04/24/2012 04:26 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

Rising in Spite of Things in Cuba

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that two Cuban film stars may have defected on their way to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Last week, Raul Castro criticized President Obama for calling for democratic reforms in Cuba at the Summit for the Americas, and Ozzie Guillan, manager of the Miami Marlins professional baseball team, went back to work after a five-game suspension for making pro-Fidel Castro remarks.

I went to Cuba last month for the first time. It did not leave me thinking good things about Fidel Castro, or his brother, Raul. It did leave me thinking that the democratic reforms President Obama called for might not be so crazy to imagine. I say that because in Havana, I saw a great deal about how hard it is to suppress people's desire to rise.

I was in Cuba with a group of Boston business leaders on a religious delegation. We technically accompanied Archbishop Sean Cardinal O'Malley, who went for the Papal mass. We spent three days getting to know Havana, including nonprofit work being done by Caritas Cubana. At the mass, we sat a stone's throw (with a decent throwing arm) away from Raul Castro and his team. Throwing such a stone would have been a very bad idea, however, given the Grizz and Dot Com sizes of the gentlemen flanking him. (30 Rock reference. You can look it up.)

The juxtaposition of Castro's oppressive-looking body guards and the gazillion-foot obelisk in Revolution Square behind the altar with the chanting (yes, they chanted at a Papal mass) exuberance of the crowd were symbolic of what I saw throughout the trip: a government can attempt to systematically dismantle the tools for rising, and people will find ways to rise anyway.

I have discussed this idea of "rising" in these pages before. It is the act of making happen what you want for you, your family and your community. It is self-determination at a personal and community level. In my organization, we think the tools for rising include an education that gives you a shot at a job, a job that lets you build some assets over time, and strong social connections to support you along the way.

In Cuba, the education system is state-run. From what we learned, quality and attendance are in true decline. Employment is hard to get a handle on. The official Cuban data is 4.6%, but that seems non-credible.

Incomes are terrifically low -- a doctor, for example, makes, on average, $26.00 a month. Other than homeownership, which on an informal basis is over 80% (home ownership was made legal for the first time only in December) people hold very few assets. There are few things to own because consumer goods are ridiculously difficult to obtain, incomes are staggeringly low, and there is no infrastructure for wholesale markets. As for social connections, parish life was strong in the neighborhoods we visited. We saw artists communities, extended families living together to maintain ownership rights over property, and what appeared to be strong ties between vendors in government-operated marketplaces.

This is a conflicting picture, to be sure. Overall, though, my experience of the residents of Havana was definitely of people finding ways to rise. We saw evidence of an underground economy. Caritas Cubana and other NGOs were finding ways to do extensive charity work despite the complete lack of government support. We also saw them pushing into workforce development and affordable housing -- all without any regulatory or financial supports.

Where the government had full control, as with education, it was harder to ascertain whether people were getting it done on their own. As I mentioned, for example, we heard that education has been slipping. Where government had little control, however, such as with social networks, the underlying fabric seemed strong.

Since returning, people have seemed surprised by my observations. I often hear some variation of, "'Fifty years of the government controlling peoples' lives and providing for all the basics will make people lazy, complacent and unimaginative."

I respectfully disagree. What I saw in Havana confirmed my own belief, which is that rising is our natural state. We were born to rise and want to rise. Life can come along and suppress either the desire or the ability, but it has to work pretty hard to do that, and the rising will leak out the sides, anyway.

Apparently, that's true when a government tries to suppress rising, too.