The question is why anyone might think Cuba is doing OK, relative to northern Mexico. Megan McArdle offers (more than) two points:
3) Deep poverty is much more picturesque than moderate poverty. Poor
countries have their old colonial buildings still standing, because no
one had the money (or the reason) to tear them down and put up
something bigger. The countryside is dotted with adorable houses made
out of natural materials and natives wearing colorful traditional garb.
Animals graze in verdant fields, besides teams of sowers and reapers.
Middle income countries are smoggy, and almost everything looks like a
cheaper, shabbier version of what you get in the US. Scenic landscapes
are despoiled by cinderblock buildings with hideous tin roofs, or
trailers; cities are choked with boxy modern buildings that look
something like our housing projects. The genteel decay that looks
gothic and intriguing on an old Victorian mansion just looks seedy when
it’s eating away at badly poured concrete. Affluent Americans
underestimate the utility value of things like having personal space,
or an automobile.
4) Cuba was relatively wealthy in 1959; it therefore has more
of the markers, like old majestic buildings, that we associate with
I found the most evident signs of Cuban poverty to be the unceasing supply of articulate and sometimes weakly sobbing mendicants, none of whom sounded like con men, all of whom needed money to buy food and clothes for their families. The most shocking part is what small sums of money they would ask for or be made happy by. Or the numerous women — and I mean ordinary women in the streets — who would offer their bodies to a stranger (handsome though I am) for a mere pittance. Yes in Cuba there is good access to doctors but anesthesia is in short supply and the health care system stopped improving long ago.
If you want to understand northern Mexico, get out of the Tijuana tourist strip and visit Hermosillo. Count the number of new housing developments, and then count how many of them are inhabited by fairly dark-skinned, previously dirt poor, Mexican mestizos. Put that number over the number of buildings in Havana that do not have serious maintenance problems and see if you can divide by zero.
It’s quite possible that a lower middle class Mexican eats better food than you do, but there is no chance of that for anyone in Cuba except the top elite. Powdered milk is a luxury there.
I’ve long thought that Prague looks much richer than it is, and that the ugly northern Virginia or Houston looks poorer than it is. Where else looks deceivingly rich or poor?