. I found the rawness and grit of the city romantic and real.

Only retrospectively have I realized this enchantment is not too dissimilar to the $90 I have spent on a pair of ripped jeans that will never keep me warm, or the day I spent purposely walking in the mud to dirty my new Vans—all just to project the worn and distressed image that I seek to embody. When in actuality, I have never had to struggle for much more beyond requesting almond milk in my coffee instead of ‘regular.’ Educated, driven, and English speaking, Maria, on the other hand, works 14 hour days as a bartender and makes about the same as the cost of the mojito I was sipping on that night in Havana. 

Resentment is inevitable in capitalist societies, where inequality is as explicit as the affordable housing units across the street from apartment buildings that advertise ‘dog spas’ as an amenity of its $4000 monthly studio. The overtly unapologetic wealth inequality in the US has always bothered me, but for the first time I wondered if it was any more repressive than what Cubans are subject to?

Maria’s candidness about the Cuban government’s oppression was an anomaly, most Cubans, she said, are too afraid to vocalize their grievances. “This is an authoritarian country and the only reason I am able to speak freely to you right now is because I don’t see police nearby,” she noted. Maria wasn’t wrong, the Cuban government relies on its omnipresent and menacing police force to “arbitrarily detain, harass and intimidate people who exercise their fundamental rights.” The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports that there have been more than 6,200 accounts of arbitrary detentions from January through October 2015. 

In search of more informed perspectives on the question of individual human rights versus economic equality, I asked Columbia Law professor and Cuban, Pedro Freyre to share his thoughts on the matter. In an email he wrote to me:  

“The Cuban government uses its educational and health 'logros' (accomplishments) to justify its failures and continuing abuses of political rights. We [the United States] engage in the reverse to a substantial degree, justifying our failures to provide social guarantees by vaunting our political freedoms (even in the Era of Trump). Both approaches are wrong; but not, I believe, in equal measure. Our system provides a far greater measure of conditions which affords the individual a prosperous life, even if that prosperity is unevenly distributed. Our political freedom allows us to call out this disparity; the Cuban system does not, limiting itself to attempting to allocate misery evenly.”

While Pedro’s insights exhibit the differences between US and Cuban political and socio-economic priorities, it also uncovers a commonality. The two, it seems, are engaged in a delicate balancing act between individual freedoms and equality, with neither striking equilibrium, perhaps because the actualization of one is dependent on the respect of the other.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) makes no explicit distinction between economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political ones. However, the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) cites the Cold War as the event that precipitated a distinction between the two types of rights. Consequently, in 1966, the UN passed two covenants: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Each one delineated a set of rights to which citizens of signatory countries are entitled.

Operating in a market economy, Western democracies have traditionally placed more emphasis on civil and political rights, requiring less government intervention; whereas, the centrally planned economies of the Eastern bloc have valued economic, social and cultural rights, demanding greater government investment. Ironically, the rights of either cannot be realized without the other. They exist in a symbiotic relationship, in which a respect for individual freedoms is requisite to economic, social and cultural rights and similarly, government investment is necessary for civil and political rights to be fully realized.

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