R. Clay Reynolds’ “From Castro to Cancun” (Correspondence, May) presented a number of observations that contradict much of what has been documented with regards to Cuba.  For the sake of brevity, I am only highlighting some of the most glaring.

First, the claim that there is “no urban blight” in Cuba ignores the crumbling reality.  If urban blight means the “deterioration and decay of buildings and older areas of large cities,” then Havana, a city where inhabitants are frequently killed by falling debris and collapsing buildings, is a poster child for urban blight.  Professor Reynolds should take a look at the documentary Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins by German filmmakers Florian Borchmeyer and Matthias Hentschler.

Second, Professor Reynolds’ claim that he “detected no sense of fear or of persecution and no despair” is surprising in a country with the second-highest suicide rate in the Western Hemisphere, according to official figures.  Cubans have endured three dictatorships since the 1920’s, with a couple of short-lived democratic spaces.  Dictatorships in Cuba have gone from bad to worse.

Third, the author claims that “Cubans currently enjoy high-quality and totally free health and dental care.”  Cubans have a two-tiered healthcare system: one tier for the nomenklatura and foreign tourists with hard currency, which is relatively good and offers care with modern equipment and fully stocked pharmacies; and a second tier that is for everyone else, which offers broken-down equipment, rundown buildings and rooms, and scarce supplies, not to mention an appalling lack of hygiene, the denial of certain services, and lengthy wait times.

Katherine Hirschfeld, an anthropologist, in her 2006 book Health, Politics, and Revolution in Cuba Since 1898, writes how her idealistic preconceptions were dashed by “discrepancies between rhetoric and reality.”  She observed a repressive, bureaucratized and secretive system, long on “militarization” and short on patients’ rights.

Professor Reynolds fails to mention the repeated outbreaks of cholera and dengue that have hit the island over the past couple of years, and how the Cuban government sought to downplay them for international tourism.  Additionally, the claim that in Cuba there is a “free education for anyone who is willing to study hard and advance” ignores that students who dissent or take part in legal initiatives such as the Varela Project are summarily expelled and barred from higher education.  The regime in more candid times stated that “universities were revolutionaries.”

Cuba is in many ways—crime, drug use, and violence—like Kingston and San Juan, but without the transparency necessary to report on this reality.

        —John J. Suarez
Miami, FL

Professor Reynolds Replies:

My time in Cuba was admittedly limited, as was the space allotted for the article.  I might have qualified more, otherwise.  While there, I spent every day in direct contact with Habaneros from all walks of life: professionals, academics, bartenders, musicians, clerks, cabbies, craftsmen, maids, police, doormen, and laborers.  I questioned all about the matters I mentioned; their responses were consistent, unguarded, open, offering more insight and information than I anticipated.  I had read Hirschfeld’s volume as well as seven other recent-vintage books about Cuba before visiting; I arrived with preconceptions based on these.  Most of my notions were contradicted by firsthand observation and conversations with Cubans.  I could have been misled, of course; I don’t believe so.  My conclusions were personal.  My definition of urban blight may not follow standard denotation, but I have seen contemporary Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, parts of Philadelphia, New York City, Miami.  By comparison, I found the deteriorating infrastructure throughout Havana to be no match to the abandoned, often filthy, dangerous environs of parts of those cities with their weed-choked vacant lots, abandoned vehicles, boarded-up, graffiti-sprayed buildings.  I walked throughout Havana and never felt threatened or as uncomfortable as I have in many American cities, including Dallas.  My comments on crime, education, and healthcare were derived from regular people, not official government pronouncements.  Before submitting the article, I ran a draft by two colleagues who have traveled to Cuba often and extensively over the past decade; they corroborated my observations and verified their accuracy.