Canada to Cuba – Poverty is Poverty no matter where you live

I was recently lucky enough to go to Cuba for a vacation I had been there once before so I knew what to expect: beautiful beaches, warm sun and some of the nicest, friendliest people. I also knew to expect: poverty, unfairness and people lacking very basic supplies.

I worked with homeless and high risk youth for many years and I am a strong advocate for human rights, so going to Cuba caused me mixed emotions. On one hand the tourism industry creates jobs and brings money into the country but on the other hand I am supporting a country that puts tourist’s needs before their own people.

In Cuba I had access to a cheap and frequent bus service – but this service is only for tourists as no locals can ride these buses. Instead the locals have to wait in long lines for infrequent bus service or hitchhike. At our hotel we had a doctor onsite and available 24 hours a day and bank open 12 hours a day. The Cuban people do not have this luxury; I went past a bank and there was a line down the block. I am not an expert on Cuban politics but the disregard for their own people is hard to watch and I felt badly that I was receiving special treatment as a tourist.

I knew to expect this unfairness and I had researched what I could do to give back to the local people. I made sure to tip generously as this is what many people working in the tourism industry survive on. I brought tampons, soap, razors and other supplies that are hard to get and gave them out. I brought small toys, pencils and crayons to give to children. These items are considered luxuries and people were very appreciative to receive them.

I was recently lucky enough to go to Cuba for a vacation I had been there once before so I knew what to expect: beautiful beaches, warm sun and some of the nicest, friendliest people. I also knew to expect: poverty, unfairness and people lacking very basic supplies.

I worked with homeless and high risk youth for many years and I am a strong advocate for human rights, so going to Cuba caused me mixed emotions. On one hand the tourism industry creates jobs and brings money into the country but on the other hand I am supporting a country that puts tourist’s needs before their own people.

In Cuba I had access to a cheap and frequent bus service – but this service is only for tourists as no locals can ride these buses. Instead the locals have to wait in long lines for infrequent bus service or hitchhike. At our hotel we had a doctor onsite and available 24 hours a day and bank open 12 hours a day. The Cuban people do not have this luxury; I went past a bank and there was a line down the block. I am not an expert on Cuban politics but the disregard for their own people is hard to watch and I felt badly that I was receiving special treatment as a tourist.

I knew to expect this unfairness and I had researched what I could do to give back to the local people. I made sure to tip generously as this is what many people working in the tourism industry survive on. I brought tampons, soap, razors and other supplies that are hard to get and gave them out. I brought small toys, pencils and crayons to give to children. These items are considered luxuries and people were very appreciative to receive them.

You may be wondering why I am I telling you about Cuba and its poverty and it’s because it reminds me of our own poverty issues in Canada. Even though we live in a different country many Canadians face the same struggles: working but barely getting by, unable to find affordable housing and difficulty accessing services.

Our donors do the same thing for Covenant House and our youth as I did for the Cubans. They donate much needed supplies like tooth paste and brushes, clothing and sharing books and board games, items that are luxuries to our youth, just like the crayons and soap were for the Cuban people. It really reminded me that no matter where you go, people everywhere are basically the same; they are just trying to get by and do the best they can for themselves and their families.

If there is one difference between Canada and Cuba it is that we are blessed to live in a country where people have equal rights and are able to stand up and speak out if those rights are being violated. Anytime I travel I am always reminded how lucky I am to live in Canada and how important is to give back not only to my community but the global community as well. I feel blessed that I got a chance to interact with wonderful Cuban people and to give back in a small way. And I feel even more blessed that I got to return to Canadian with all its freedoms and continue to do the work I do at Covenant House.

Lastly, it is hard not to compare suffering when you consider the plight of the kids Covenant House (Casa Alianza) serves in central America where children as young as 10 years old are addicted to glue sniffing and are frequent victims of police brutality and where human trafficking is rampant.  Suffering is suffering but the stark contrast in the standard of living between those living in countries like Cuba or Nicaragua compared to Canada is undeniable.

A typical Cuban scene: brand new car in contrast to a decrepit house