Visiting Cuba: A two-week trip report
The United States of America does not recommend visiting Cuba. The country’s current travel advisory level is 3 out of 4: “reconsider travel.”
Well that’s just unfortunate. Cuba is one of the most interesting places I’ve had the chance to visit. The two lovely weeks we spent there couldn’t have been more fascinating.
What does it feel like to be in Cuba?
Visitors often have the impression that Cuba is stuck in time. There is some truth to that but the reality is a lot more complex. I believe that one resource and five major time periods of the past century shaped the Cuba of today. Let’s dive into this tumultuous history to get a better understanding of the current conditions.
Visiting Cuba: A History of Economic Contradictions
1. Before the 1959 Cuban Revolution
Sugar, Cuba’s one-crop agriculture, defined the country’s economy. Cuba was fifth in the hemisphere in per capita income, third in life expectancy, second in per capita ownership of cars and phones and first in the number of televisions per inhabitant. Wealthy Americans came to visit for the holidays and Havana was described as “what Las Vegas has become.” By many metrics, the country was doing well, but mostly for a certain class of Cubans.
The spark of the Revolution
Fulgencio Batista was president of Cuba between 1940 and 1944. He was relatively progressive and supported by Cuba’s Communist Party. However, in 1952, Batista orchestrated a military coup to take power once again and cancelled the presidential elections. He was turning into a corrupt anti-communism US-backed dictator who didn’t care about his population and allowed American companies to dominate Cuba’s economy. Before the Revolution, the US owned most of the major industries (including sugar production), banking and telecommunications. Income inequalities grew and by 1958, more than 40% of the Cuban workforce was underemployed or unemployed.
After the coup, Fidel Castro started petitioning against Batista and by July 26, 1953, the Revolution had officially started. The USA armed and backed Batista but that wasn’t enough to stop the guerrilla warfare of the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos from slowly taking control of the country. In 1958, the US imposed an arms embargo on Cuba which hurt Batista more than the rebels. Fulgencio Batista eventually fled Cuba on January 1, 1959 and Castro formed his government.
2. Embargo escalation
After the Revolution, Fidel couldn’t convince the US to lift the arms embargo. Consequently, Cuba openly began buying armaments from their Soviet fellow communists. In response, the US decided to cut the import of Cuban sugar and export of oil. Jumping on the opportunity, the USSR bought the extra sugar and sent oil in exchange.
US owned refineries in Cuba refused to refine the Soviet oil so Castro nationalized them without compensation. Eisenhower’s administration countered with a trade embargo, stopping all exports to Cuba (except food and medicine). Cuba reacted by nationalizing all remaining US businesses and most US privately owned properties, also without compensation. One of Eisenhower’s last actions in January 1961 was to sever all diplomatic relations between both countries.
In April 1961, the Bay of Pigs Invasion happened. Brigade 2506, a counter-revolutionary military group made of Cuban exiles and some US military personnel, supported, funded and trained by the CIA, failed to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro’s government (Cuba had already been invaded by the US in the late 1800’s). Later, Cuba officially aligned itself with the Soviet Union and by 1962, Kennedy’s administration had implemented a complete trade embargo. The blockade even included the import of products containing Cuban goods and prohibited any help to countries aiding Cuba.
3. Bypassing the blockade
Despite all these challenges, Castro’s Cuba was looking up thanks to their trade relations with the USSR. Right after the Revolution, Castro abolished obligatory personal income tax and subsidized healthcare and education for all citizens. This move cemented the support of the revolution by the Cuban people.
Fidel Castro was continuously trying to push sugar production to improve the economy. Cuba was also exporting unused Soviet oil. That industry became Cuba’s second largest export (by 1989, Cuba was burning about 225,000 barrels of oil per day but producing less than 25,000). Cuba’s economy was growing and the nation was one of the very few developing countries offering aid to others. By the end of 1985, 35,000 Cuban workers had helped build projects in some 20 Asian, African and Latin American countries.
4. The “Special Period” (1989 to the mid-90’s)
But then, everything collapsed. The dissolution of the USSR took 80% of Cuba’s trade away. The Soviets stopped helping and oil import dropped to 10% of pre-1990 years. At the same time, the price of sugar plummeted worldwide making Cuba’s one-crop agriculture worthless. GDP dropped 35% in just a few years.
The vital underpinnings of Cuban society (agriculture, transportation, electricity and many major industries) were entirely dependent on fossil fuels and were devastated. The government had to hastily regress its agriculture, diversify crops and improvise mass transportation solutions. Blackouts lasted most of the day and food consumption was cut back by 80% (the average person lost 20lbs). Cubans were forced to eat whatever they could find; even domestic cats and zoo animals were reported to disappear. Meat became so scarce that the regime made killing and eating cows a crime worse than homicide (up to 10 years in prison).
In order to improve its economy, Cuba opened up to tourism, foreign investments, legalized the US dollar, authorized self-employment for a selection of occupations (with income tax) and liberalized agricultural markets. Eventually, Cuba’s GDP stopped dropping and picked-up again after 1994.
5. Post “Special Period”
By 1999, living conditions were still well below 1989 standards, but tourism kept growing and GDP followed. In 2010, Raúl Castro (Fidel’s brother and current president) said: “either we change course or we sink.” The break from Fidel’s authoritarian rule allowed the implementation of less restrictive laws. The following year, Cuba introduced new economic reforms. Amongst other things, they legalized the sale and private ownership of cars and houses, facilitated travel for citizens and legalized 201 different personal business licenses. The response was immediate and hundreds of thousands of Cubans signed up to become entrepreneurs.
Today, the socialist government provides quality education and healthcare, housing, heavily subsidized food and utilities and extremely low property tax. Literacy rates are high, income disparity is very low and unemployment rate is at 2%. GDP has also raised significantly. But despite all this, the country still looks like it’s falling apart and there is a lot of poverty.
Visiting Cuba: The Living Conditions
Most workers are government employees and salaries are extremely low: $29.60/month on average regardless of job title or qualifications. To complicate things, there are two currencies in Cuba: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Citizens are paid with the former, tourists use the latter. The math goes this way: $1 USD = 1 CUC = 25 CUP. Working conditions and salaries make it extremely hard to motivate employees to do more than the bare minimum except in tourism and service. Tips from tourists can make a world of a difference for these workers. Some of the staff at our hotel in Havana had law and medical school degrees but were more successful relying on the generosity of tourism.
Many Cubans aren’t as self-motivated and some are just unfortunate. We met an individual in Cienfuegos who graciously invited us inside his home. His eight by twelve-foot room, which included his bed, kitchen counter and toilet, would dishearten almost anyone from a developed country. Yet, this man was beaming with pleasure at the opportunity of showing us around his humble property.
It might be easy to survive, but it’s hard to live…
Laws and socialist mentalities have slowly been changing. Capitalistic ideals and lifestyles that were frowned upon until recently (both by the establishment and neighbors) are now more accepted. Cubans can legally operate their own private restaurant, paladar, and rental, casa particular. The effects are obvious on quality of service for the visitor and quality of life for the owner. Those who choose to work hard developing their own businesses are vastly better off than their peers who don’t.
Osmany and Marie-Lise were our host in Cienfuegos. When the “Special Period” hit Cuba, he owned only a t-shirt, a pair of shorts and a pair of shoes. Today, they have a cute two-room bed and breakfast rental set up in their house. Osmany was even able to buy a totaled antique 1956 Chevy Bel Air which he plans to restore.
Visiting Cuba: The Cars
The impression of traveling back in time is mostly created by the amount of antique 1940’s and 1950’s cars. The trade embargo of the early 60’s prohibited the import of new US cars and parts and Castro’s communist government didn’t have the funds to import masses of cars from Europe and Asia. Russia sent some Ladas but they didn’t last as long as the classics from the USA. And to top it off, the administration also prohibited Cubans from buying their own cars; they assigned them.
Cubans have been able to keep American vintage cars running with amazing ingenuity. They’ve fixed up most of the old cars with bondo-like concoctions, components from other cars, self-made parts and engines other diesel cars, even from tractors and boats. Yes, the majority of these cars are indeed rust-buckets held together with twine, prayers and duct tape. Well, except for the duct tape since it can’t be purchased in Cuba. However, the cars do show well on the outside and the nicer ones are mostly used for tourists.
Osmany told us that getting simple parts such as standard nuts and bolts for his Chevy Bel Air was a real challenge. He ends up working with pieces of Jeeps, Ladas and other homemade components. The engine he is planning to install is a Mercedes. The restoration will take him years and when done, he plans on using the car as a taxi.
While the government now allows the purchase of private cars, very few Cubans can actually afford them. Taxi businesses own most of the nicer classics you see. Cubans predominantly get to where they need to go by hitchhiking, taking buses, riding bicycles, horse carts and walking. Hitchhikers gather on highways and wave pesos at passing vehicles in hopes of getting picked up. There actually is a government system for organized hitchhiking. Officials wearing yellow uniforms, “amarillos,” stop vehicles and match passengers with similar destination.
Visiting Cuba: The People
Visiting Cuba, or any other country for that matter, was socially fascinating. We had the chance of meeting a wide variety of Cubans on our two-week journey. Many were extremely poor and others very well off. Some Cubans we talked to were quietly anti-government but nearly all were resigned to their fate. We also talked with a few seemingly innocent Cubans, yet their questions made us think that they were under-cover and fishing for information. Overall, most were incredibly nice and genuine.
Tourists would come and spend their money and since the 1 CUC = $1 USD, pricing items was easy. Some imported goods and even local rums and coffees were sold at CUC only stores. This meant that Cubans earning their living wages in Cuban pesos were at a disadvantage and the ones working in the tourist industry fared better. This widened the gap between the citizen’s material standard of living and the government socialist ideals.
The administration is known for its use of propaganda and censure but Cubans aren’t fools. Some will whisper their opinions while checking over their shoulder and others express their views with art. There are many skilled street artists in Cuba and if you look past the whittled cars and painted license plates, you can find some true gems.
But what do Cubans think of Americans visiting Cuba?
This one guy in Cienfuegos summed it up best: “There are only two things we love about America: the movies… and everything else!” Truth be told, the people of Cuba love Americans even if they don’t quite understand our political choices. We’d usually respond with: “Hey, we both love our countries but hate our governments!” Most Cubans we met had no problem separating the individual from the US government’s rhetoric.
Tipping can also make a world of a difference for many, which could be one reason why they like Americans so much. Still, not many thrive in Cuba, but self-motivated entrepreneurs can now do well. Some Cubans investing in the restaurant business for instance have been very successful. This is especially true in coastal cities like Havana where cruise ships weekly unload thousands of tourists with their wallets full CUCs.
The faces of Cuba
Visiting Cuba: The Food
“Oh, the food must be so good over there!” I heard this a lot before and after visiting Cuba. To be fair, we did have some great meals but it wasn’t always that way. Sure, Cuban restaurants abroad have pretty good food but Cubans themselves have dealt with famine in the past and food rationing for years. Citizens have access to heavily subsidized food but most of it is the cheapest food that the government can afford to import. Restaurants didn’t have much choice in the produce they could buy.
My girlfriend, who went to Cuba in 2002 and 2008, used to say: “you were lucky if you could get a tomato slice on your shredded iceberg lettuce salad. And the tomatoes were never ripe!”
Private restaurants (paladares) have always been around in Cuba, but they were illegal until the end of the Special Period. Even after that, the government restricted restaurants for the number of seats and products they could offer and regulated hiring. Food quality and service were dismal.
The economic reform of 2010 removed some of these limitations and the private restaurants industry flourished. Today, there is a much wider variety of offerings and career chefs. The quality isn’t always there but it is significantly better than it used to be. Restaurants now have access to better products even if some still have to rely on the black market for special ingredients.
Most of the establishments we ate at were pretty good. Some were better than others of course but the government-owned restaurant we tried in Cienfuegos was the worst. Service was deplorable and the food forgettable.
The best place we tried was in the minuscule town of Nicho. Marianela owns Paladar El Portalón De Totó and the Cuban mojo pig roast she prepared was to die for. The authentic food was as simple as it was delicious and the lovely setting felt genuine.
Visiting Cuba: The Countryside
At 42,426 sq mi, Cuba is almost the size of Florida. Even though we spent most of the time in and around the cities of Havana and Cienfuegos, we still got to wander in nature. Cuba is mostly flat with rolling hills and a few mountain ranges here and there. We canoed among flamingos and visited the beautiful El Nicho Park, where locals and tourists alike dive in idyllic waterfalls. We sunbathed on the beaches of El Rancho and Santa Maria and explored Cuba’s national botanical gardens outside of Havana.
Though we didn’t do any extended jungle hikes and mountain peak climbing, we visited Cuba’s world-famous tobacco growing fields. Pinar Del Río is the mecca of Cuban tobacco and just like any other industry in Cuba, the state controls it heavily. Farmers can only grow plants from seeds provided government labs. They can keep 10% of the leaves for tourists and but have to give the rest back to officials who then make the cigars that will be exported worldwide.
Visiting Cuba: The Infrastructure
Most of the infrastructure is falling apart. The Soviets built concrete bunker-like structures and highways to move troops from one end of the island to the other but their regime collapsed before completing many of them. Driving these underused and unmaintained massive highways with unfinished overpasses, potholes and hitchhikers walking into traffic can feel otherworldly. One of the last buildings the Soviets were able to complete was their ominous Embassy, now used by Russia. Some describe it as a sword, others as a syringe, but Cubans think it looks like Russia giving them the finger.
The passing of time has not been keen on Cuba’s infrastructure. Older historic forts, popular hotels, restaurants and busy tourist areas have been somewhat restored and are well maintained. That story changes as soon as you get off the main thoroughfares.
On one street, you might feel as if you were walking in a quaint Latin town, but as soon as you turn the corner, you feel as if you were dropped straight into TV news footage of Syria’s civil war aftermath.
Havana used to be a grand city but neither the people nor the government had, and have, the funds to maintain it; let alone restore it. People just end up living and working in dangerously crumbling structures.
Visiting Cuba: Just Do It!
Many say they want to visit before McDonald’s and Starbucks overrun the country. Truth is, American giant chains won’t deface Cuba any time soon but the country is changing rapidly.
Some of you probably wonder about the logistical details and challenges of visiting Cuba, especially from the USA. We flew out of Canada but there are many cheap flights from the USA, too (just pick the right visa). Airbnb and other private rentals are available. You can also book a room in a government hotel, if you feel like funding the Cuban administration (list of US restricted Cuban hotels). American banks prohibit transactions with Cuba. Bring cash and exchange it at the first Cuban bank you find. Bring EUR or CAD preferably as Cuba imposes a 10% tax for exchanging USD to CUC. You can rent cars (though there aren’t many and they are very expensive) or use taxis and buses to get around. Purchase travel insurance, filter the tap water and you should be fine.
The point is, if you consider visiting Cuba, nothing should hold you back. My goal with this article isn’t to give you a detailed how-to for visiting Cuba (there are many online resources for that) but rather to convince you that this fascinating destination is worthy of the top of your list. And if you do visit, you now have a better idea of where your hard-earned money would be most beneficial for the people of Cuba who really need it.
“But, you didn’t sound very convincing!”
Sure, Cuba has some amazing beaches, historic sites and resorts, which you can find out all about in many other travel blogs. While these highlights are nice, I’ve seen amazing beaches, historic sites and resorts in other countries. What I hadn’t experienced before was witnessing a country re-defining itself while rising from a devastating collapse, dealing with heavy US restrictions (and past CIA destabilization),and surviving major political and economic changes. You can end up visiting Cuba without noticing the signs. But if you look close, if you look beyond the white sand, if you look past the colorful walls, under the shiny car hoods and if you talk to the locals, you will create a different kind of lifetime memories.
If you’ve read through this novel of an article or have wondered about visiting Cuba, well… just do it!
And if you’ve been to Cuba, I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.