Reflections #1: Cuba

Cuban flagWe have really loved our time in Cuba. It has proved to be all that we had heard about and hoped for – yet it is complex and hard to sum up in a single sentence. As we travelled around, we have been noting down the various thoughts and observations that we have had and I thought that I would now try and distil them into some sort of structure.

Whether this becomes a regular for every country we visit or not, I don’t know. There aren’t many countries we will be in as long as we have been in Cuba, and I doubt that other places will be quite so strange.

I think as good a structure as any to share our thoughts is around Cuba past, present and future.

Cuba Past

In a previous post, I talked about Cuba having a creationist approach to history – broadly, official history starts around 1956 when Fidel & Che landed in Cuba to start the revolution and it ends after the repulsion of the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961?). Yet, everywhere you look in Cuba there are signs of its history – not just the revolutionary slogans and murals, but in the colonial buildings, in the (Batista era) statues and in the Amerindian names of places and plants.

The history of Cuba is rich and vibrant. I won’t pretend to fully understand it, but it encompasses Amerindians, Spanish colonisation, failed British invasions, slaves, dictators and, of course, revolution. There is irony aplenty – particularly when it comes to relationships with the US. The Capitolio which was built as a tribute to the US and other monuments were built with US money, and are now strangely overlooked.

This has all left a multi-hued society. Whilst ordinary Cubans are very poor – especially those without access to tourist CUCs – we always felt safe walking the streets. Whilst we were frequently approached by people touting taxis or restaurants or whatever, a smile and a “no, gracias” was almost always enough for them to move on.

Cuba Present

The present day for Cuba is not in the 21st century – the country does not seem certain as to time zone it is in. Internet access is equivalent to that we were using in the early ‘90s; history is stuck in the ‘60s; the cars are from the ‘40s and ‘50s; agriculture seems to be somewhere around the turn of the 19th century relying on the ox and horse to carry out the hard work and very little mechanisation. Watch the farming scenes at the beginning of the film War Horse to get a sense of farming today in Cuba.

The dual currency system completely distorts the economy. Isabel, one of our casa hosts, used to be a lawyer but stopped because she was only earning 25CUCs per month. Renting out rooms is much more lucrative (but highly taxed by the government).

Rationing is still in place and basic foodstuffs within your ration are very cheap, but beyond that things are expensive and scarce. Isabel was saying that there is currently no detergent for laundry to be had anywhere in Havana. Whatever is the Spanish for ‘make do and mend’ should be the national motto. Those things that aren’t roto (broken) have most likely been bodged – one of the taxis we were in had all of the interior door handles replace with loops of wire.

Tourism is a massive priority – hence having one (or more) tour desks in every hotel and scattered around every town. It is not about the individual profitability of Havanatur or Cubanacan, but of maximising the take of tourist CUCs.

It is very much a cash based economy. ATMs are not frequent and not well signposted – and in our experience don’t work about 25% of the time. No restaurants take credit cards. You are just expected to pay cash everywhere and, as a consequence, we spent more time worrying about how much cash we had than I would have liked.

When you come to Cuba, bring cash with you as that seems to get you the best exchange rate and lowest commissions. Sterling or Euros work well but avoid US dollars as they are hit with a 10% deduction (on top of the regular commission and a punitive exchange rate).

Whilst not at North Korean levels, there is a cult of personality in Cuba which you can’t fail to notice as you drive around. Che and Fidel are the most prominent with quotations and their images on walls and bus stations. Raul and other revolutionary figures are also mentioned but equally, every town we stopped in has a statue and / or a street named after Jose Marti, Cuba’s most famous (and adopted?) poet. Even Ernest Hemmingway seems to have been adopted as a Cuban – probably for services to the rum industry!

Cuba’s Future

Change is coming to Cuba – those things that can’t go on for ever won’t. Raul and Fidel will die and sever the human link back to the revolution. The US embargo will be lifted at some point – who knows when. The embargo and the US’ entire attitude to Cuba makes no sense, but currently very little in US politics seems to make much sense.

I think that the key question is not ‘when will Cuba change?’ but is more – ‘is Cuba ready for change?’ When the embargo is lifted, what sort of place does Cuba want to be and can it maintain its uniqueness?

The Cuban education system has a good reputation – however, whilst Cubans may be educated, they don’t have the experience or skills that are relevant for the 21st Century. Many of those 1940s & ‘50s cars are beautiful and Americans (and others) will snap them up and pay very good prices for them. Yet the reason these cars are still in Cuba is because they are simple and can be maintained using simple tools. Cubans couldn’t keep a modern car with all its sophisticated electronics running in the same way.

Hopefully, the likes of Taiwan or South Korea provide some sort of template for the transition needed and show that it can be done. Equally, the experience of East Germany shows that it is hard, takes a long time and costs a lot of money.

Conclusion

I hope it is obvious that we loved Cuba. It was everything that we had hoped for – cars, music, history, sights, weather (including just the right amount of Hurricane Isaac) – and yet it was more than just these clichés and stereotypes.

Staying in casas let us see a little of life for Cubans (albeit, relatively affluent ones) and the English speaking guides we had were a fascinating source of background information. We leave knowing a lot more about the history of Cuba than we did before. We heard the other side of the story about the revolution – and broadly feel that both sides did some stupid and terrible things.

We would encourage all of our friends to visit Cuba – it is unique in many ways. When and if you go, avoid the all inclusive resorts in Varadero or Miramar. Stay in Parque Central or one of the other smart hotels in Havana if you like, but take the time to explore not just Havana but some of the smaller towns too.

Thank you Cuba for a wonderful time. We wish you well for the future.

Facts & Figures

We had 26 days in Cuba, of which 18 were spent under our own steam and 8 were as part of the Exodus cycling tour. If we had a little more time on independent travel, we would have gone further east to Barocoa and possibly Santiago.

Whilst travelling independently, we spent almost exactly £100/day – including accommodation, food, tours, transfers and internet. The pie chart below shows the breakdown – yes of course we are keeping an Excel spreadsheet! Whilst on the Exodus tour, outgoings were less – but of course we had prepaid for accommodation and some meals as part of the tour costs.

How we spent our money!

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