After two visits to Cuba in the last two years, here is a summary of my impressions of the situation for the Cuban people, based on what they have said and what I have seen.
Che Billboard over Cafeteria in Cienfuegos
Welcome to Socialist Cuba!
On the drive to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Trinidad in southern Cuba our guide Claudia told us, “Ask me anything. I will tell you the truth. The government has not told me what to say. Whatever I say I am not worried that I will get in trouble.” Later when asked who she works for she told us the company is government-owned. As a large organization that was the only possibility really. Only very small businesses are privately owned.
As an American, I wonder how free the Cuban people are and whether I can believe what they are telling me. And I wonder how much the average Cuban benefits from Americans visiting their country.
- Can an employee of a government-run company say negative things about the government?
- Are the guides told what to say and provided with scripts which defend the Communist and Socialist system?
- Is the people-to-people cultural exchange tourism mandated by the US government playing into the hands of the Cuban government in their desire to eliminate the embargo?
Personal stories and opinions of our guides and hosts. (Names have been changed.)
Roberta hosted us in the AirBnB we stayed in in Havana. She was a lot of fun and seemed extremely open. She was required to fill out a government booklet about each guest. But otherwise I don’t think she had any connection to the government. Roberta lived with her daughter who was in her early 20s. Her main concern was helping her daughter. She was not interested in finding another husband having developed a jaundiced view of the usefulness of having a man around. She told us that most people earned the equivalent of $25 US per month in their jobs. Though that sounds impossible, when you consider that Cubans don’t pay for many things (more on this below), it may be possible to live on that.
Roberta’s cell phone, land line and hotel registration booklet
Roberta was happy that the Americans were coming. We asked was the money tourists brought getting to the people. She told us that most of it went to government leaders who lived in big houses. She said this was partially accomplished with their convertible currency – the CUC. Technically CUCs are worth 87 US cents, but a citizen who has CUCs can exchange them for 95 cents on the street. So what happens to that extra 8 to 13 cents? Especially if you spend the money at a government-run business. Of course, the leaders would point at that government funds are used to provide food and services to the people of Cuba.
View from our Apartment Porch in Havana
So Roberta felt American tourists were a small plus for local people. It put more money into the economy and provided more work and a little extra cash for the locals, especially those with small businesses. Roberta also expressed sincere pride in Cuban history and accomplishments.
She was a wheeler-dealer. She offered us cigars and other tourist items. The government (and its employees) often warn not to buy cigars outside the government stores as they may be fakes. And they may be. Or perhaps they are not. We bought the cigars from her and they were beautiful fakes if they were fake. And the smokers said they were sublime. Perhaps that is what matters most.
Street Food in Havana
Roberta wanted to help us any way she could. On the other hand, Roberta had ulterior motives for telling us what she did. By saying Cubans are poor, she was encouraging us to offer a larger tip. I think that she was doing quite well in comparison with the rest of her compatriots. And this was because she was working on the burgeoning gig economy of Cuba. Still we were happy to tip her well because of the wonderful help she gave us.
Roberta found us Julietta, our tour guide in Havana. She was working for an independent tour company. She was a college student studying English at the University in Havana. Her family was from Santiago. She did not talk much about her family. She loved American pop music. She told us about much of the pre-Castro history of Cuba. The one political comment she made began with, “Back when we were Socialist…” I don’t recall the end of that comment. All of us were struck by the fact that she believed that she was living in a post-Socialist Cuba. And perhaps she had a point. She was not working for the government. She had a hopeful attitude about the future and was studying English because that made sense to her.
Claudia was one of our guides during our Viking cruise. As mentioned above she promised to be honest. She was also diligent about making sure everything went well for us and any other American tourists. This really became clear when we ran into some members of another group who were lost. It was not her responsibility to solve this problem, but she immediately came to the rescue. When one of the lost women whined, “but it wasn’t our fault, our guide just ran off,” Claudia simply explained she was going to find someone to help them find their group.
Claudia was in her mid-thirties and married with children. They live with her mother and her grandmother on a small farm. The owner of the farm was always the oldest living family member. She said this was very difficult because her grandmother was 100 and often did things that the others did not like. When asked why she didn’t live with her husband’s family. She said that sometimes it is best to live with the devil you know. She and her husband, like many young couples were not legally married. They had a common-law marriage which she said was far more common in Cuba as there were financial advantages.
Claudia told us much about Cuba’s Special Period, the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell and the subsidies which had been provided for decades suddenly ended. She commented, it was called the Special Period because that was part of Cuba’s sense of humor…a way of making light of a tragedy. Oil, electricity, food, clothing and everything else were in desperately short supply during Claudia’s childhood. But her family and others found a way to cobble things together and make it work. She didn’t say it, but it seems likely that some did not survive the tragedy.
When she was in her teens, spent one year at home because she was ill. That year she watched an educational station broadcast by the government which included lessons in English (and other courses). This was how she started learning English. Of all our guides her English was the best though we still did not understand everything she said.
When Raul Castro started allowing private businesses, she had tried working freelance in the resort areas catering to European tourists. But after she was harassed by a few international tourists and she realized that she had no defense from these men, she decided to work for the government. That made me think of young Julietta in Havana and the issues she might face.
Fruit for sale at Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills)
She said she enjoyed her work and ran tours two or three days a week during the busy season (October to April), implying that she wanted to work more, but the work was not available. This is a common theme – underemployment. While nearly everyone is employed in Cuba, some jobs were not what we would call full time. And some private gig economy jobs, offered long hours but very little pay. These included the various types of taxis (car, pedal, horse-drawn) and the flea market stalls.
A ride in Cienfuegos
We asked Claudia many questions about life in general. And she gave thorough, detailed answers. Health care is completely free to everyone in Cuba. Everyone has a family doctor. If more is needed you are referred to clinic and if the situation is more serious you are sent to a hospital. Medicines are not free but are very inexpensive.
Education is free at all levels including doctoral students. You must pass tests of course to get into different types of schools and colleges. Many Cubans go to college, but often when they get out there are no jobs in their field so the end up working at jobs not related to their field of study – labor and service jobs. Claudia said that 87% of Cubans go to college. This seemed extremely improbable to me. It was one thing she said that I immediately felt was not true.
She talked a lot about cows. Part of the food rationing is the providing of milk to seniors and children to ensure they have good nutrition. Because cows do not thrive in the tropical environment, it is illegal to kill a cow without government permission. So beef is not common and when it is killed it is commonly served as Ropa Vieja (old clothes) which is a pulled beef dish cooked with tomatoes and other vegetables. It is a tasty way to serve meat from an old cow.
She said that the Catholic church claimed that well over half the population was Catholic, but she said that some of these so-called Catholics were members of Afro-Cuban sects. (More on religion below.)
Basilica in El Cobre
When asked if it was safe to walk around, she confirmed what we had heard repeatedly. There is very little crime in Cuba. She said this was because people have what they need. She also mentioned that drugs are completely illegal and uncommon in Cuba. Those caught with marijuana would get 15 years in jail.
Near the end of our trip someone asked how she felt about Castro. She said he was the hero of the nation and had done much to make Cuba a better place. But it was time for a change.
Cuba is in the middle of a time when constitutional changes have been proposed and will be decided. The proposals have been published for everyone to discuss. In January the leadership will decide which new proposals will be accepted. She mentioned that some of the proposals involved increased opportunities for private business.
Claudia was our most impressive guide. I found her forthright and positive.
Jose lead our tour in Cienfuegos was a lady’s man who reminded me a bit of a Cuban Colin Farrell. And he knew everyone in town. He was wearing a wedding band but did not mention anything about his family that I recall. Unlike the other guides we had, Jose was not particularly political. He explained a lot about shopping in Cuba, how in some markets you could only use the Cuban pesos. While in others, you can also use the convertible tourist currency known as CUCs. He took us into a lot of stores encouraging us to buy items. The stores he promoted were government-run, barely mentioning the nice flea market stalls on pedestrian street where we later bought a couple items.
Government-owned store in Cienfuegos
For our tour of Santiago de Cuba, our guide was Duny. He was a young married man who had a wife and twins. He expressed great satisfaction with his life. He went into great detail about the wonderful medical system in Cuba. When is wife became pregnant with their twins, extra care was taken since the babies would be small. His wife spent two months in a hospital to ensure all were safe. And they stayed after the birth as a precaution.
Duny called himself a Christian which was what he called Protestant. He said there were no Jews or Muslims in Cuba, but in Cuba you can worship as you wish. He also said most of the population was Catholic. He went on to say that some Catholics belonged to Santeria and Voodoo sects. When we visited a beautiful Catholic Church, we saw young women wearing pure white dresses and head scarfs. Duny explained that these women were becoming saints in their Santeria sect, going through a process which would last several weeks and end with a ceremony where animals would be sacrificed. The sects have repurposed Catholic saints as their minor gods. Duny seemed non-judgmental about the sects, but seemed to enjoy the salacious appeal his descriptions had.
Duny also told us that one new constitutional change would allow same-sex marriages. I’m not sure why he told us this. At that moment, I thought he was implying that Cuba was not a backward country.
Observations about public places.
In each of the places we visited during the day there were large number of locals loitering, clustered in groups just talking or playing dominos or sitting on park benches. There were fewer on Sunday, but on Monday and Tuesday there were large crowds.
Sunday in the Park in Havana
When we visited Havana last year, we were not approached by those asking for money and not many on the street offered us items to buy. In Cienfuegos, there were a few begging or trying to sell something. As we often do everywhere, we avoided speaking with them. In the central square in Santiago, there was a guitarist who looked like familiar so I looked at him. He offered to be in a selfie with me. And there were several others hustling there. These people were clearly on the far edge of the gig economy, trying hard to add a little to their meager incomes. And they were very persistent as in many places. I suspect the increased amount of begging and hustling is a natural evolution.
As we found in Havana, there were historic buildings which had been beautifully renovated including a few historic hotels, but mostly buildings were crumbling. In the suburbs as we drove out of town there were many half-built multi-story buildings clearly meant to be apartments that had been abandoned. Houses of all sizes were mostly unpainted and patched. We were told that the insides were often cozy and well taken care of because they were family-owned. This is a relative term. The family could not sell the house, but they also did not pay rent to the government. Many large houses that had been built by the wealthy before Castro had been partitioned for multiple families.
Few have cars. There are more scooters. Both vehicles and gas are too expensive for most people. Busses were common even in the countryside, but they were nothing like the luxury Chinese vehicles the tour company owned. Some looked fairly nice, but many were trucks that had been adapted with a windowed steel box outfitted with enough seats for perhaps half the passengers to sit. With no air conditioning, they must be stifling to ride in.
Bus in Santiago de Cuba
Our Motorcoaches (built in China)
Nice Bus in Havana
So were the guides being honest or was there some propaganda goal of the Cuban government being promoted? The three guides we had during our recent cruise all worked for the same government-owned company, but they were very different in their narrative. There were some similarities. All conveyed the image of life in Cuba as a struggle due to the resources and circumstance of the island nation. While they partially blamed this on the US led embargo, they all said the Cuban people all respected the American people and hoped the embargo would end. And they all suggested that Cuban cigars, rum and coffee should be purchased in government-run stores.
When I think about my experience with tour guides in other countries including those that are free democracies, their message is very similar. Where ever you go, tour guides tout their nation and culture, expressing pride in their heritage.
The Cuban guides even took pride in how they had handled the tragedy of the Special Period in the 1990s. The Cuban people see themselves as resilient and ingenious. There is a lot of evidence that they are.
So can the guides criticize the government? It is my impression they don’t want to. They are convinced that their government is mostly good. Small complaints might occasionally be expressed. And they did not seem frightened to say what they felt.
Did the guides follow scripts? The only evidence I found for this was regarding government-run stores. Otherwise each said different things in different ways. And each had grown up with the Cuban educational system which presents their history from a Cuban perspective…just as it is in other countries. That is where the guides got their script.
Is the people-to-people tourism playing into the Cuban government’s hands? Perhaps. On an island with limited resources, tourism from a large, wealthy neighbor can be an important boost to the economy. On the other hand, having some many Americans walking around Cuba cannot help but impact their culture as well.
Sancho Panza Park
Unless something gets in the way, I think that the embargo will end in the not to distant future. And I think that will be good for everyone.