Lasting Impressions of Cuba


“Anarchy is like custard cooking over a flame; it has to be constantly stirred or it sticks and gets heavy, like government.” ― Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Anarchism as a social movement in Cuba held much promise for the working class during the 19th and 20th centuries. I won’t go into the sordid details, you can read the history here Anarchism in Cuba.

Yet, what I would like to discuss are my lasting impressions of Cuba. First, Che is everywhere. Forty-five years after the death of Ernesto “Che” Guevara — the Argentine doctor who led the 1959 Cuban Revolution alongside Fidel Castro — his portrait is the most reproduced image in Cuba.

His face appears repeatedly on murals, water tanks, billboards, and even plates, t-shirts, coffee mugs, beach towels, and bikinis. While extraordinarily popular as a figure of revolution where children are taught to see him as a hero from a very young age, his image is used to promote commercialism in Cuba. My impression is that he has become a pattern and a design to sell to tourists, and I think they have gone too far and misrepresented Che. Would you buy a bikini with Che’s face on the butt of a bikini bottom?

Cubans love their revolutionary national heroes. Sometimes called the Apostle of the Cuban Revolution, José Martí was born in Havana in 1853. He was a poet and journalist who spent his life fighting for Cuban independence and served as an inspiration for revolutionaries around the world.

His popular patriotic folk song “Guantanamera” features lyrics adapted from his Versos Sencillos and was later made famous when it was recorded by American singer Pete Seeger and again by easy listening vocal group the Sandpipers.

Images, quotes, banners, and billboards of Fidel Castro are everywhere, too. Politically, his legacy lives on in Cuba. Despite the constant threat of a US invasion as well as the long-standing economic embargo on the island, Castro managed to maintain a communist revolution and strengthened his country during the harshest American blockade.

Will his death make a political difference in Cuba? Although, his brother, Raul, has implemented economic changes intended to attract foreign investors to Cuba and relax restrictions on the Cuban people, only time will tell. That is one of the main reasons we wanted to visit Cuba now. There is much to be said about visiting a country that has been restricted to the U.S. for so many years. And, we discovered that we weren’t alone in our quest. We met many U.S. citizens on the same journey. Who knows what our current administration will do.

The famous Plaza de la Revolucion Jose Marti  is a must see for visitors wanting to understand the history behind Cuba’s revolution. This plaza has witnessed massive demonstrations and been the center of many of the main events of the Cuban revolution.

Want fast, reliable internet in Cuba? You may turn to stone waiting for an internet connection. All internet service is controlled by the state-owned telecom company ETSECA and primarily provided through crowded, government-approved Wi-Fi hotspots around the country.

The government has opened about 237 public wi-fi hotspots in Cuba. They cost about $2 an hour to use. Visitors as well as Cubans buy internet cards, and punch in a bunch of numbers and wait…wait…wait for a connection.

The wi-fi hotspots are easily recognized by the crowds of young Cubans gathered with their eyes glued to an assortment of smartphones, laptops, and tablets. But, things are changing in Cuba. Google is coming to the island!

Google spins up its first servers in Cuba

Cuba is renowned for its beaches, silky Caribbean waters, and white sand.The country’s thousands of miles of coral reef ecosystems seem to be healthier than the other reefs found in Caribbean waters. The reefs do not appear to have the diseases and mortality rates occurring in more populated places in the world due to limited coastal development and agricultural practices. In other words, Cuba’s coral reefs are not polluted and remain pristine snorkeling and diving spots.

I didn’t go to Cuba to study inequality. I didn’t want to go as a tourist, either. Yet, in a country, where in theory, they have eradicated inequality, the stark differences came up over and over.

Sandy wanted to take her Cuban family to the Copacabana for lunch. However, Cubans are NOT permitted to visit or stay in tourist hotels, restaurants, and resorts.

Below is a list of a few of the things Cubans are not permitted to do:

Travel abroad without government permission, although the restrictions are easing.
Change jobs without government permission.
Watch independent or private radio or TV stations (all TV and radio stations are owned and run by the government). Cubans illegally watch/listen to foreign broadcasts.
Choose a physician or hospital. Both are assigned by the government.

 Until recently, Cubans couldn’t change residence without government permission. The Casa Particulars and Airbnbs we stayed in were all passed down through family generations.

Yet, with the relaxing of restrictions, Cubans are still uncertain of their futures and leery about the changes. Some people are getting very rich, and most are still very poor, like Sandy’s family.

Now that foreign investment and ownership is permitted, growth is occurring, but it is still slow. In a country where the average Cuban makes $40-50 a month. how can they save to invest in a small business? Will the larger franchises, foreign-owned resorts, and foreign-owned businesses outnumber the local businesses? I am afraid for the future of the local Cubans.

While some creative entrepreneur programs exist, the Cuban government is cutting social benefits, reducing the number of subsidized food items provided at low-cost, pushing the retirement age back by five years, cutting energy subsidies, slashing welfare payments, and reducing staff at healthcare facilities. How will the Cubans survive? Will the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?

Not only is there a huge discrepancy in the classes, but the tourists and locals do not mix well in Cuba. There are two different types of money…the Cuban CUCs for tourists, and the Cuban pesos for locals.

While in Trinidad on a hot afternoon, a Cuban passed us on the street selling ice-cream out of an insulated cardboard box. We chose our ice-cream flavors, but we only had CUCs and needed change. He tried to give us Cuban pesos for change. Fortunately, we were aware of this trick, and we asked for CUCs to his disappointment. Check your money carefully when getting change! They both look very similar.

I wrote in an earlier post, how we entered the cannonball firing fort ceremony on Cuban pesos. Sandy’s family hid us in the middle of the group and we were told not to talk because if they discovered that we got into the ceremony on Cuban pesos instead of tourist CUCs, they would be in trouble with the government.

The division of tourists and Cubans is everywhere! One day in Havana, we wanted to buy the famous Coppelia ice-cream. I still don’t understand the obsession with ice-cream in Cuba. Maybe it is the country’s luxury because of years of rationing.

Coppelia is the city’s best-known ice cream parlor. Fidel Castro commissioned it in the early days of the Revolution. There was a long, long line of people waiting to enter the majestic cathedral of ice-cream. I thought they were waiting for a bus. They couldn’t possibly be lined up for ice-cream, so we walked past the line and into the magical “park” of ice-cream where supposedly 26 flavors of cold culinary delight awaited us.

We tried to sit at the long counter, but were abruptly ushered to the “other” part of the park. It was the tourist ice-cream building. Stunned and somewhat irritated by the discrimination, we ordered our ice-cream. It was like the Rosa Parks of Ice-Creamland. Out of the 26 flavors, there were only two flavors left. Vanilla and strawberry. I guess we were lucky to be able to choose between two flavors. Rationing and lack of items is still very common in Cuba, even for tourists.

Now for a few tips if you are traveling to Cuba.

1. Exchange American dollars for Euros if you are a U.S. citizen.
The banks charge a 10% to 13% commission to exchange American dollars for CUCs. Plus, the banks have long, long lines because they only let one person at a time into the bank. Try to get there right before lunchtime because I noticed the lines are shorter.

2. Bring an electrical converter and adapter. We needed it in some of the places we stayed, particularly Trinidad.

3. Bring snacks and toilet paper. The grocery stores were stocked with many varieties of mayonnaise and bottled water, but the other items were hit or miss. I still don’t understand their fascination with mayonnaise either.  Hardly any of the public restrooms have toilet paper.

4. Choose your transportation carefully. We took several old Russian Ladas and the gas fumes infiltrated the car making me sick. You may want to bring a wrench because you can’t open the back windows without one. But, usually the driver has a wrench and will open the window for you.

5. If you speak Spanish, strike up a conversation with the local people. I read that they don’t like to discuss politics, but if you let them bring up the subject you will be amazed at what they tell you.

6. Watch for the people who are commissioned by tours and restaurants. They hang out near the statues in the cities and will follow you and bug you to death trying to take you to a restaurant or a store, or on a tour. They usually know a little English and will say, “Hello. Where are you from?”

Would I return to Cuba? Probably not. At least not unless my sister-in-law needed us to help bring supplies to her family. Cuba is a fascinating and mysterious country. I am glad I went, but glad to leave, too.

The divisions of class, tourist vs Cubans, rich vs poor overwhelm me. The lack of internet, grocery store items, and long lines for everything frustrate me. The beaches are beautiful, but there are many other Caribbean beaches just as beautiful.

The food is so-so…no culinary delights, the service is underwhelming, the transportation is limited and expensive. But, like most places in the world we have traveled, the people make it memorable. The Cubans are vibrant, resilient, lively people.

I would return for them! I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to visit, not so much as a tourist, but as a traveler welcomed by a loving and large extended family. That is why we travel! The people have always made the experience better, real, and certainly entertaining.

Why do you travel? What are your experiences in visiting Cuba? 

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17 thoughts on “Lasting Impressions of Cuba

  1. Our memories of many places we’ve visited have become about the people rather than the sights and it seems that the same is true for you as well, Debbie. Cuba sound memorable, especially since you had the opportunity to see it with extended family and really learn about life in Cuba versus the tourist experience. One of these days, we hope to get a chance to see this fascinating country for ourselves. Anita

  2. I’ve never been to Cuba. All of your posts regarding your trip there are very informative. I’m not so sure I’d want to go there with everything you describe, but if I had relatives there, i probably would.

    I think the long lines, lack of internet and basic provisions would be a big deterrent for me.

    Some of your descriptions remind me of visiting Tijuana in Mexico, just south of the border from San Diego. When we lived in CA we went there a few times. There are definitely have and have-bots there, lots of traffic and crazy drivers that honk their horns constantly. Small children and crippled people stand at all the corners trying to sell you something. The wealthy live in nice stucco buildings behind high walls with gates and the poor live in shacks partially made of cardboard and salvaged tin and old wood, etc. The living conditions are horrible. Seeing situations like that will make you count your blessings.

  3. I keep on enjoying your articles. I identify a lot with your point of views about politics, religion, priorities in life … My husband and I are planning to retire in Nicaragua in less than 2 years. We would really love it if one of these days you could write an article about how much money we could need annually taking into account health insurance, traveling expense(thinking about traveling to the USA and other countries as you do) unexpected expenses, entertainment. I definitely need to find realistic information about it. We are planning on buying our house so renting wouldn’t be an issue. If one day you write about this I am sure that I and so many others will be so thankful.( sorry for any grammar mistake, English is not my first language)

    • Hi Irma,
      Thank you for the sweet compliments. I have written several posts about the cost of living and budgeting for retirement in Nicaragua. If you do a search in the search box, you will find my posts. My Let’s Get Real About…series may also be helpful, especially with the health insurance posts.
      I am going to write a post about Medicare soon because I have to extend our trip for an unexpected surgery that I don’t think is available in Nicaragua. Right now, the most important thing I can tell you is to always have a backup of emergency funds. We had to rearrange our flights…more money, get another rental car…more money, and I have to pay the 20% that Medicare won’t cover…more money!
      If you can’t find my posts, let me know and I will send you links.

  4. This is an excellent spot on write up on Cuba. It is so tragic that nothing has changed at all and they continue to suffer so much. I am sharing now. Very insightful.

  5. Thanks for letting us see Cuba through your eyes. I could never go there, as I am inordinately attached to a particular brand of Mexican mayonesa; McCormick’s con limón.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

  6. Anyone (or even words) on a bikini bottom! I do get somewhat grim amusement out of the people who idolize Che, people he would have cheerful killed without compunction. Those who don’t know history…

    I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing Cuba through your eyes!

    janet

  7. Che on a bikini bottom? Yes, that is going too far. This is a really fascinating article, though! Especially your comments on the division between Cubans and tourists, and inequality in general. To some extent, this has also happened in Jamaica although we are very much a democracy. Thank you so much for this – BirdsCaribbean is hosting its first International Meeting in Cuba in July (in a nature reserve – definitely no wifi!) and I will share this with my colleagues. Although we are SO close, we have never visited there. A Jamaican told me the other day that the food is dreadful. But then Jamaicans are very funny about food!

    • Your Jamaican friend is right. The food is dreadful and the ingredients are very limited. We went to a fancy Cuban restaurant in Cienfuegos. I had to laugh because they were so proud to show us the Coffee-Mate creamer in the center of the table. That was the best part of the meal, they thought!
      Thank you so much for sharing my piece.

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