By John S. Tamerin, M.D.
I will never forget that momentous night of Saturday, April 26, 1959. It was my senior year at Harvard College and more than 10,000 students gathered at the Dillon Field House to welcome an intriguing visitor, Fidel Castro. Back then everyone was full of enthusiasm and high hopes for Cuba.
Several weeks ago I decided to visit Cuba and see for myself what had happened in the last 57 tumultuous years of complex U.S.-Cuba relations. I was curious to see what I would encounter, although I knew that the Cuban people had really struggled for more than half a century under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
I was stunned by what I saw as I walked around Havana. What was once a magnificent city now looks like a war zone with everything falling down and thousands of crumbling buildings. The average Cuban earns 250 to 300 Cuban pesos, or $10 to $12 a month. They do receive rations from the government, but once their monthly rations run out, usually after two weeks, they must buy almost everything – food, toiletries and clothes on their limited monthly salary that we would spend on two lattes at Starbucks. I won’t labor the point, but things are really difficult for almost all Cubans and virtually everyone you speak with describes how challenging things are economically.
Nevertheless, despite the crumbling buildings and widespread poverty, what I discovered was graciousness, friendliness, openness, and a desire to further connect with Americans and America. I also encountered a realistic attitude both about what had and, certainly, what had not been accomplished during the Castro years. They know their suffering is real, and are not in denial about how very difficult the conditions are. However, I met no one who was feeling sorry for themselves. I experienced no cynicism, bitterness, anger, resentment or jealousy, and despite very challenging circumstances the people expressed hope and optimism concerning the future and a genuine pride in their country. Again and again I was struck by the resilience and resourcefulness of the Cuban people.
In a nutshell, although economic depression was omnipresent, the people we met were positive, passionate and purposeful. This led me, as a psychiatrist, to consider the difference between economic depression and clinical depression.
Let me briefly review the hallmarks of clinical depression. People who are depressed are dysphoric – sad, blue and down in the dumps. They are anhedonic; they lack interest or pleasure in almost all activities. In addition, they lack energy and are tired most of the time. Furthermore, people who are clinically depressed experience persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and guilt. These are precisely the symptoms I witness regularly as a practicing psychiatrist.
I am not saying that the people in Cuba are not depressed. My observations as a tourist are hardly based on extensive observation or scientific research. But these observations were the repeated experience of everyone on our trip and dozens of others I have spoken to who have visited Cuba recently.
I am sure there are depressed people in Cuba. I would probably be depressed as a physician living in Cuba earning $60 month, driving a taxicab at night, and turning my home into a restaurant so that I could feed wealthy tourists to supplement my meager income. That is not the point.
I mused about what it was that enabled the Cuban people we met to remain hopeful, motivated, and to find the energy to invent and reinvent themselves in art, music, dance and medicine. We met numerous artists, musicians, and dancers of extraordinary talent and commitment. I personally had the honor of meeting physicians who perform remarkable operations of great technical sophistication with limited resources and equipment. The people we met were focused, gracious, warm, fully present, talented, flexible, imaginative, creative, hardworking, energetic, self-respecting, and optimistic.
So what is my take-home message to my friends and neighbors in Fairfield and Westchester Counties? Don’t let depression – economic or clinical – steal your identity and self-respect.
VISIT CUBA! Have your own person-to-person encounter and I suspect that, like me, you will marvel at the human spirit which is alive and well Cuba. It is literally, as well as figuratively, rising from the ashes of crumbling buildings and a hugely struggling economy and is evident in the vitality, humor, warmth, intelligence and spirit of virtually everyone you will meet. See for yourself.
Dr. John S. Tamerin lives and practices psychiatry in Greenwich. He is a clinical associate professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell/ Weill School of Medicine.