01/06/2015 01:50 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

10 Takeaways From Cuba


Now that President Barack Obama is normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. government will try to teach Cuba about market economics and political pluralism. Certainly Cuba faces many challenges: low wages and low labor productivity, severe shortages of basic consumer products, and repressive one-party politics. We can usefully promote free enterprise and individual initiative, marketplace incentives and risk management, freedom of expression and habeas corpus, government transparency and popular accountability.

But we should also stop a minute and recognize that we have much to learn from Cuba, too. Here are 10 takeaways from the Cuban experience:

1. International solidarity. Tens of thousands of Cuban medical personnel work around the world, from combating Ebola in West Africa to providing primary health care in poor barrios in Venezuela. Sure, some of these doctors are relatively well paid by their hosts, and taxes on their incomes benefit the Cuban state. But Cuban society as a whole is properly proud of their nation's contributions to alleviating human suffering around the world. Americans wildly overestimate the magnitude of our own foreign assistance, and too often resent the expenditures. Cuba's global generosity shows the way.

2. Professional diplomacy. Cuba's diplomats are among the best in the world: well trained, predictably professional and utterly reliable. The US State Department has many exceptional diplomats, but too many of our international representatives are political appointees whose main qualifications are campaign contributions or political loyalty. In a competitive and complex world, we can ill afford such frivolities.

3. Equitable distribution of income. In Cuban firms, senior managers earn only two to three times the take-home pay of their workers -- in sharp contrast to a multiple of hundreds in U.S. business. Cuba went too far in leveling wealth, naively eliminating the monetary incentives necessary to encourage labor productivity. But there is an emerging consensus in the US that we have gone way too far in sanctioning gaping extremes between rich and poor.

4. Racial integration. Cubans are not blind to skin tones. On the contrary, Cuban speech is peppered with references to "rubios," "mulattos," "negros." But there is a degree of integration -- in social life, housing, workplace -- that remains elusive in the United States. One causal factor: in Cuba, decent universal education levels the playing field.

5. Community caring. Cuban communities are well organized to provide their residents with sports teams, primary health care, sex education, crime prevention and disaster preparedness (first responders, if you will). Yes, some of these units also channel political surveillance for the regime. Nevertheless, such grassroots committees -- also found in many American neighborhoods -- provide vital public goods, at low expense, for average citizens.

6. Work-life balance. Cubans work hard -- but they also devote plenty of time and energy to family and friends. Sundays are sacred family time, and beach homes are commonplace. Even during the workweek, in late afternoons Havana streets are populated with friendly domino games, and matinee dance halls cater to teenagers.

7. Sensuality and happiness. Chalk it up to their Caribbean roots, the tropical climate, or the Cuban revolution's repression of the Catholic Church -- but there's a reason that Cuba is famous for its uninhibited exultation of the human form.

8. Appreciating the arts. The sheer number of Cuban professionals in the performing and plastic arts -- dance, music, painting, sculpture, film -- is utterly astounding. And as tourists immediately remark, the quality is awesome! This beautiful depth of cultural production is made possible by one simple reality: society subsidizes artists' salaries and performances. Every Cuban girl, no matter how poor, takes years of nearly free ballet lessons (as do many Cuban boys). The take-away: placing culture and the arts at the disposable of the populace requires public largesse.

9. Personal poise and verbal expression. Another payoff from those years of ballet training: Cubans walk with extraordinary dignity and grace. In addition, most Cubans complete high school and some 25% receive some university education. In Cuba, almost any citizen you encounter on the streets can respond in complete sentences and even paragraphs -- at a time when too many Americans are losing their capacity for fluid inter-personal communication. Growing up is about a lot more than STEM (science and math), it's also about learning how to walk with pride and purpose and how to express yourself clearly to your fellow citizens.

10. National pride. One characteristic that Cubans and Americans share: a fervent nationalism, a strongly held belief that their national experience is exceptional -- such that they have little to learn from other societies. In this conceit, both are wrong: of course every nation is unique, but we are all imbedded in a single global network. We can all draw on each other's experiences, to our mutual benefit.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to (subject line: "90 Miles").