Cuba is one of those places that everyone wants to go to at the moment. It’s got all the right ingredients to make it a great destination; warm weather, fabulous colonial cities, live music, stunning beaches and probably the best rum cocktails in the world. On top of all that, there’s the romance of Cuba’s contemporary history, the fact that a group of students and idealists should have managed to topple a dictatorship and create a new kind of society, captured the imagination of people from all over the world. Here is an insider’s view of Cuba…
USA and Cuba
Until recently Cuba has been out of bounds for most US citizens, and it was nearly impossible to visit unless you came as a student or on a working holiday. Earlier this year US legislation changed and now Cuban Americans can travel to the island as many times as they wish – previous legislation allowed a two week visit every three years. Non Cuban US Citizens are still banned from travel to the island.
On the Cuban side things have changed too. Fidel is no longer well enough to be at the helm and his younger brother, the 76 year old Raul, is now in charge. Reputed to be more pragmatic than his brother, people in Cuba are hoping for greater economic freedom and perhaps even the introduction of the Vietnamese model where private enterprise is encouraged while the political system remains intact.
So far a few positive changes have trickled down to the Cuban people. The most notable change is the freedom to check into hotels in Cuba and enjoy the same beaches and other beauty spots that international visitors currently enjoy.
One of the most startling aspects of Cuba, for those of us used to capitalist societies, is that pretty much everything belongs to, or is run by the state. While there is some foreign investment in Cuba (notably in tourism where some European Hotel chains have joint ventures), there is hardly any private enterprise. This means that there is no competition, no price wars, no advertising and very little choice! On the plus side, there’s no MacDonald’s and not a single billboard advertising Coca Cola. The negatives you will come across will probably be very laid back customer service (and at times a complete lack of it!) and they do not feel the need to do things better in order to keep your clientele.
One area you will see a big difference is in food, something we all need and something that you will be buying daily on your trip. It’s a shock when you realise that what the guide is offering as suggestions of places to eat are really the only options. There are no fast food joints in Cuba, and there are no sandwich bars where you can grab a quick snack on the go.
Most restaurants are owned and run by the state and although things are improving slowly, it’s good to know in advance that no trip to Cuba will be a gourmet tour. That’s not to say you can’t eat well but you’ll have to be prepared to go off the beaten track in search of paladares. The government begrudgingly gave some families licence to run private restaurants (paladares) in their own homes back in the late 1980’s and it’s definitely worth giving them a try. You will probably have to find the paladares on your own as the Cuban state actively discourages local guides from promoting paladares. As a result, please be understanding if your guide is unwilling to take you to one.
Soviet Union and Cuba
From the first years of the Revolution, there began a long and unlikely love affair between Cuba and the Soviet Union, partners in crime in their mutual distrust of the USA. The Soviet Union found a friend in America’s backyard, while Cuba found a strong ally to support it against Uncle Sam. Cubans travelled to Eastern Bloc countries to study, and came back with a taste for Eastern European food and other goods. Cuban adults fondly remember Russian toys and cartoons from their childhood. Likewise thousands of Soviet Citizens came to Cuba to study or work.
There is a phrase that you’ll hear again and again when you get to Cuba, “the Special Period”. It’s key to understanding contemporary Cuba. Back in the 1980’s Cuba was in its heyday with a strong economy propped up by the Soviet Union. Cubans had everything they needed in terms of food and housing as well as having great health and education systems. Once glasnost took hold and the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba suddenly found itself alone in the world. Soviet withdrawal happened nearly overnight and all of a sudden Cuba lost more than 75% of its trade partners. The economic nosedive that followed forced Fidel Castro to announce a “special emergency period in times of peace”. Everything collapsed: there was no more subsidised petrol from the USSR, so factories closed. The public transportation system expired and food production came to a grinding halt. The local currency called MN (Moneda Nacional) took such a downturn that it was all but worthless even within Cuba. The US Dollar (USD) became the black market currency as families in the US sent remittances to Cuba. Although possession of USD was illegal, the black market eventually became so pervasive that the Government was forced to legalise it.
Since the country needed capital to buy imports, Cuba was obliged to look around for an alternative source of hard cash. Tourism was the obvious solution and although initially foreigners were kept at arm’s length from Cubans (tucked away in all inclusive resorts) Havana was soon packed with curious Europeans. Around this time a chain of stores selling goods in USD to tourists started to appear across the island and pretty soon they were the only shops that had anything worth buying on offer.
Eventually the Cuban Government decided to introduce another currency, the CUC or convertible peso which was pegged to the USD at USD 1:CUC 1. This is the currency you will use when travelling in Cuba. The USD is now no longer used in Cuba and you’re better off bringing Euros or Sterling cash to change, since the USD is the only currency that has an additional 10% exchange tax.
It’s good to know the background of the CUC because it helps you to understand why Cuba has two currencies (the CUC and MN) and perhaps makes it a little easier to work out why some things are so expensive. Cuba isn’t cheap! Expect to pay around CUC15 for a decent meal (either lunch or dinner). If you get the chance, take a look into the Cuban Ration shops (bodegas) where Cubans get some basic goods subsidised by the government. It gives a pretty grim idea of what the average Cuban larder will contain. Shelves are bare and prices are in MN. Then go and have a look in one of the Mercados (‘La Shopping’ as locals call them) where you can find all the basics and even a few luxuries. Prices are in CUC. This is where ALL Cubans have to go to buy soap, detergent, cooking oil, frozen produce and so called luxuries like UHT milk, yoghurt, butter and cleaning products.
Now try and get your head round this. The average wage is around 300MN (USD $15 a month approximately). Rent and utilities are paid in MN but pretty much everything else requires CUC. An example: 4 rolls of toilet paper costs CUC1.95, 1 litre of soya or sunflower oil costs CUC2.30. The maths does not work does it? So now you know why everyone in Cuba needs a second source of income, other than their Government wage. This is also why you find highly qualified professionals working in the tourist industry, practically the only industry that gives a Cuban access to CUC in the form of tips. I know a MiG fighter pilot who works as a receptionist in a 4 star hotel, I know a nuclear scientist working as a taxi driver, I know plenty of lawyers and engineers working as tour guides.
Reality of Cuban Life
Cuba has a system that, on paper, should work but in practice is just as flawed as any system. The trouble is that the Cuban Government has defended the principle of their socialist state for so long that they can’t bear to admit (or perhaps they just can’t see) that it doesn’t work any longer. By trying to maintain the system artificially they have created a kind of economic apartheid. Those who have access to CUC live relatively comfortable lives compared to those who have to make a living from their Government wages. There are positives – the Cuban system provides a safety net so that Cuba has none of the social problems that its neighbours suffer from. There is no homelessness (but plenty of overcrowding), no one starves (but the diet is very monotonous), there is hardly any drugs culture and its accompanying violent crime but neither are there many opportunities for the highly educated Cuban people to get ahead in life. So the vast majority of Cubans struggle to do more than survive on the bare necessities.
If you get the chance – and you almost certainly will – take a peak into a Cuban home. Perhaps the most notable difference between our homes and a typical Cuban home is the lack of stuff. Compared to ours, Cuban homes look empty with no stacks of CDs, DVDs, books, ornaments, clothes or shoes. Cubans get by with very little and have the kind of “mend and make do” mentality that was common in Britain during the Second World War. Recycling is a given, not a choice.
Cubans are more than aware of the shortcomings of their country and they deal with the everyday frustrations of living on the island with an admirable mix of humour and self-deprecation. They know that their system is flawed but they also know that compared to many countries in Latin America, they are better educated, healthier and probably happier. That’s not to say that they don’t want change. They want all the things that other people want: a comfortable home, a decent job and enough money to look after their family.
They are fiercely proud of their country and its achievements and, when prompted, will ask that visitors come with an open mind and try not to compare Cuba to the Western World. So much has been written about this small island that it’s quite hard to see Cuba for what it is rather than for what has been said about it. Cuba is totally different and that is its great attraction. It is the sort of destination that forces you to rethink things that you take for granted and gives you a totally fresh perspective of the world.