Photo by Joshua Tartakovsky © All Rights Reserved 2016.

By Joshua Tartakovsky, February 23 2016

Cuba, a country of 11 million people, has physical poverty. People struggle and sweat every day to put enough food on the table.  Although a home and medical care are a given, the prices of basic cosmetics and new clothes are very expensive. But New York, a metropolis of 8 million people and perhaps one of the west’s greatest cities, has spiritual poverty. Many people have much wealth but that is not enough. They are seeking for more. What is it they are seeking for?

When Cubans watch scenes of New York from the TV sets in their salons, they are certain that everyone there is rich. It seems that all New Yorkers do all day is go shopping from one store to another while driving around with luxury cards. They do not realize that had they lived in New York, they would have been very busy working many hours to pay the high rent and other expenses including medical ones; they would not be living in a magnificent colonial-era casagiven to them by the state, and most significantly, they would have probably had much less free time and their gamut of social relations would have been very different.

Though Cubans work very hard and get paid on average very little (about $20 per month is the official rate), they still have the evenings and weekends to spend with their kids and neighbors, to chat with friends and strangers in the street or in the park. Indeed, Cuban cities are a panorama of constant human activity and of endless authentic human interaction in all hours of the day. One does not need to go to the cinema, one simply watches people, gossips, or jokes around with others to stay entertained.

In New York, however, time is a luxury no one seems to have. And it goes without saying that many children in the US do not receive sufficient attention and care from their parents due to the rat race and the need to work many hours to earn a living. [i] That many American children today suffer from various psychological issues, at least partly as a result of not having their parents around, should be obvious to any honest observer. The percentage of US children that uses pharmaceutical anti-depressants is high – resulting in numb kids without vitality. 8% of public school kids reported they tried to commit suicide, the New York Department of Health stated.

Judging empirically, the situation seems to be different in Cuba, with children (adults is a different story and requires more thorough research.) The streets of Havana, Camagüey and Santiago, are filled with parents walking their kids to school every morning; with children playing and running around freely and with the sounds of cheerful kids. Children are provided nourishment, education and textbooks by the state. They appear to be anything but numb or quiet. It is true that once Cubans become adults, the fun times are over and life becomes far more difficult (with alcoholism not a rare incidence among some). But children generally appear to be able to spend more time with their parents in Cuba.

In New York and in many western societies individualism and atomization reached such an advanced level, that many people are very lonely.  The problem is that loneliness causespremature death and aids psychological illness.  Many are reluctant to admit they have difficulties when talking to their friends[ii] for fear of being judged or for appearing weak – in a society where personal success and independence means everything. According to one report, only 8% of Americans confide with their neighbors.  Janice Shaw Crouse wrote in the American Spectator:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey (GSS) that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely. Published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.

One may justly argue in response, that in poor countries or in socialist countries, friendships are weaker since people distrust each other and are seeking limited resources. From my emperical observations over many months in Brazil and Cuba, it appears that people share much more with one another in general, confide much more in those they trust and enjoy a cushion of support from many people. They are not atoms as many individuals in the west. That does not mean that people won’t lie on occasion, indeed, they may lie even more than in the west.  But people are rarely lonley. They spend a lot more social time together.

Constant social company brings pleasure and joy and results in people being able to share their burdens with others while laughing carelessly. Furthermore, in extremely capitalist societies friendships are arguably weaker since people are pressured to look at everything from the perspective of material gain while competing for resources; they have no time for friendships that cannot be valued. Cuba may have a variety of other mental issues with some adults, but it appears that loneliness is not one of them.

Loneliness and the elderly

The young, if they are lonely, can at least try to make friends by mustering courage to form new contacts or daring to admit their weaknesses to friends. But what can the elderly do in affluent western societies, confined to old age homes and frequently rarely visited by their children, while lacking the physical ability to move around? They are stuck.

Contrast this with the state of the elderly in Cuba. Walking through the streets of Cuban cities, one encounters elderly people everywhere, sitting on the sidewalk, talking to their friends, or wandering around. They are not confined to old age homes. They are not sitting alone in their room. They are surrounded by people, are part of the fabric of life, not hidden from site in shame. The fact that they are part of a community, means they are not lonley and therefore more happy.

Glenn Ellis an American health advocacy writer and a frequent visitor to Cuba argued that “one of the biggest problems found in elderly Americans is depression” but that “while in Havana, I saw hundreds of elderly people full of life, and looking forward to a meaningful, productive years in their family, their neighborhoods, and their general communities.” He claimed that there are “low rate of depression and sickness in the elderly,” unlike in the United States.  This may be another reason why life expectancy in Cuba is so high, despite the difficult physical conditions.

A new kind of hunger

New York is a rich city that attracts the imagination of many Cubans.  Yet not everything that looks like gold is gold. Many New Yorkers feel that they are living empty lives and seek answers in spirituality if not in psychological treatment. If everything is to be judged by physical wealth, as both Marxism and capitalism argue, what explains the mushrooming of spiritual centers in New York? If money is everything, how come New Yorkers pay high exorbitant prices for courses on the meaning of life and spiritual practices, offered by gurus, yogis, roshis, swamis, lamas, monks and kabbalists, of all stripes and colors? How come New York events are packed by an hungry-for-knowledge crowd?  Why do many movie stars turn to spirituality and religion? An ancient verse in the Bible may have the answer for this modern phenomenon: “Behold, the days will come,” said the Lord God, “that I will spread a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).

Having wealth is not enough, people want more. While people in Cuba desire more physical goods, many New Yorkers desire to find a deeper meaning in their lives.

At the same time, in Cuba, contrary to what atheist Marxists in the West may think, religion, popular spirituality and Afro-Cuban traditions, are alive and kicking. At least 77% of Cubans are religious or believe in religion. Many Cubans practice Santería, seek spiritual advice by a wise woman-teacher, attend a church on Sunday, or generally take both religion and spirituality very seriously while at the same time not being fanatically puritan.  We are often told the poor pursue religion because they are poor. Why do the rich pursue it then?  Perhaps the sense of the sacred and the miraculous, an authentic spiritual experience, cannot be provided by the consumerist societies in which we live.

Many Cubans may want to relocate to New York where they could buy more food, cosmetics and clothes, but the west is not as glamorous as it seems when one considers the widespread loneliness, the atomization of society, and the loneliness endured by the elderly. At the same time, many people in the west may wish they were less lonely and seek deeper meaning in spirituality, but they do not appreciate that the basic physical goods they have are coveted around the world.

Not everything is as it appears at first. We have long been accustomed to measure things by how they appear physically but spiritual poverty may be at times as painful as physical poverty. Loneliness cannot be compensated by nice clothes; and for the elderly, the wealth of the spirit – being part of a community of friends and enjoying their support – may be far more significant than having many material goods, as long as the basic physical needs are met.

We need to start thinking in terms of physical and spiritual wealth.




[i] This is even more true today when capitalism appears to be in a structural crisis and people need to work many hours just to get by while the cost of living keeps going up and salaries remain roughly the same. The American middle class is constantly declining.

[ii] Having “friends” is not the same as having friends. As Janice Shaw Crouse wrote in the American Spectator: “Chattering with another person can simply be a mask, a veil, a barrier, a poor substitute, and distraction from loneliness, similar to having the television on in the background to keep the house from seeming empty and barren, or to make it less obvious that the people inside are not interacting with each other.”


All pictures made by Joshua Tartakovsky. All rights reserved.