Cultural Leveling

In the last couple of weeks, the first commercial flight to Santa Clara, Cuba from the U.S. landed.  While other flights from Miami to Havana had already taken place earlier in the summer, this flight into the interior of Cuba continues to make history as there are now more than 300 flights from multiple airports in the U.S. to numerous destinations in Cuba.  Touted widely are the economic changes that await Cuba and the potential trade opportunities for U.S. companies and businesses.  What has been less discussed are the potential cultural transformations that will occur in Cuba—how Cuba’s values and norms will shift and change.

The social sciences focus a great deal of attention on a culture’s (or society’s) values and norms.  Values function in a variety of ways.  One thing they do is tell us what we, collectively, (that is our culture) hold to be right/wrong, good/bad, beautiful/ugly, etc.  For instance, in the U.S., by in large, we hold the value that politeness is a good thing.  The only way we see evidence of politeness is through behavior.  The norms of a society are our expectations of behavior.  So we believe that politeness is good and we measure this politeness through behaviors.   In our society, we expect people to say good morning, ask how someone is, and respond to that individual.  Right now, we are still in a transition around what behaviors are considered polite or impolite regarding cell phone use.  Cultures do change and establish new norms of behavior around a value.  We still believe that politeness is good; though at the moment what evidence counts as politeness is shifting.  We might ask, “Is it polite to talk on our cell phone in a restaurant?”  “Is it polite to text at the dinner table?”  These questions help us define boundaries of behavior and reinforce our values.  Sometimes it feels as though our values are changing when shifts in behavior begin to occur.  In this case, it isn’t so much what we value that is changing as how we see evidence of those values through our behaviors.  So, before, there was a clear line of behavior around phone use.  Now, as accessibility to phones has changed we are in a period of readjusting what behaviors constitute politeness in regard to phone use; we are deciding what constitutes new norms.

Values do change in cultures, too.  New values are added and others do begin to slip away.  Shared values are crucial to a culture.  Shared values help us to feel integrated and a part of our culture.  When we all believe the same or similar things we feel a sense of belonging and unity.  What we value and how those values are manifested through behaviors identify us and bring us together.  As values change and new norms of behavior are established, we often struggle as a culture.  Ideally this is a give and take process as groups negotiate for a value and definition of behavior.  Yet, as we struggle collectively we may wonder or notice if one group has more influence than others in terms of the way we change those norms.  In our modern society, media always plays a role in shaping new values and norms.  Other entities influence values and norms, too, such as policies, laws and economics.  In turn, one can see how each entity folds into the other with the influence of each magnifying—such as the commercialization of media.

As various commercial flights land in Cuba, many suggest that the influx of capital is a good thing.  Capital brings Cubans a wide variety of products from which to choose. And, this, in turn, is believed to enhance their life.  While in the U.S. having name-brand cereal to choose from may be of importance, for the current populace in Cuba name-brand food is not valued and subsequently buying it matters very little.  Yet, as media opens up and trade policies change, what is valued and consumed will undoubtedly change as that which is available changes.  Some may argue that the change in types of goods matters very little and that the abundance and the abundance of choice is what is significant.  Two things seem important here—one, that the change in products available comes from outside the culture itself and two, that the value of variety and choice (and the subsequent value of competition) gets infused into a culture whose values have been making sure everyone’s basic needs are met.

A direct result of focusing on basic needs, and manifested in Cuba, is the belief of everyone as equal or as every life having the same worth.  Worth is not measured by material goods, name brands, or individual achievement.  Rather, the whole is esteemed by attending to an equal measure of society’s resources for everyone.  Enter the conversation of media.  At present citizens of Cuba do not have access to the global media as we do.  Yes, there are national television stations and yes, there is access to the internet—though only in public spaces and nationally serviced—individuals are not wired continuously.  At the moment there is not a commercial market for cell phone service, internet access or cable television…though all of this is changing as I write.  I understand that media, especially the internet, can offer a democratization of information and access to cultural productions.  For instance, I can now watch the Metropolitan Opera on YouTube.  I no longer need to have the money to travel to New York and purchase a ticket.  Yet, in a culture, like Cuba, where this democratization of goods has already been occurring, what will the effect of global media be?  And, how will the opening of trade change existing values and norms?  Perhaps more importantly, will there be space to manage and control this development?  Or will the influx of the global market via the U.S. and global media produce the same effects that we have seen before?  That is, the loss of a unique culture with distinct values and norms and a cultural leveling whereby the rest of the world looks and acts increasingly like the U.S.?

What to expect from this blog…

I chose to write a blog for a couple of reasons.  One, I want to write regularly.  Usually when I have a perceived audience (even just in my head) and deadlines (even self-imposed ones) I am a much more consistent writer.  Two, I wanted an avenue for writing using the perspective I’ve gained from over fifteen years in the academy, but I don’t want to get caught up in academic jargon.  In short, I want to write intelligently for intelligent people.

All the blog experts say to have a successful blog it needs a definitive theme or subject.  Hmm…I thought, how narrow does this theme have to be?  After all, I am a sociologist with (as I tell my students) the social world as my laboratory.  I do have a definitive theme for this blog, and I am probably breaking all the blog rules, since my subject is the social world.

So, I aim to write about the social world from a smart, critical perspective that occasionally asks questions and gets us to think.  I will tell funny stories for sure, with hopes of there being a larger point.  I’ll use my students, family, friends (anonymously, of course) and myself! as overtures for topics.  And, of course politics (though candidates will not be endorsed) and economics are fair game.  As some of my students rightly point out—everything about sociology is political because we question the status quo on a regular basis.  Indeed!  Which leads me to this disclaimer—I am not the queen of the social world nor do I want to be!  I do want to think and write and do both of these things well.


Cuba has held a fascination in the American imagination for many years—long before the infamous revolution of 1960.  The revolution perhaps heightened this fascination in the way we all might love James Dean—he is oh so bad, yet oh so handsome, and oh so bad.  The U.S. ideology, since World War II, has defamed and vilified the non-capitalistic economies of the world and linked this animosity to the perceived undemocratic governments of those countries.  In part, we might say that this disparaging process has been done outside the understanding of history or perhaps our role in that history.  Take Cuba, for example.  Like many of the Caribbean Islands in the 1950s, U.S. tourism and investments (in mines, public utilities, railways and the sugar industry) real estate and bank holdings played a key in Cuba’s “market” economy (to the tune of about $1 billion).  Americans flocked to Cuba as a playground to our south where, perhaps, all the social rules did not apply.  Some historians have likened Havana from the 1920 to 1960 to Las Vegas where all that we would not pursue in our normal lives, we partake of in Las Vegas, because, after all, it is legal.  A military coup in 1952 foisted by General Batista declared Batista President of Cuba.  (General Batista had done this before in 1933 and proclaimed Mendieta president and seemingly ruled the country from behind presidents for a decade).  During this period, little can be seen in way of a response from the U.S. against this very undemocratically elected president.  Investments continued.  Development continued.  Tourism continued.  All the while, regular Cubans in the countryside and in Havana itself drastically suffered economically (ultimately living in abject poverty) under President Batista and they also disagreed with the very amoral behavior of the foreigners and bourgeoisie.

The story of the 1960 revolution in Cuba that I learned in school never took into account the conditions that hundreds of thousands of Cubans lived in nor told of the economic investments of the U.S. and our complacency with a sitting president who took his position by force.  My history lesson slandered the revolution and its leaders—Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara (also completely ignoring his iconic status in numerous Latin American countries).  I was taught that this government was violent, ousted the President and at base was in complete opposition to democracy.  The culmination of this lesson was solidified in the said audacity of the revolutionaries to distribute goods (food and housing) and services (education and healthcare) to the vast numbers of people in poverty.   My history book never pointed out that the anger and the even further position of the economic embargo of the U.S. government rested on the reality that the goods and services distributed belonged to U.S. citizens and corporations gained under undemocratic governments who ignored the needs of its own people for the favor of the U.S.

Now, as noted in my disclaimer, I am not supporting a political candidate nor government.  I am not, in this piece, a blind cheerleader for Castro.  Rather, I am thinking about this history and how we frame what and how we think about things.  This past June, I traveled to Cuba.  I am still astounded by the number of people who have remarked to me—“Oh, yeah, now that Cuba has opened itself up to us.”  I have tried with all tact to say, “Cuba has never closed itself to us or to other tourists.  We, as U.S. citizens, have always been allowed to travel to Cuba.  It is the U.S. Government that has forbidden re-entry into the U.S. directly from Cuba.  And, in addition, we have not been allowed to bring goods from Cuba into the U.S.”  In other words, the policy has forbidden us, as free people, to travel where we like and spend our money how we like.  Cuba has always welcomed us.

I am well aware of the critiques lodged against a socialist economy.  However, I think it is vital that we not rant against an economic system and claim our distrust of it is because we assert it is undemocratic.  This is a logical fallacy.  Economic systems and governments are not the same thing.  After all, the U.S. invested in a pre-1960 capitalist Cuba when a very undemocratic government ruled.  We have since 1960 not supported a socialist economy in Cuba, despite the fact that it was regular ordinary people who supported and constituted the revolution; and, it is the people, now, who elect representatives to their local governments and to the national committee.  My question, have we not supported Cuba because it has a socialist economy?  Or is it because we have named and acted toward the government as though we believe it to be undemocratic?  If it is the latter, which is what I learned in school, then we must account for all the decades of supporting an undemocratic government in Cuba, which also happened to support capitalism.  In addition, how do we explain the current democratic processes in Cuba today?  And, if this is our line of thinking, at what point do we need to examine (and possibly critique) our own seemingly democratic processes in the U.S.?  Or, perchance, do we not support Cuba because we feel as though goods have been stolen from U.S. citizens?  If this is the case, then, we must keep better accounting books and first pay for all that was acquired from the Cuban people at unfair prices or with no payment at all prior to demanding our own reparations.