The Cuban Culture of Poverty Conundrum

October 11, 2016

“Dictators…always look good…from the outside”

Tomáš Masaryk,  Czech sociologist/philosopher


I propose here to re-examine certain aspects of life in “Socialist Cuba,” principally the so-called culture of poverty, as gauged relatively early in the Castro brothers regime by two U.S. socio-cultural anthropologists, the legendary Oscar Lewis and his protégée/associate Douglas Butterworth, whose research project 4.5 decades ago was surrounded by controversy and enigmas.

Unquestionably, the Fidel and Raúl Castro “Revolutionary Government” enjoyed an extraordinary initial popularity in 1959. Yet, the enthusiasm vanished as the duo hijacked the liberal-inspired anti-Batista rebellion that had been largely advanced by the then expanding middle-classes. Instead of delivering the promised “pan con libertad” (bread with liberty), the Castro siblings converted Cuba into a socio-spiritually and fiscally bankrupt, Marxist-Stalinist dystopia in which both, bread and liberty are scarce (Botín, 2010; Horowitz, 2008; Moore, 2008).

Cuba was the last Ibero-American colony to attain independence (1902); yet, by the 1950s, the island-nation was a leader in the Americas in numerous quality-of-life indicators. This record was reached notwithstanding instability and governmental corruption during the republican era (1902-58), including the 1952-58 bloody authoritarian dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.2 However, under the (now anachronistic octogenarian) Castros, Cuba became an impoverished, Orwellian closed society beleaguered by unproductivity, rampant corruption, humiliating rationing, human rights abuses, and –understandably– unprecedented mass emigration (Díaz-Briquets & Pérez-López, 2006; Horowitz, 2008).

Cuba's Culture of Poverty Conundrum 

The Lewis and Butterworth project in 1969-70 is still, oddly, among the little known accounts of the early effects of the Castro family’s regimentation. Supported by a Ford Foundation’s nearly $300,000 grant, the professors intended to test Lewis’s theory of the "culture of poverty" (or rather, sub-culture of poverty). They had innocently hypothesized that a culture of poverty (hereafter CoP) would not exist in a Marxist-oriented society, as they presupposed that the socially alienating conditions that engender it could develop among the poor solely in capitalist economies. Influenced by Marxism, Lewis in particular had cleverly problematized the commonalities of the poor’s elusive quandary in well-known prior studies across different societies, notably among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.3

While poverty is defined in relative terms, the CoP was conceptualized as an amorphous corpus of socially transmitted self-defeating beliefs and interrelated values, such as: abandonment, alcoholism, authoritarianism, deficient work ethic, domestic abuse, fatalism, homophobia/machismo, hopelessness, illegitimacy, instant, gratification/present-time orientation, low social-civic consciousness, mother-centered families, sexism/misogyny, suspicion of authorities while holding expectations on government dependency, and so forth.

This “psychology of the…oppressed…poor” is considered a key obstacle to achieving vertical socio-economic mobility even in fluid social-class, more open societies, such as the U.S. Not all poor individuals develop a CoP, but being poor is a sine qua non condition.

Ever since its early stages as a separate discipline in the mid-1800s, anthropology’s cornerstone has been the concept of “culture.” A century later, the notion drifted to everyday language; to wit, statements such as “a culture of corruption” became common in the media in reference to mindsets in government and corporations. I prefer the interpretation of culture by my own Pitt co-mentor, “Jack” Roberts (1964): “a system for storing and retrieving information,” which fits with the Lewis-Butterworth approach.

With initial high-level governmental welcome, one of the Lewis-Butterworth investigations entailed comprehensive interviews of former Havana slum-dwellers resettled in new buildings. In the research project’s fourth book, The People of Buena Ventura, Butterworth (1980) admitted with disenchantment that his research project found sufficient social symptoms that met the CoP criteria, thus disproving the initial hypothesis expecting an absence of the CoP under socialism.4


The Project's Significance 

The Lewis-Butterworth ethnographic (descriptive, qualitative) work has various additional implications. It shed light for an evaluation of the Guevarist “New Socialist Man” archetype. Similarly, it informed an understanding of the dynamics that led to the spectacular 1980 Mariel boat exodus, when over 120,000 Cubans (some 1.2% of Cuba’s population) “voted with their feet.” Ironically, the regime and its insensitive fans abroad still refer to the raggedy refugees with disdainful discourse as “escoria” (scum) and with the Marxist slur “lumpen proletariat.” Significantly, most Marielistas were born and/or enculturated under socialism, i.e., they personified the presumed “New Man.” Many of them, moreover, had been military conscripts, and/or had served time in the infamous gulag-type “U.M.A.P.” forced-labor camps created for political dissidents (particularly intellectuals and artists), Beatles’ fans, gays, the unemployed, long-haired bohemians/hippies, Trotskyites, would-be emigrants (considered “traitors”), and religious people (including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Afro-Cuban folk-cults’ practitioners), etc. (Núñez-Cedeño, et al., 1985). In fact, the Marielistas encompassed also an over-representation of Afro-Cubans, the demographic sector traditionally viewed as most vulnerable, and thus, among the expected prime beneficiaries of socialist redistribution.5

Certainly, there were always poor Cubans -of all phenotypes- and conceivably, some version of the CoP existed pre-1959; but in my exchanges with Butterworth, he reconfirmed another remarkable finding. While acknowledging the social shortcomings of pre-revolutionary times, he could not document (for ex., through the collection of oral life-histories), a case for a pervasive, pre-revolutionary Lewisian CoP.

This in situ scrutiny of daily life fairly early in the Castros era corroborates previous and subsequent accounts by many Cubanologists and the much vilified and ever-expanding exile community.6 There exists a widespread CoP in Socialist Cuba, though not necessarily as a survivor of the ancien régime, but -as Butterworth deduced- a consequence of the nouveau régime. The authorities must have suspected, or ascertained through surveillance, about the prospective conclusions, given that the anthropologists were suddenly expelled from the country. They were accused of being U.S. spies, most of their research material was confiscated, and some “informants” (interviewees) were arrested and/or harassed. Additionally, their Cuban statistician, álvaro ínsua, was imprisoned.7

Comfortably from abroad, academic and media enthusiasts of the Castros’ “dynasty” customarily replicate party-line clichés in their penchant to “launder” the dictatorship’s excesses and the centralized economy’s dysfunctions by blaming external factors.8 Topping the excuses is the ending of the defunct COMECON’s subsidies circa 1990. Some apologists -notably a few anthropology colleagues- even absurdly refer to the 1959-90 epoch as a “utopia,” while the government labeled the current calamitous post-1990 years the “Special Period.”

Yet, the undertaking by Lewis & Butterworth, who were initially eagerly simpatico to the Castros, provided remarkable revelations that regime’s defenders conveniently still continue to overlook. It showed that life for average Cubans toward the end of the regime’s first decade -long before the Special Period- was already beset with corruption, consumer scarcities, and time-wasting food-lines. All this is characteristic of what is branded “economies of shortage,” standard for Soviet-modeled societies (Eberstadt, 1988; Ghodsee, 2011; Halperin, 1981; Verdery 1996).

Likewise, Butterworth portrayed how ordinary Cubans -“los de a pie” (those on foot)- were by then engaging in what nowadays we call “everyday forms of resistance,” a social weapon of subjugated people anywhere. As also depicted by other observers and Cuban former participant-resisters (now exiled, my own informants or “cultural consultants”), Butterworth reported how Cubans were already undermining the hegemonic police-state through taboo actions, such as absenteeism, black-marketeering, briberies, pilfering, and even vandalism.Apparently, this project remains the only conventional testing of the CoP in a totalitarian socialist country, although numerous researchers have chronicled the pitiable quality of life under such socio-political systems (Eberstadt, 1988; Halperin, 1981).  

Indeed, the Cuban reality of widespread misery -except for the privileged top one-percent (now an elitist gerontocracy)- as well as of indignities and hushed quotidian defiance, evokes narratives about similar, though faraway communist “experiments” that collapsed a quarter-century ago. Among these comparable accounts are ethnologist Verdery’s (1996) descriptions of despot Ceaușescu’s Romania and Ghodsee’s (2011) Bulgarian ethnographic vignettes.10



A number of experts have been reporting about certain kinds of behavioral traits among Cubans, both islanders and recent émigrés, which may reflect CoP patterns (Botín, 2010; Horowitz, 2008). This is not surprising, as the CoP worsened with time as impoverishment augmented (Hirschfeld, 2008).

One can surmise that, despite its human and material toll, the Castros regime not only failed to solve traditional social problems, but exacerbated at least some of them, and moreover created new ones (Díaz-Briquets & Pérez-López, 2006; Eberstadt, 1988). Much of this was already manifested in the 1960s (Edwards, 1973; Halperin, 1981), as reflected in the Lewis-Butterworth venture.

Lewis died, heart-broken, at age 56 in December 1970 upon his repatriation. Butterworth also took ill -especially emotionally- dying in 1986 (at 56 too). The ínsuas were abandoned in Cuba to their own lot. Álvaro languished in jail for six years; in 1980 he was “allowed” to leave for Costa Rica with wife Greta (who had also worked for the project), and son Manolo. They reached the U.S. soon thereafter, coinciding with the arrival of the Mariel expatriates and Butterworth’s book publication. After a brief staying in northern New Jersey, where I assisted them, they settled in Miami.

In assessing the legacy of the Lewis-Butterworth project on Cuba’s culture of poverty, there remain several intriguing puzzles pending exploration. Hopefully, someday Álvaro and Greta will write their own elucidating memoirs.11


1)  A) I thank:  (a) Eugenio Yáñez, for Cuban economic references; (b) Radamés Suárez, for the “launder” metaphor; and (c) various other helpful people, including Lewis-Butterworth’s former aides, as well as colleagues who for years provided valuable information and/or critiques to prior writings on related topics.  B) I dedicate this article to the memory of Ana María Bordón, whose friendship and pointers I miss.  C) I always welcome constructive feedback, especially inasmuch as this is still a rather complex work-in-progress.


3) Butterworth also participated with Lewis in prior studies.  The CoP idea has been dismissed by many critics, and Lewis is still bitterly rebuked in intellectual circles for “insensitively blaming the victims” (i.e., the poor).  Notwithstanding, his conceptions presented the basic ingredients for social-scientific theory building.

4) Four books resulted from “Project Cuba,” the first three, the Living the Revolution (1977-78-79) trilogy, was edited posthumously for Lewis by his widow, Ruth, with politologist Susan Rigdon.  I reviewed volume two for the journal Cuban Studies (U-Pitt.: Jan./1979).  Further insights were revealed by Halperin (1981), a former Marxist intellectual friend of Lewis who had worked for the Castros government in the 1960s.  Rigdon (1988) later wrote a biography of Lewis, appending selected correspondence.  I authored a review-article of Butterworth’s (1980) tome for Cuban Studies (Jul./1982), as well as other writings on analogous themes for the Wall St. Journal (12/30/1983), New America (Jul.-Aug./1983), Jersey Journal (12//31/2011), and DIARIO DE CUBA (Alum, 2014).

5) Although exiled prior to the Mariel boatlift, Afro-Cuban Pan-Africanist ethnologist Moore (2008) experienced the “U.M.A.P.” Hitlerian-style prison-camps too {vid.}.  Incidentally, among other authors, Moore noted that Batista: A) was of humble origins; B) was once a communists’ ally (even flirting with Stalin’s Russia); and C) flaunted his mulatto heritage when politically expedient, thus enjoying a following among the non-white minorities.  This may also add speculation as to why the predominantly European-looking middle- and upper-classes generally opposed ex-military Batista in the 1950s, favoring the (then) civilian Castros, the exclusive religious-school educated sons of a former Spaniard colonist soldier turned latifundista.

6) Curiously, permeated by blatant bigotry, the vitriolic smearing of Cuban exiles –the dictatorship’s victims-- multiplied exponentially, notably in U.S. academic and media circles, after the Mariel flight (see Yale Professor Eire’s analysis of a recent newspaper article bitterly “otherizing” Cuban-Americans {}).  Paradoxically, it is estimated that virtually half of the island’s population depends on the generous “survival packages” and multi-billion dollar remittances from the much demonized diasporic Cubans.

7) I am unaware of any foreign luminary or professional/academic organization protesting in the ínsuas’ behalf, or lending them a hand.  I was honored when, while still in Cuba, they contacted me through third parties in the late 1970s, as I was completing my own ethnographic research among Dominican poor rural workers.

8) The self-perpetuating Castros’ regime might qualify as a dynastic semi-monarchy, like that of the ridiculous Trujillo siblings in the Dominican Republic (1930-61), inasmuch as, for example, the titular power was passed at whim from elder to younger brother as each young sibling was also gifted the rank of “general” (Botín, 2010; Horowitz, 2008; Alum, 2014).

9) Passive resistance activities have been witnessed and reported also, and at different times, by other Cubanologists; e.g., Chilean Marxist President Allende’s ambassador-writer Edwards (1973), Spaniard journalist Botín (2010), and U.S. anthropologist Hirschfeld (2008), who furthermore valiantly deconstructed the Castros’ healthcare myths.

10) Verdery (1996) dissected the appropriation by the omnipresent state of people’s time in communist Romania, encompassing “voluntary” (read compulsory), un-compensated work and queues for rationed goods; but I am unaware of any corresponding analysis of the “etatization” of Cubans’ time.  Likewise, Ghodsee (2011) candidly admits that, while sacrificing individual liberties, the Bulgarian communist government failed to produce adequate goods and services, a generalization similarly applicable to other command economies, Cuba included. Moreover, these observations may be taken into consideration for a reformulation of an expansive CoP of poverty theory that would take into account the factual presence of such “socio-pathology” in socialist states, which, again, in turn disproves Lewis’s original hypotheses.

11) I know of only one insider’s published account (the “emic” perspective, in anthropological idiolect), other than Mrs. Lewis’s: that of Donate (2011), a project’s key research assistant, now exiled in Virginia, whose recent article eloquently describes how the ubiquitous Cuban intelligence apparatus outmaneuvered the well-intended, “if…naïve…foreign academics.”  For the quasi-comical government’s accusations, see {}.


Selected References

Alum, R., 2014, “Antes del Período Especial,” DIARIO DE CUBA (Madrid); 01/01/2014.

Botín, Vicente, 2010, Los Funerales de Castro. (Ariel).

Butterworth, Douglas, 1980, The People of Buena Ventura; Relocation of Slum Dwellers in Post-Revolutionary Cuba (Univ. of Illinois Press).

Díaz-Briquets, Sergio; & Jorge Pérez-López, 2006, Corruptiion in Cuba (Univ. of Texas Pr.).

Donate, Maida, 2011, “Oscar Lewis--Proyecto Cuba,”  ENCUENTRO; 06/30 & 07/04/11.

Eberstadt, Nick, 1988, The Poverty of Communism (Transaction).

Edwards, Jorge, 1973, Persona non grata (Barral).

Ghodsee, Kristen, 2001, Lost in Transition (Duke Univ. Pr.).

Halperin, Maurice, 1981, The Taming of Fidel Castro (Univ. of California Pr.).

Hirschfeld, Katherine, 2008, Health, Politics, and Revolution in Cuba (Transaction).

Horowitz, Irving, 2008, Long Night of Dark Intent—Half-Century of Cuban Communism. (Transaction).

Lewis, Oscar;  Ruth Maslow Lewis;  &  Susan Rigdon, 1977-78-79,  Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba;  I-Four Men, II-Four Women, III-Neighbors (Univ. of Illinois Pr.).

Moore, Carlos, 2008, Pichon--Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba (Chicago Review Pr.).

Núñez-Cedeño, R.; R. Alum;  &  R. Nodal, 1985, "The Afro-Hispanic Abakuá,” Orbis-Linguistique (Louvain), XXXI:263-284.

Rigdon, Susan, 1988, The Culture Facade.”  (Univ. of Illinois Pr.).

Roberts, John M., 1964, "The Self-Management of Cultures," in: Explorations in Anthropology, W. Goodenough, ed. (McGraw-Hill).

Verdery, Katherine, 1996, What Was Socialism (Princeton Univ. Press).

About Author(s)

Roland Armando Alum
ROLAND ARMANDO ALUM, is a New Jersey-based [external] Research Associate in anthropology with the Univ. of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies, from which he graduated, also received a Post-Doctoral Certificate from the Univ. of Virginia. A former Fulbright scholar in the Dominican Republic, he is a Fellow of the Society for Applied Anthropology, a trustee of DeVry Univ.-N.J., and vice-chair of both, the N.J. Certified Psychoanalysts Committee and the N.J. Center for Hispanic Policy, Research & Development. He has taught at several colleges/universities in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Dominican Rep. , and has in addition held N.J.-State & Federal high level executive and pro bono posts. His over 135 writings–-in English & Spanish—have been published in U.S. and foreign scholarly journals, books, encyclopedias, and newspapers. Among his research interests is the anthropology of dictatorships [].