The Havana Experience

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Since I was young, the main impression I have had of Castro’s Cuba is of an oppressive regime that jailed dissidents and blamed the US for its financial struggles. Castro came to power promising to take away from the wealthy and powerful, and give to the poor. Eventually, his government took much private property and built a planned economy much the same way Soviet Union had. Those who spoke out against the government or Castro were jailed, often for decades. Many had their property nationalized and left Cuba settling in the US or other countries. These ex-patriots hated Castro and dreamed of returning to Cuba and taking back what was stolen from their families.

Cuba presents a different image of itself to the world. They are a land of equal opportunity where everyone can get a free education through college. And they send talented baseball, wrestling and other teams to events all over the world. They are well-known in the third world for their medical system, offering doctors to poor countries to assist with crises. In many countries, Fidel Castro is considered a hero because of the medical and other assistance his country has provided.

The US has been uniquely cut off from Cuba for nearly 50 years. Often the information we have gotten about the island was from those who left, sometimes under life threatening conditions.

Since the 1990s, Cuba has moved toward a less controlled economy, allowing individuals to own small businesses. These reforms are important but limited. And political oppression continues.

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Thelma and Louise

What remains to be seen is how American tourism will affect Cuba. Below I describe how a visit to Cuba affected a small group of American tourists. There were six of us, including two Spanish speakers.

Currency:

At the airport we stood in line to exchange our US dollars for CUCs, the official tourist currency, which is the government’s way of controlling the tourist economy. I have been told that you are better off exchanging Canadian dollars or Euros, so some people buy those currencies in the US before they leave. We got .87 CUCs for a US dollar at the airport and a Havana bank. At a desperate moment we did an exchange on the street and got a better rate – .90.

We found only one place in Cuba that accepted US dollars – the duty-free shop at the airport. And we found no businesses or ATM’s that accepted US credit cards. You can use a European Visa or MasterCard. I suggest that when you enter the country that you exchange the amount you expect to spend so you can avoid having to search for another place to exchange. If there is money left over you can get US dollars back.

Transportation:

The set price for a taxi from the airport to Havana is 25 CUCs (about $28), but with six of us, we had to get a van which cost 30 CUCs. As advised in the guidebooks, we added a 10% tip. That seems to be the standard amount in taxis and restaurants.

Our cab driver for the next two days was a small, wiry man who did not smile easily. On the first day touring we set a total price for several trips at appointed times and places. He promised to pick us up at 5pm, but he called our tour guide to say he could not make it. She scrambled to find us another ride. We could have taken a taxi off the street, but we waited. When our ride finally came, it was the same driver but in a different car. We decided to pay him less than first agreed since we’d waited almost an hour. Before we even had a chance to tell him, he told us we owed him what our group had decided to offer. We found out later that his first car had broken down, but he never explained that to us. We also found out that he did not own the cars he drove. The owner had several cars he rented to drivers for a daily fee. He had to pay a set amount each day for use of the car. Our driver was a freelancer.

The next day he returned with the original car…now fixed. He picked us up from downtown and waited to take us to dinner. He came up to our apartment and made everyone Cuban coffee. He was a person who took problems in stride. And the second day he gave us a shy smile or two.

Our driver back to the airport arrived at 730am on Sunday as planned. He drove an old VW bus and was burly, gregarious man – a Zorba sort. We asked him questions through one of our Spanish speaking friends. The driver told us the VW would cost 50,000 CUCs to purchase – in the US you would pay maybe $200 for it. And he told us that gas was about 5 CUCs a gallon and that replacement parts were nearly impossible to find and very expensive. It makes sense that vehicles would be very expensive since the supply is so limited. Still that price for the car – about $55,000 – seemed exaggerated.

Lots of tourists like to take a ride in on of the classic American cars, especially the cabs. We just took pictures of them.

Except in the very center of town traffic was incredibly light even during rush hour. Few Cubans own cars, so they use the public transportation system to get to work. We saw two kinds of buses – empty and packed so full no one else could get on them. The same was true of bus stops. There was either no one waiting or thirty or more people.

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Rush hour on our street – 23rd in Vedado

Lodging:

Hotel prices in Havana are comparable to the US or Europe. But we didn’t want to stay in a touristy hotel. And we were pleased to discover that AirBnB has locations in many parts of Havana. The government must have a contract with the web company.

When we checked into the apartment, our hostess Rosi had to look at each of our passports and record our information into a printed booklet that looked like something out of the 1950s – a sort of pre-printed booklet to be turned into the authorities. The cover had a sideways H symbol which I later saw wherever there was a room for rent. When Rosi asked my friend’s birth date, she grinned and said that it was a very special and important date – the date when the revolution began.

Breakfast was 5 CUCs per person. Rosi arrived each morning and made coffee and got everything set up, much like a Bed and Breakfast in the US. The first morning we ran out of coffee and Rosi was on her phone trying to find coffee and someone to bring it to us. But none of the nearby stores had any. She seemed to be using a network of friends to check different stores. And later I realized this is how things work in Cuba. Sometimes things run out and you can’t find them. And you need a network to help you search for the missing necessity. Most stores had very limited products.

The apartment was spartan and utilitarian.  It had three bedrooms and three full baths. Each bedroom had a window air-conditioner, but the common areas were not air-conditioned. The only glass windows were in the kitchen and the french door onto the front balcony overlooking the street. The other windows were wooden jalousies. Fortunately, the weather was cool and there was no rain. The bathrooms had hot water but very little water pressure. The water was questionable so we drank bottled water (provided for 1 CUC per bottle) and used it for brushing our teeth. The television had lots of channels, but nothing international. WiFi was not offered and there were only a few places in Havana you can get it. (The big hotels had it for a fee. And there was a park in Central Havana that offered free WiFi. It was packed with people.)

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WiFi Park

There was no expectation of privacy in our apartment. Rosi did not knock when she arrived in the morning and our cab driver just walked in when he had to wait for us before the next ride. (There were safes in the closets.)

Touring:

0ur tour guide Julia was very friendly and diligent and I suspect new at taking tour groups. Rosi found her for us and she seemed to work for a tour company. She was not from Havana but had moved there to study at the University. Her major was English literature. Her spoken English was slow, but generally clear. I suspect she was better at reading and writing in English.

We had planned to go to the restaurant that she suggested near El Morro, the fortress on the other bank of the harbor. Somehow our reservation fell through. Julia did not know where else to take us to eat, so she settled on a place with a great setting near the Cathedral. We insisted that she sit with us and have lunch. She was surprised when we wanted to pay for her lunch. She asked our honest opinion of the place and we told her that is wasn’t very good. She was apologetic, but explained that she almost never went to restaurants.

Julia had to use her cell phone to contact our rides and arrange other things. At one point she looked at her phone in frustration. We found out it was a pay as you go phone and she had run out of minutes. We lent her a US phone (at $2 per minute).

Many buildings are falling apart in Havana. In Old Havana there is a lot of construction and less crumbling. The streets are mostly clean and there is almost no graffiti. I saw only a few street beggars and they were people with obvious infirmities. Many historic buildings were in excellent shape. The magnificent Capital building is being renovated.

Near the Cathedral and the waterfront we came across four tiny, old wooden fishing boats under repair. There were 4 men working on one of them. We found out later that all fishing boats are government owned.

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There were musicians all over Old Havana and they were excellent. Obviously, the government considers music a strong attraction for tourists, so music is supported. One musician approached us during the break and offered us a CD of the band’s music. But she could not make change for us.

The second day we went to Central Havana just west of Old Havana and wandered on our own. And we walked along the waterfront Malecon. Here there was a lot of crumbling and some graffiti. It was a Saturday and the foot traffic was heavy in some areas…mostly locals.

This was where we experienced the local stores. Selections in each store were random and very limited. In the last grocery store the butcher counter had two kinds of meat – something that looked like bologna and a processed ham. There were about six rows of products and an entire row was taken up with one brand of laundry soap. At one liquor store there was only rum, only one brand in different sized bottles.

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Store Display Window

At the airport while we waited for our flight home, we went into the airport store where they were selling rum and cigars and other local products. The rum prices at the airport were only a little higher than the stores in Havana. The airport store was about the size of a large convenience store. I counted 10 employees.  They had 3 cash registers and only one open despite about 10 customers waiting in line. Four the other employees were apparently counting the cash in a register that had just closed. A woman sat at the register while two men and another woman supervised. The selection of rums was good, though they did not have the Santiago rum which several locals had told us was better than renowned Havana Club, the national brand.

Except in the one touristy restaurant in Old Havana, the service in all the restaurants we went to was very friendly. At the Paladar where we had our best meal, the waiter was a civil attorney. He said he made more money at the restaurant than at his day job.

Random observations:

Half the people on our flight seemed to be Cuban Americans carrying large packages back to their families.

By establishing a separate economy for tourists through the use of a different currency, the Cuban government is able to control the distribution of profits from tourism.

We found it impossible to tell if a business was private or government-owned. I suspect this is intentional.

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Unlike Rum, cigars vary incredibly in price. In a store in the tourist section you might pay 300 CUCs for a box of 24 Cohibas. While the same box would cost perhaps 75 CUCs when bought privately. But are you getting the same product? Our friend who has some experience with Cuban cigars said the cheaper cigars were excellent. Cigar boxes must be sealed to bring them back to the US, so make sure about that. No doubt there are bad cigars sold in Cuba, but what we found were good.

On our last afternoon we were at a local park waiting for our ride back to the apartment. There was a public restroom with a long line waiting. After each person was finished the lady who was collecting the small fee would carry a bucket of water into the room to flush the toilet.

I found the Cubans I met to be happy and relaxed – happier and more relaxed than many people I encounter in South Florida. No one gave the impression that they were carefully choosing their words or told what to say to the Americans. I’m sure that part of this was because we did not spend all our time in the tourist areas. Vedado, where we stayed, is residential, so the places we went in that area had few tourists. Most likely in the big tourist hotels you get more of the party line. And perhaps it is the same with the tour companies hired by the cruise lines.

We arranged our meals and transportation with locals and negotiated what we would pay directly with them handing them cash for payments. Haggling did not seem to be common. We were not inclined to negotiate prices since we know that the average Cuban struggles financially. And no doubt the Cubans take advantage of the naïve Americans.

I asked many people if having more American tourists was good for Cuba. Most everyone said yes that it was a good thing and they were happy about it. But one person answered more critically. They said it was OK, but mostly the government benefited. They took most of the money from the tourism. I suspect that this is true. And it is why many Cuban American’s object to Cuba tourism.

“Things are much better than when we were socialist.” This was translated by one of our Spanish speaking friends who was not sure if that is really what the person meant. There is a growing entrepreneurial spirit in Havana. But clearly the government still exercises significant control.

Growing up in a capitalist democracy, I am predisposed to see the downside of communism (socialist autocracy). And recent history has amply demonstrated the inadequacies of that kind of political and economic system. Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea are the only countries still calling themselves Communist. Of those Cuba and China have integrated limited capitalist reforms. But they are still centrally controlled economies with very limited opportunities for democratic participation. And they are intolerant of opposition and dissent.

However, Cubans are obviously proud of their country and generally happy with their lives. We Americans believe that we have much to teach them. But no doubt, they have much to teach us as well.

 

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About cruiseportatlas

Since 1994 John has worked in the Travel Industry after several years in Higher Education and Hospitality. He was a training executive for Certified Vacations before leading Oceania Cruises training efforts beginning in 2005. In 2010, he was appointed to head Training for Prestige Cruise Holdings, owner of both Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. In 2011, John started CruisePortAtlas.com. Since 2012, John has been selling cruises for iCruise.com. John was always interested in travel, but was inspired to make it his profession by his wife, Donna. John is an Army brat who spent 3 years in Germany when he was a small brat and the rest of his brat years in the states of Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia and Pennsylvania. He studied History at the College of William and Mary. John reads voraciously, cooks and eats prodigiously, travels happily, enjoys music, art and architecture from any place or time and has finally stopped smoking.

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