Empathy: How does Cuba do it?

by Sarah Stephens

It was on a trip to the island, nearly two decades ago, that I first experienced Cuban-style empathy -- and became fascinated with it.

On a sun-drenched Tuesday morning, as the leaders who were part of the delegation to Cuba I had organized were assembling for a day of meetings in Havana, we got word that one plane followed by another had slammed into the twin towers in New York as part of the attacks on September 11th 2001. 

After watching the news coverage in our hotel, and trying as best we could to communicate with loved ones at home, we walked with unsteady feet into a day I had previously filled with meetings; still in shock over what had taken place in the US and feeling uncertain about how we’d be received by Cuban officials and by Cubans on the street, given that we were from the United States.

Despite the daily hardships that the U.S. embargo had inflicted on Cubans for decades, my delegation and I were comforted in every office we visited, met with tears and embraces by strangers on every street. 

As one of Havana’s city historians told us, quoting Jose Martí, “The world is composed of two kinds of men – those who love and create and those who hate and destroy.” He then added, “I am glad that Cubans and the people of the US belong to the first group together.”

This unexpected personal exposure to what Cubans might call “solidarity,” and what I think of as “empathy,” had a transformative effect on members of the delegation. It became clear that this outpouring of empathy towards us was not an isolated occurrence, but was commonplace in Cuba.

The experience had a profound impact on me as well. Before 9/11 and since, I have worked to change US policy toward Latin America and Cuba by bringing US leaders into direct conversation with people of the region. We meet in homes, in offices, in public spaces – and listen.  Time and again I’ve seen these visits move Americans – and also Cubans – in ways they never anticipated.

Experiencing the empathy of strangers as I did in Cuba 16 years ago, when it could so easily have been withheld, got me thinking about the relationship between a cultural norm of empathy towards one another and objective measurements of societal well-being. 

Cuba is an ideal case study for researching what works. The statistics are undeniable: for decades, Cuba has been recognized globally as a high-performer in areas ranging from health care and education, to civil preparedness and responses to natural disaster. Despite immense economic and political challenges and the continued denial of rights so prized in other countries, Cuba remains a force for social well-being and gender equality.

According to international measures:

  • Cuba ranks first in the world in literacy; enrollment in primary, second, and tertiary education, and in the top twenty of countries for political empowerment of women (2017 Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum).
  • Despite more than half a century of a US economic embargo, Cuba’s average life expectancy matches that in the US: 79.1 years, just a few months shorter than Americans who, on average, live to 79.3 years, according to 2015 data from the World Health Organization (WHO)” (Reported by El Pais in 2017).
  • Cuba leads the US in multiple measures based on its sustainable development goals: in health worker density and distribution, minimizing deaths due to natural disasters, providing for the nutritional health of children under the age of 5, its ability to manage national health risks, vaccinating children under the age of 1, providing family planning services to women aged 15-49, in under-five mortality and neonatal mortality rates, and more (According to the World Health Organization).
  •  Cuba accomplishes this high performance in health care indicators despite spending just $817 per capita. By comparison, the US spends $9,403 on health care per capita (World Bank).

How does Cuba do it?

Our project, the Cuba Platform, will look for answers to this and other underlying questions. Where does empathy come from?  Despite its many shortcomings, what can Cuba teach us about empathy and equity? And what can we learn from a wide range of research in brain science, primatology, evolution, and psychology about building less polarized, more empathetic societies?  What specifics can we take from the Cuban experience that are applicable to other social justice efforts?  What can we learn in Cuba about building fairer, healthier, more inclusive societies across the globe? 

Having spent the last 17 years introducing hundreds of US leaders to Cuba and Cubans, including scientists, economists, Grammy Award-winning musicians, Members of the US Congress and Senate, Governors, and Fortune 100 companies, my team and I will now be bringing a new group of innovative change-makers to the island. The Atlantic Fellows are emerging leaders from around the world and a range of backgrounds who share a commitment to the goal of advancing fairer, healthier, and more inclusive societies. They are “thinkers and doers with innovative ideas and the courage, conviction and capacity to bring lasting improvements to their communities and the world.” 

What a privilege to introduce them to Cuba!

This year, the Platform will organize two “Cuba Convenings” for the Atlantic Fellows, which will offer opportunities to see what Cuban successes look like, and how Cuba works to make its achievements sustainable while simultaneously addressing its economic crises. We will hear from many Cubans about their personal participation in this unique and historic experiment and their feelings about how it has made them who they are today. I guarantee you we will also hear Cubans point out where the model has fallen short.  We will compare their experiences to those in our home communities, and share ideas and stories with our Cuban counterparts.

Exposure to Cuba can flip assumptions and create new perspectives about empathy and equity for Atlantic Fellows. There is much to learn in Cuba about ourselves and our own work – about how Cuba does it and whether we can, too. 

Sarah Stephens