Public/Private Tensions in Cuba: “We Are Looking for Happiness, Not Success” 

Last July I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with the support of the Princeton Program in Latin American Studies. My month-long trip was loaded with impressions, such as the kindness of Cubans, the not-so-great food (heavily loaded on the eggs side for vegetarians), the relative emptiness of the highways despite Cubans’ innovative use of anything that drives, the famous 50’s American old-timers you see everywhere and the visibility of the Communist regime, not in terms of military presence but more so in portraits of the Castro’s in stores, bars and food banks, revolutionary graffiti, and the political Billboard signs sprinkled besides main throughways.


One thing that stood out for me were the stores with their rather uneven assortment. In contrast to American and European supermarkets, Cuban stores often only have one brand of anything (i.e. Cuban diet coke, toilet paper, water – yet a large assortment of Cuban rum!), if they have the specific product you are looking for at all.


Since 2011 the government has allowed Cubans more leniency (see also here) to open up small, private companies such as restaurants, stores or other forms of self-employment. I found that these recent policy changes had interesting consequences for commercial spaces, and in particular the public /  private divide and logics we associate with these spaces.

An example is a store I visited in Trinidad, see the photo below. Prices of the goods in this store were cited in the CUC currency, the currency used for luxury goods and tourists. This picture illustrates the improvised nature of the store and the open connection with the living room in the back. The entrance of the store was through the open front door of the house, and the store lacked a display window.


Throughout my travels in Cuba, I saw many examples of these ‘private spaces turned public.’ Another example is a restaurant where the bathroom for customers was simultaneously the bathroom still privately used by the owners: it also had a bath and a shower. In a third example at a restaurant in Vinales, grandma was sitting in a chair in the back of the room, and guests of the restaurants could look beyond her right into the kitchen, where an ordinary ‘home’ kitchen block was used for restaurant cooking. In this restaurant another open doorway led straight into a bedroom of the house, where you could see two carefully made full-sized beds with typical Cuban kitschy pink and poisonous green cover-sheets.

What do these spaces indicate? It this simply improvisation born from need?

I would hypothesize that these spaces are material expressions of a larger ambivalence that characterizes many Cubans’ stance towards capitalist entrepreneurship and the self-interested motives associated with it. My notion of the binary between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces is a European import: while the public is associated with the logic of the free market, the private is the space of domesticity and intimacy. They correspond to two logics of actions (i.e. monetary transaction versus domestic ‘acts of love’) that are seen as essentially different and need to be kept separate. In The Purchase of Intimacy (2005), Viviana Zelizer called this the “hostile world” thesis. Do we observe the same juxtaposition of two ‘hostile worlds’ and separation practices in Cuba? How are separation practices mitigated or reframed as a result of the communist reality of Cuba?

In “Salsa Suarez,” a privately owned restaurant in Varadero, I came across the following English restaurant motto that was announced proudly on little menu stands put on every table:


“We are looking for happiness, not success.”  

This restaurant was quite upscale, and featured international menu items, such as seafood risotto and burritos. The target group seemed largely families of better-off Cubans and mostly European tourists, who stayed in the ‘mid-range’ hotels and recently opened casa particulares scattered around the area. This motto seems strangely out of place in such a newly capitalist place: a private restaurant in one of the most economically booming, tourist places of Cuba. Rather than trying to separate intimacy from the economic realm, it seems to try to convey a ‘domestic’ logic on their business and distance the restaurant from economic rationality.

I am aware that this type of import of domestic logics into the market is not unique to Cuba.  American companies frequently try to portray themselves as ‘family’ companies, and the hotel industry tries to position clients as guests. Nevertheless, I still think it is interesting in light of Cuba’s complex relation to capitalism.

Rather than disguised marketing strategies, these mixing of logics may indicate people’s ambivalence or political anxiety to openly embrace the ‘capitalist impulse,’ and the self-interested, destructive market motives associated with such an impulse. Hence, in this particular context, it may not only be a way of managing the tension between ‘hostile worlds,’ but more so the tension between ‘capitalist’ and ‘communist’ logics and orders of worth. In this context, happiness and success are not mutually implicated.