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What I Didn't See in Cuba

by Jeanne Parr Lemkau

I saw no looming billboards screaming in primary colors. No large images of alcohol, cigarettes, or women’s bodies. No assault of flashing neon lights. Both the landscape and cityscape were the colors of the earth--the greens of the countryside or the dusty grays, browns, and pastels of decaying urban architecture. Occasionally, a political sign jarred my attention -- often large paintings with limited words. One asserted the revolutionary nature of art. Another proclaimed, "200 million children sleep in the streets, not one of them is Cuban."  There were occasional large images of Che Guevara or Fidel Castro and statues of Jose Marti -- not always aesthetically-pleasing expressions of the Cuban revolutionary process.

Without the flotsam and jetsam of capitalism, it was the bright colors of people and cars that punctuated the visual environment. The cars, leftovers of pre-revolutionary Cuba, move along the roadways in their varied jewel tones, painted, curvaceous, and substantial, like handsome and well-tended older women, ripe and sensual.

I saw no conspicuous consumption, fancy shops, or glitz---with the exception of a hotel cabaret at our tourist hotel and the dollar stores intended to seduce visitors to leave behind what Cuba most needs. Access to consumer goods was almost as limited as the access to currency. Most people dressed in clean and simple clothes that appeared worn. I saw little obesity. The Cuban bodies were lean and of all hues. People mingled easily, arms around each other, jostling, Benetton style. You could relax about your appearance here with few mirrors or reflective surfaces to point out your shortcomings.

I saw no filth, no tar paper shacks, no squalor. I saw no children who looked hungry, miserable, or obviously ill, although a few looked a bit sallow. I saw no sick babies with huge eyes, hanging on their mothers’ breasts. I saw no children or adults sleeping on the streets or in cardboard boxes. I observed much laughter and friendly physical contact exchanged among men and women, doctors and patients, children and adults.

I saw no cruelty to animals. While family pets were often on the thin and scruffy side, they stayed close to their human family members. In the massive march on the Malecon to protest the US Blockade, I observed a small,  apparently stray dog whose paw was accidentally stepped on by an adult. No significant injury resulted. Nevertheless, a young girl who observed it happen immediately ran up to the dog, fell to her hands and knees and cradled his paw tenderly between her cupped hands. She gently stroked and soothed the pup for several minutes before going on her way, a child herself well-loved.


Jeanne Parr Lemkau visited Cuba as part of a delegation of returned Peace Corps volunteers in October of 2000.  She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio where she is a clinical psychologist and professor of family medicine at Wright State University.  Currently on sabbatical leave, she is studying and writing about health care in Cuba.  She is a student in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at Goucher College.

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