The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Jacob Gerardi. Jake is spending the first half of his Gap Year in Cuba.

As Ella and I landed at the Merida International Airport in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, we were overjoyed. I reinserted my American SIM Card (which works in Canada and Mexico) and became flushed with Snapchat notifications, DMs on Instagram from friends, comments in Facebook groups, and more. Taking to our web browser, Ella and I quickly found that Merida was not simply a historic city, but a capitalist paradise! With numberless shopping malls and restaurants plus Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and a huge Walmart (WALMART!!), it had everything we’d been missing during the past two months of our lives in La Habana, Cuba.

Due to the political apathy of the United States towards our island neighbor, Cuba, as well as an inhumane trade embargo spanning across nearly six decades coupled with imperialist laws such as the Helms-Burton Act, the world of consumer goods in Cuba is limited. Since Fidel Castro’s Leninist-Marxist revolution and takeover of the nation, Imperio-capitalist corporations to the likes of Walmart or Target haven’t touched this island, for better or for worse. Until the 1990s, nearly everything on the island, from restaurants to stores, was owned by the state. Only in the past two to three decades has private ownership become legal, with limitations, and began to blossom as home front parlors are turned into food-serving cafeterías and vendors roam the streets selling their wares without the burden of zoning laws.

After nearly two months in Cuba then, Ella and I found ourselves craving the things we had grown up so used to but couldn’t find in our new home. Bleu cheese-filled olives and Triscuit crackers were high on my list, while Ella couldn’t wait to indulge in some Poptarts. Both growing up in the United States, we had become accustomed to constantly getting what we want. If I crave a certain obscure brand of kettle-cooked low-fat salt and vinegar chips while I am in the United States, I can hop into a car (filled with easily obtained gas) and go buy some of these chips at one of the several gargantuan grocery or drug stores within a fifteen-minute drive of my relatively small town. Yet in a city of over two million people like La Habana, the same resources are not available. Foreign policy woes with a pugnacious American presidency as well as instability in Cuban oil trading-partner Venezuela means that even the gas to drive cars is difficult and expensive to obtain, leaving it difficult to buy for those other than taxi drivers. Busses have been forced to infrequency by this energy crisis, and are constantly crowded to an unhealthy level.

Adjusting to this lack of consumer goods and generally different lifestyle was quite difficult for me, at first. I needed to realign my taste buds to binge on fried Yucca root or strong cups of cafecito rather than the packaged junk food I was used to. When Ella and I went to Merida for a visa run, then, we felt overwhelmed by the return to omnipresent advertisements and consumer stimulus. Still, we were ecstatic to sink our teeth into a Whopper or buy new clothes at a shopping mall, blinded by our desire.

Living in Cuba has changed my perspective on the difference between wants and needs, as well as the ethics of the ability to be immediately satisfied. There is a world of difference between free-market capitalism and Marxist-Leninist socialism, and striking a balance between the two is eternally difficult. Don’t get me wrong; life in Cuba is much harder than life in my small hometown near Syracuse, where a Wegmans supermarket towers overall. Still, there are some issues which Cuba’s government is more apt to solve than that of the United States is. School is free from Pre-K to senior year, and all students wear uniforms so that student’s clothing doesn’t indicate their relative wealth and make others feel inferior. Medical care, while far from the standard we are accustomed to in the United States, is free for all citizens as well as comparatively minimal in cost for tourists should an emergency occur. Attending University is free as well, contrasting the student debt crisis plaguing Americans, particularly millennials. There remains racial division in housing and neighborhoods, but the overall free nature of resources and services here means that it is dramatically less than in the United States, where economic segregation between different racial groups has been tearing apart the collective fabric of our identity for centuries as we fail to allow healing from generational damages and inequalities.

I am not by any means advocating for the implementation of Leninist-Marxist policies in the United States, but I do think we must reevaluate our priorities to some extent. The Cuban government holds priorities of universal education, healthcare, and housing, the same things of which there is great current debate in the United States. The United States, on the other hand, remains steadfast in our historic policy of preferring “home-grown” success through “hard work”, of course, while ignoring the constructions of power through race, class, and gender that define opportunity and every other facet of American life. Why do we wish to be constantly overloaded with consumer goods and stimulus when so many of our citizens cannot support themselves and their families financially even while working overtime jobs? Why is it constantly so important that we have the latest technology and gadgets while disturbing discrepancy exists in access to technology between urban, suburban, and rural public schools? Why do we care so much about the industry and business that health care has grown into, simultaneously ignoring the huge amount of expense that such an industry places on already struggling individuals and families?

Living in Cuba has ultimately led me to ponder these things, coalescing into the following query: At what point do the needs of individual humans overcome the needs of our greater citizenry? And when, if ever, is it ethical?