The Cuban Citizen Consumer Divide
“Citizen Consumer: Ideals in Conflict?” examines what it means to be a Cuban citizen in a semi-isolated, island country that is increasingly embracing consumerism.
“I always thought that film was a great way to encapsulate and disseminate research [in] a very entertaining and enjoyable way,” Grier said. “I take a lot of video and a lot of pictures, and I don’t do anything with them except share them with my friends, and I thought, ‘I can make a movie.’”
The film earned Grier the Judges’ Choice Award at the 2013 Association for Consumer Research conference. It presents a glimpse into consumerism in a society that emphasizes collective well-being while Cuba begins to open itself up to capitalism and the larger global economy.
“On the surface, Cuba reflects the antithesis of consumerism as practiced in the rest of the world,” Grier narrates in the film. “But is this really the case?”
For decades Cuba shut itself off from much of the world as it strove to create an ideal socialist state. After the 1959 success of the Cuban revolution, private property was nationalized; private business was limited; food was rationed; health care and education were made free and open to everyone— all in the name of more equitably distributing the country’s resources.
While prevailing capitalism means most global citizens are seen primarily as consumers, in Cuba, the emphasis was on creating citizens focused on personal wellbeing rather than the desire of material goods. As such, billboards across the island proclaim the benefits of socialism, urge national unity, and promote healthy choices. Advertisements for products are conspicuously missing from store-fronts and airwaves in Havana. The absence of commercial marketing was a particular lure for Grier to spend time in Cuba.
Grier interviewed Cubans who spoke of that national cohesion, regardless of economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. “For us, the national unity is very important because it is the way to conserve the country,” one interviewee said.
“Some people, they ask: ‘How can you survive with so many material limitations?’” Another said. “It’s because of the solidarity that exists between the people.”
But Cuba’s balance between citizen and consumer may be shifting. In recent years, the government has expanded opportunities for self-employment and travel to and from the country. The unique citizen-consumer blend was appealing to Grier as she chose between several international locations to spend her research sabbatical.
With the expansion of private business and the influx of tourists and Cubans living abroad, the country’s citizens are increasingly exposed to products and trends of the greater world. Residents are getting a taste for foreign clothes and goods that are brought to the island from relatives abroad. Remittances are funding small businesses and other ventures.
“There’s a real tension between the onset of the economy changing and becoming more integrated into the rest of the world economy,” Grier said. “There’s this conflict between socialist ideals and… the way capitalist values are coming into play.”
She said it’s also changing some of the fundamental natures of society.
Grier’s research has explored the complex relationship between marketing and consumer health with a special focus on how it impacts minorities. Grier has received more than $3 million dollars in grant funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is also a member of the Institute of Medicine Food Forum and other organizations. She also serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.
Grier found not all Cubans have equal access to scarce goods and resources as they encounter growing exposure to consumerism. More than $2 billion in remittances from abroad have poured into the island, creating haves and have-nots that often fall along racial lines, she said. The disparity goes against the nation’s socialist ideals.
Educated Cubans are also foregoing jobs that utilize their degrees in favor of work in areas such as tourism that pay in scant Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), the currency traditionally reserved for tourists that is more valuable than the standard Cuban peso. Grier spoke with one lawyer who abandoned a career in a law office to work as a waitress because she could earn more in tips from tourists paying in CUCs.
“Money is the key lynchpin in the relationship between citizenship and consumerism,” Grier narrates in the film.
Grier’s film investigates these conflicting ideals as the island struggles to find its place on the citizen- consumer scale, but she says only time will tell what place Cuba will make for itself.
“Will people’s wants and desires orient toward more explicit consumerism?” she asks in the film. “What will be the role of citizenship in consumption activities?…How will this evolution affect previous socialist gains such as marketplace equality?”
The island may revert to its emphasis on citizenship in the coming years or instead mimic the consumer-centered culture seen in much of the world. Or perhaps its unique history of transculturation and equity will create a new combination of the two—one that balances the ideals of citizenship with the expectations of consumerism.
For now, there are more questions than answers. “As Cubans often say, ‘es complicado,’” Grier narrates. “It’s complicated.”
“Citizen Consumer: Ideals in Conflict?,” Sonya Grier, won the Judges’ Choice Award at the Association for Consumer Research conference in 2013.