Cuba: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Our visit to Cuba was memorable even though there are parts that we hope to forget (especially our hotel which ironically is named Memories). We were lured to Cuba by the recent easing of travel restrictions coupled with a desire to experience it before it changed. For anyone considering a visit, no need to go tomorrow. Change will take a long time to come about.
Here are some things about our visit and Cuba that I want to highlight.
- Our cultural experiences, which were set up by the tour company, were fun and interesting
- A presentation by two engineers on a history of US and Cuban relations
- A contemporary dance performance by Compañía Rosario Cárdenas
- A chorale recital
- A history of Cuban music by David Faya
- A meeting with two veteran Cuban fishermen
- A jazz concert at the grand Hotel Nacionale
- Meals at privately owned Paladars. The food consisted mostly of lobster, white fish, chicken, rice, beans, mojitos, beer, dessert and Café Cubano. Occasionally pork and beef were available. Our food was simply prepared for the most part – decent but not especially memorable. One of our lunches was at a culinary academy where we found both the food and service to be elevated compared to the other places we ate.
- Getting a surprise ride in one of Cuba’s famous classic cars (ours was a 56 Bel-Air convertible). It turns out that these cars are not owned by your average Cuban for personal use. Every single one is a taxi.
- Hemingway’s villa. It is beautifully preserved with many original artifacts. The state-supplied guide was excellent.
- Room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway lived from 1932 – 1939 while his villa was being built. The room is preserved as a state museum and the lobby contains photos of Hemingway.
- Much of the underlying architecture in Havana is beautiful and restored buildings are gorgeous.
- Prices are generally low.
- The 15 year aged Havana Club rum is excellent!
- Cubans appear hopeful for better relations with the US. There was a huge turnout just to look at the first US cruise liner to visit Cuba in 50 years.
- US dollars of all denominations were accepted everywhere. It really wasn’t necessary to convert them into CUCs (Cuban convertible peso). One CUC equals one US dollar but every transaction in US dollars is docked 13% so in effect 1 CUC equals 0.87 US dollar. (Cubans are supposed to use the Cuban peso which is worth about 1/26th of 1 CUC).
- Havana appears to be in an advanced state of decay. Buildings are not maintained including painting. Streets and sidewalks have many treacherous potholes.
- Havana is surprisingly dark at night. Even though it is touted for being safe, there are increasing robberies of tourists. Couple that with stepping into a pothole or a broken cobblestone and one’s risk of something bad happening goes up.
- We had one free evening to explore Havana. Unfortunately neither our local Cuban guide nor our American guide was helpful in suggesting restaurants or interesting things to do. And given that our hotel was not centrally located, we decided to sample the Havana Club anejo rum and people watch at our hotel.
- Quality shopping is virtually non-existent. There are numerous small shop fronts in the plaza area selling typical touristy trinkets (many sell the same things).
- Our guides promised us that they would take us to a market on our last day to do some shopping. When we arrived we saw workers carrying out debris. Turns out something (roof perhaps) had collapsed. Without warning, the entire market was closed! Ironically the market was where the first US cruise ship in 50 years was docked. A fitting introduction to the reality of visiting Cuba.
- Our local guide substituted another market which was incredibly tacky. Much of what was sold was made in West Africa. It definitely left us frustrated.
- Our hotel, which was supposed to be good, was anything but. We learned after talking to others that there are better hotels including ones closer to central Havana. Our tour provider grossly overcharged for this sub-par hotel.
- On our first evening, a portion of the roof in the lobby collapsed. A water pipe had burst and flooded the area.
- Every room door on our floor had 3 numbers. Unfortunately no door still had all 3 numbers visible. Our room was 371 but appeared as 37.
- We could not use the door’s deadbolt because it no longer fit into the opening. It looked like they tried to repair it (because the inside door frame was missing) but gave up.
- Several floor tiles were broken and obviously not going to be repaired.
- You cannot flush any paper products down the toilet.
- You cannot drink the water.
- Our bathtub did not drain and I’m sure that it still doesn’t drain.
- Officially food is rationed by the state. Cubans are challenged to find what they need when needed. A flourishing black market exists to match supply with demand.
- Most people cannot afford a car. So most roads have little traffic.
- We saw a lot of people in uniform but no one who looked like a business professional.
- Travel to and from the Havana airport is a nightmare. The airport has only 4 gates – 2 for arriving flights and 2 for departures. It has one x-ray machine which is required to scan every arriving bag (which creates a huge bottle neck.)
- In bound flights arrive with Cuban Americans who bring in electronics (TVs, computers, phones), clothes and food. At the Miami airport, these inbound passengers shrink wrap huge bundles of goods which are given first priority by Havana baggage handlers (further increasing our wait time for our baggage). Thus departing and arriving takes up at least an entire half day.
- There is no readily available internet or cell phone access.
- We only ever saw three beers to choose from: a lager (Cristal), ale (Bucanero) and Heineken.
- We were told by our tour operator to bring certain types of small gifts (you can not refer to them as donations) to give to Cubans that we interact with as part of the program. We were later informed that this was not necessary for our trip (only suggested for the longer trips.) We ended up giving all of the “gifts” we brought to our local tour guide.
- You cannot take a photo of anyone in the military, the police or airport security.
- Every building is adorned with multiple cisterns. If you think “environmentally conscious” and you’d be wrong. Cisterns are used to collect and cache water on the days that it is delivered to where you live. Then the stored water is used until the next water delivery. Many buildings have unsightly pipes running from the roof top along the sides and into the exterior walls of the various apartments.
- Horse meat is often substituted for beef which is scarce.
- People do not earn much money in Cuba. The average monthly wage is $20. A doctor might earn $40.
- The most fortunate are those who interact with tourists, especially Americans, who our tour guide said are viewed as “walking ATMs”.
- Prostitutes can earn up to $50 per day.
- There are many stray dogs wandering about. There is no licensing requirement.
- The green areas of Havana are not especially attractive. Landscaping, if any, is minimal. Workers appear totally disinterested. Litter and trash abound. There is no law against littering.
- Cojimar, supposedly a picturesque fishing village that inspired Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” was filthy.
- Theft in places such as hotels is common. Stolen items are sold on the black market for prices that undercut the state stores (if you can find the item).
- The beer we were drinking may have been counterfeit.
- You cannot walk on the steps across the street from the US Embassy or you will get arrested. There is a plaza there with 138 flag poles which were erected to block from view messages that the US Embassy would display.
- Our Cuban tour guide assured us that racism does not exist. However, at least based on my observation, most of the tourist-facing Cubans appeared to be of Spanish descent, and people who had more menial jobs, of African descent.
- Cubans euphemistically refer to the desperate years following the collapse of the Soviet Union (their principal provider) as “the special period”.
- Tour guides and the people that they present to tourists talk up how much they value their culture (for example, the engineers who presented a history of Cuba and US relations cited how important free education and health care is to them). However, younger people desire to become more connected to the rest of the world.
- Havana has a Chinatown. Chinese labor was brought to Cuba to replace slave labor due to England’s abolition of slavery in 1833. The Chinese who came were almost entirely male. Miscegenation laws forbid them to marry Spaniards. So they mostly married Africans and mixed race women. It is estimated that only 400 Cuban Chinese (i.e. born in China) remain.
- Only travel and communications companies can now work with Cubans, other exports and businesses are still prohibited under the 1960 embargo.
- Hemingway’s villa is being preserved thanks to support from a US foundation. The materials used in the preservation effort are the first major import of construction materials since the trade embargo. Without this assistance, Hemingway’s beautiful would most certainly be in ruin.
- The US pays Cuba $4,000 a month in rent for Guantanamo. Cuba has never cashed them.
- The sale of Coca-Cola is prohibited.
- Cubans could not own cell phones until 2008.
- Upwards of 70% of Cubans have a connection to Santeria.
- Cuban cigar production is declining because the Cuban government, which buys all tobacco that is produced, prices it low compared to other crops.
There’s a place just north of Phoenix called Arcosanti. It is Italian architect Paolo Soleri’s vision of how the combination of architecture and ecology (arcology) can provide a better living environment than today’s cities. When we visited Arcosanti we were struck by how depressing it looked and felt. We remarked that it reminded us of how it felt to be in a communist country. Ironically, Cuba reminds us of Arcosanti. Why? Because they are both failed visions of the future. While Arcosanti is doomed, hopefully Cuba will eventually rise from its ashes.
If you’d like to learn more about today’s Cuba here are two books that my wife recommends.
Julia Cooke’s The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba and Yoani Sanchez’s Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth about Cuba Today provide a current view of life in Cuba.