My first fencing instructor was Cuban. This should come to no surprise to someone with enough imagination to probably figure out that fencing instructors are in short supply in the Dominican Republic. In fact, the sport itself is not exactly “popular”, as the country’s attention span is, for the most part, limited to everything baseball-related (the Roland Garros final will probably get one column in the last page of the sports section, but if David Ortiz strains his shoulder, oh believe me, it will make the front page of the paper).
Anyways, back to my Cuban instructor: he was an… interesting fella. Had a bit of a tough time with the whole smiling thing, and for the longest time I could not figure out whether I was just terrible at fencing, or whether it was actually physically impossible for him to point out whenever I would correctly perform an action. But don’t get me wrong, I learned a great deal from the man, and it was probably thanks to his incessant brainwashing attempts that I ever became so disciplined in sports.
He was sent to the Dominican Republic (in my understanding) by some agreement that someone from my government made with someone from his government, which basically meant that he was on a sort of “sports-diplomatic duty”. He was representing the Cuban government and the Cuban people, and had a very specific mandate in this “mission”. I wish I had more of an insider’s scoop on what they were or were not allowed to do, or how, actually, they were selected in Cuba, but one of the things I did find out was that they, under no circumstances, should undertake another paid job somewhere else.
Now, I know I mentioned the whole “representing the Cuban people” as sort of a hyperbole, but he sure seemed to take this role seriously. I mean, he would not waste one single opportunity to point out what was wrong with us Dominican people. Every time one of my fellow team-mates was late for practice, he would just go:
“You Dominicans can NEVER be on time. You see, in Cuba…
Or whenever something “went missing” from the equipment room:
“You Dominicans have the BAD HABITS of stealing. You see, in Cuba…”
Or whenever he yelled at us for doing something wrong, and we tried to explain:
“You Dominicans always want to JUSTIFY YOURSELVES for everything. Why do you always have to find an excuse? You see, in Cuba…”
So yes, he was THAT guy. Always implying how Cuba was somehow “morally superior” to the Dominican Republic. He seemed so eager in proving to us how their country’s regime made them such great individuals, and how we Dominicans should try to learn more from them. We would sometimes even get into discussions about it, and I was really curious just to see how Cubans who are actually on the side of the government (technically, as he was in a sort of government mission, like I mentioned before) thought about certain issues. In the most memorable discussion we had, he went on a twenty minute rant explaining why garbage collectors should have the same salary as doctors.
“BECAUSE THEY ARE DOING THE JOB THAT NOBODY IN SOCIETY WANTS TO DO!! THEY ARE THE ONES DEALING WITH THE GARBAGE!! SURGEONS, THEY’RE PRETTY COMFORTABLE, THEY ARE NOT THE ONES GETTING THEIR HANDS DIRTY, ANYONE COULD WORK LIKE THAT.”
I was a little shocked by his logic:
“So you’re saying that anyone can do a surgeon’s job? That you don’t have to go to college, and then get your pre-med, and then get your medical degree, and then do internships, and then get a specialty, all while sacrificing most of your relationships with your loved ones for your career. And still, go into operations that last for hours, where there is a risk that the patient won’t even make it, to then go back home and pretend you did not just see someone die…. Is easier than being a garbage collector?” (No offense to garbage collectors, I do appreciate your contribution to society, but I also think a little perspective never hurt anyone).
But he would just go in circles:
“BUT THE GARBAGE COLLECTORS HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE FILTH OF SOCIETY. THAT IS ACTUALLY THE HARDEST JOB!”
(Alright, no point in wasting my time trying to convince this guy).
And it’s funny, you see, because Cuba and the Dominican Republic are really similar. In fact, you could almost take the introduction of Communism in Cuba, and the “democracy” in the Dominican Republic as a natural experiment to how regime type can affect a country’s development. (Econometricians reading this, and I know there’s a lot of you, don’t freak out, I know this would be pretty tricky, inaccurate, and most of the results would probably be greatly biased anyways. But my point is, if Cuba had not become Communist, we probably would have a lot in common. I mean, you can’t really predict how history will go, but let’s just stick to that assumption for the purpose of this blog post). Other than the whole regime thing, we’re both islands in the Caribbean, we were both colonized by the Spanish, and they pretty much brought the extinction of the indigenous population on both of our islands, so we are today, for the most part, mulattoes. We both speak Spanish, and have that Caribbean accent that make other Spanish-speaking nations wonder what the hell is it that we’re trying to say.
Now, a small parenthesis on that point. I am aware that Dominican Spanish is a sacrilege to the “proper Spanish”. How I explain it to my non-Spanish speaking friends is: “Well, you know Mexican Spanish?” (I find that most American/Canadians are more familiar with that particular breed of Spanish). “Think of Mexican Spanish as a pop song, and then Dominican Spanish would be sort of like… a RAP song”. I also find that stand-up comedian Anjelah Johnson has a brilliant way of putting it: “You see, to me when I hear Puerto-Ricans speak Spanish, it sounds like they have water in their mouth… and they don’t want it to spill… you know what I mean? Like… óla cómo tá ké kiere komé…. Oié ké tá pasando?” (So Caribbean Spanish in general is similar-ish). End of parenthesis.
Back to the comparisons: we also both have a soft spot for fried food, we both had sugar plantation economies, and we both are crazy about béisbol (which is directly a consequence of the sugar plantation economies, but that’s a story I’ll leave for later). Tourism is our main export, and we have also a reputation with Rum and Cigars (although the whole US-embargo thing has somehow worked to put Cuban cigars on a pedestal… they’re not normatively better than Dominican cigars, they’re just forbidden so you get that whole badass vibe going for you if you claim to be smoking one). We both have similar music and dance styles (men dance with their hips, which I have realized that some non-latinos find it hard to wrap their heads around the fact), and so we could go on with the similarities…
And yet, objectively, even though I would probably want it to be otherwise, Cuba can kick the DR’s a** in every education indicator. Hell, most of my most brilliant and memorable teachers in high school were from Cuba. You will not see Cuban university students struggle with their grammar, and for sure, if they had access to internet and online press, I can bet they would not make sure embarrassing spelling mistakes in every comment they leave. They can also kick our a** in most Olympics sports. I mean, there are exceptions to the rules, obviously, and you cannot make generalizations, and we do have excellent athletes in the DR etc etc etc… But the numbers speak by themselves. I mean, Cuba has won 208 Olympic medals, that is 18.8 medals per million people. The DR was won 6 Olympic medals, which is 0.59 medals per million people. It is also a known fact that Cuba has a stellar crew of Doctors, which they seem to deploy (similar to the fencing instructors) to other countries as well, or put at the disposition of diplomatic missions. Another known fact is the government’s competence in disaster preparation and reliefs efforts. In fact, their low number of casualties and death in response to hurricanes or tropical storms can put the Dominican government to shame.
But what do Olympic medals, great teachers, competent disaster relief and doctors tell you about a nation? Well, although by any economic standard Cuba may look very third-worldy, by most health and education standards they are outliers in the region, standing shoulder to shoulder with other developed nations. And they are great athletes too, which is always a plus.
Ah yes… my instructor would always point out to me how Cuban fencers were so dedicated that, even if they were out of weapons, they would scrap something together from sticks or something like that (ironically, I couldn’t understand the process he was trying to explain to me because of his accent). Unfortunately (actually, fortunately) I went abroad for college, and so that marked the end of that trainer-trainee bond. I never saw him again, and it was only after asking one of my team-mates that I found out what became of him…
My mother advised me once to “never spit to the sky” (obviously, doing so would make the spit fall straight into your eye. The phrase has a better ring to it in Spanish, trust me on this one). And I think this phrase summarizes perfectly what became of my old instructor. You see, for all that is worth, all the wellbeing and the “moral superiority” thing he was so adamant about (for the record, he never explicitly said that Cubans were morally superior to Dominicans, but to me it was implicit in his attitude), he chose to broke the terms of his contract and now cannot go back to Cuba. I learned that, after I left, he took a job as an aerobics instructor for a resort or a gym (or both), and was also kind of making a business of selling injury relief creams.
So why then, were all the perks of a healthy, educated society not enough? While there are a handful of explanations in every social science of why communism doesn’t work, and why you see repression in these regimes, and why their incentive system is so messed up etc etc etc, I just wanted to humbly go back to one of them: lack of choice. You see, we humans need choice, because it makes us believe that we are somehow in control of our lives. And apparently, choice is so important to us that we are even willing to sacrifice returning to a regime we once so eagerly stood up for. Of course, I do like to believe that there are diminishing marginal returns to choice. (Economists love to talk about “marginal returns”, I know, but once you get familiarized with the concept, it’s hard to keep yourself from using it as your go-to-explanation for anything that it could apply to). Anyways, for non-Economists out there, diminishing marginal returns is why the first bite of your meal is always the tastier, and why going from your first to your second beer makes you happier than going from your eight to your ninth. It also explains why having a 108th brand of cookies is not going to make Americans any happier, but why even selling another brand of anything in Cuba can make such a difference .
Another Cuban professor of mine liked to tell us the story of how, when they arrived to the Dominican Republic, they were the most impressed at the ice-cream shops. You see, in Cuba they only have the original trinity (chocolate-strawberry-vanilla), but in the DR, as they walked into the ice-cream shop, they couldn’t help to be amazed at “all the colors”. So I just find it interesting, how choice seems so relevant after you have your basics sorted (you know, education, health, etc…), whereas for us Dominicans (and for most of the western world) it is something we take for granted, and we currently struggle to sort our basics…
Sorry if I disappoint the reader with my lack of a conclusion, but I did not intend to make a political statement here, I just wanted to tell a story, and maybe have its political implications resonate with the reader depending on their own experience. I guess I do like to wonder off comparing Cuba with the Dominican Republic sometimes, and wonder about the “what ifs”. The fact is that our geography and our people are so alike that we would mostly be competing in every possible international arena. Or hey, maybe our history would be different if Cuba had not become communist: maybe the US government would not have been so scared of the communist threat in the region and would not have helped depose the most progressive and democratic president we had at the time (and probably ever, in our history as a nation). But, bottom line is, sometimes regimes can get so stuck up on an “ideal” that they lose sight of what really matters for their people. And sometimes we would like to think that Utopias where everyone has the same, and collaborates, and no one exploits anyone is possible can make everyone happy. But history has proven for it to be otherwise. Because at the end of the day, ideologies and Utopias cannot contradict human nature, and what once was seemed like the solution, can be a mere anachronism today. Because while health and education are necessary but not sufficient for the progress and wellbeing of a nation; and because “isms” can quickly turn into the concept mummies that haunts and hinders our very human instinct to adapt to the times, for the sake of our own people.