Life in Cuba
When I boarded Fathom’s small ship cruise to head off to Cuba for a week, I had no idea what to expect. I thought perhaps the people might have an aversion to Americans suddenly flooding the country. Perhaps the American-Cuban political thaw might also extend to the people.
It just so happened that the week I spent in Cuba (November 27th – December 4th) was just days after Fidel Castro passed away and the entire country plunged into an official mourning period for 9 days. This meant no music, no alcohol, no dancing, no nightlife. Instead, the Cuban people paid their solemn respects and farewells to one of their country’s longest leaders.
What attracted me most about seeing Cuba was the opportunity for an immersive, People to People experience where we as tourists would have chance to visit, speak and spend time with local Cubans to understand their daily life and history.
Here’s a compilation of what I learned and experienced about life in Cuba.
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Living under a Communist Society
Let me preface that politics is not black and white and I’m not a journalist. I’m well aware that Cubans in America staunchly opposed Fidel Castro for many reasons – all the media coverage throughout the week showed Cubans in Miami celebrating in the street.
As a tourist visiting Cuba, the island atmosphere was a stark visual contrast.
2. The Fidel Castro Mourning Period
The Cuban government declared a 9 day official state mourning, where Fidel’s ashes were driven on a country wide procession from Havana to his final resting place in Santiago.
When we stopped in Cienfuegos, we noticed a long square wrapping line of students waiting for the procession and when we arrived in Santiago, many students were in the town square to sign the memorial book.
Local tour guides will tell you it is because the people want to pay their respects, but others will tell you it is because they are required to do so.
Additionally, an official ban was placed on alcohol, music and dancing during the state mourning period. This meant the once harmonious streets were silent and beer, mojitos and wine were conspicuously absent from meal times.
That being said… if you wanted to find a drink, you could. Here’s my food & drink recommendations for Havana.
3. Communist.. with Adjustments
When Fidel transferred power over to his brother Raoul in 2008, Raoul opened up the economy slightly by allowing people to hold 2 jobs and permitting the privatization of homes for hotel rooms and restaurants.
Private homes for rent are called casa particulares in Cuba and typically are slightly better kept than the government run hotels. For $30-40 a night (you can book on AirBnB in advance or show up and ask around) you’ll get a small, clean room and Cuban breakfast (fresh fruit, coffee, ham) in the mornings.
Private restaurants are called paladars and typically offer better service than their government counterparts. If you prefer a hotel, here are my best Havana hotel recommendations.
4. Political Power
As of 2019, Raoul Castro is 87 years old. Transfer of power is not expected to pass on to his son or relative and locals thought there might be a vacuum while the country waited for a new dynamic leader. Cuba of course, is a one party state.
5. Universal Freedoms
Back on board the cruise ship, we had a lively discussion about what freedoms should be universal. In Cuba, they hold healthcare, education (up to but not including post graduate) and a lifelong job to be universal freedoms. These are all guaranteed by the State.
In America, some of the freedoms granted by our Constitution include freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to assemble. During our discussion, we thought it was interesting to see the differences.
Most Americans would dream of universal healthcare. It’s something many other countries around the world offer, but in Cuba, what is the actual day to day experience?
There is often not enough money for supplies, few doctors and so what a tour guide might parrot as a universal right may differ in reality. We heard horror stories of shared needles, multi year waits for treatments, etc.
I’m not saying one system is better than the other, simply that the day to day realities are often much different than what a founding government may have anticipated.
Cuba was one of those trips that makes you think a lot beyond just the pretty sights or local cuisine.
The Economy in Cuba
6. There are Rich People
Despite the country’s socialist bent, one tour guide mentioned that there are still “rich” people in Cuba. These are generally those with family members abroad who remit money back home. We drove around one of Havana’s richer neighborhoods with more elaborate houses (these were still a bit run down).
Richer Cubans typically use the extra funds to open a casa particular or paladar.
7. Shortages All around
There is a shortage of nearly everything in Cuba.
Basic goods, materials to fix homes, clothes etc are all scarce and hard to come by. That’s partly why the once grand architectural buildings are in such a state of disrepair – there’s simply limited or no materials to patch them up.
While as a tourist the city looks charming with its grand infrastructure, the fact that everything is crumbling is sad to see and more than just a pretty photo backdrop.
If you’ve ever seen Cubans in Miami on their way to Cuba, now you know why they carried overflowing bags of clothes in Ikea bags.
8. Donations Are Asked For
As a result of the shortage, people on the streets frequently ask tourists for basic necessities like soap, chewing gum, pens, hats, etc.
We were recommended not to give, as this encourages a donation or beggar like society where people don’t work and await cruise ships or tour buses for a handout. Some people in our group were kind-hearted and gave anyway, and a group of 3 women then proceeded to follow us for the remainder of our tour in Santiago and tell their friends to ask as well.
I don’t really know the real “right” thing to do in this case..
9. Monthly Rations
Cubans receive a blue ration book once a month for basic items which they can then buy in government shops. In the beginning of Castro’s rule this provided a month’s worth of free food but in today is reduced for about half that, making life even more difficult.
It is because resources are so scarce that locals are desperate.
10. The Black Market
It’s not uncommon for the black market to circumvent daily shopping. For example – a friend or relative of a store owner might use his relationship to buy all of one item the day before market day, say plastic shopping bags.
Then he’ll stand outside the store and resell the shopping bags (or internet cards, whatever) for double or triple the price, so that almost everything a local needs costs more than it should.
Currency and Money
11. Two Currency System
I’m sure many people know that Cuba has two currencies (I briefly explained the two in this earlier post, How to Travel to Cuba as an American.
I thought the CUC would be pronounced “see-you-see” as in the letters, but it’s actually pronounced “kooks” with a hard c, sounded out. It’s roughly 25 pesos nacional (local currency) to 1 CUC (tourist currency).
12. The Government Taxes the Dollar, but the People Will Happily Accept
You can bring American dollars to change in Cuba when you enter the ports or airports, but expect to pay a 10% tax. If you bring Euros in advance, you won’t pay any tax.
I did find that you could get by with American dollars or Euros if you needed to – locals will accept all currencies for small things like souvenirs and tips.
13. Currency Shortages
Try to spend as much of your CUCs locally as you can. For one, it helps out local businesses and there are some fun souvenirs that your friends and family back home will like.
For example: cigars – Cohiba is the most popular, Romeo + Juliet is nice too; old stamps, newspapers and propaganda posters; fresh coffee beans (which I bought); leather goods and crochet / linen clothes.
You also might find it hard to exchange money back!
I had a couple small bills left and the government-run money exchange counter ran out of American small bills.
14. Standard of Living
The average Cuban makes 12 CUCs a month (roughly 12 euros, or 12 American dollars due to the 10% tax on American currency).
While this is extremely low for our standard of living, our tour guides mentioned that Cubans receive a guaranteed job, free education including post secondary education, free rent and free healthcare – so their expenses are lower than perhaps other countries.
15. Daily Expenses
Still, daily expenses are high for the average Cuban and everyone appreciates more money. We were encouraged to tip generously as most Cuban families will share one apartment. With shortages of almost everything, locals frequently turn to the black market, where prices can be exorbitant.
We were told that tour guides in Cuba typically pool their tips, so they share with not only the bus driver but even the employees in the tourism office.
Jobs & Education in Cuba
Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world (99.8% on par with developed countries) as a result of Castro’s drive for education.
It’s not uncommon for your tour guide to have once been a teacher or for people to hold multiple jobs moonlighting as a security guard and a restaurant waiter.
Cuba has some of the best doctors in the world. In fact, it routinely exports its doctors to its neighbors in Central and South America. Notably, it sent a team of doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil.
This foreign medical program is highly lucrative for the cash strapped Cuban government. So in reality, while healthcare is a universal right, the hospitals are in various states of decay, there are shortages of medical practitioners in Cuba and only the regime’s elite get proper care.
I anticipated that Cubans would likely not speak English at all. The average Cuban local doesn’t… but tour guides spoke it quite well.
I was very surprised, given the political history and complete lack of American tourists. Of course there are Brits and Canadians visitors. Most tour guides studied English for 5 years in University and are required to pass a series of government exams in order to be a guide.
English historically was not a mandatory part of the curriculum. However, due to the thaw in American – Cuban political relations, it will soon be a more formal addition to school classes.
19. The Government Hand in Tourism
All tour companies in Cuba are government run, with the largest being Havana Tours. The tour buses were imported from China and quite plush / modern – not at all what I was expecting! Our tour guide in Santiago also spoke French fluently.
20. Right to Work
Every Cuban has the right to a job, if they wish (of course salaries are very low). We were told that the beggars in the streets, choose to beg as they receive more from tourists than at their government jobs.
Tour guides make more than the average Cuban so the profession is becoming an in-demand job. One of our tour guides mentioned that he has first been an English teacher but switched to become a guide as it was a better paying job.
Daily Life in Cuba
Once a week, a USB drive with internet is sold on the black market in Cuba containing the latest international news, TV shows, music and movies.
I’m not quite sure how a USB can contain all this but locals in Cuba were definitely current on American music and shows. It’s sold for 2 CUCs and internet is only available in certain spots in public areas (not in the home).
Although Cuban cigars are a famous export (our travel group went crazy when we finally found a cigar shop open during the mourning period), local Cubans rarely smoke them – they’re simply too expensive.
Vinales is the tobacco producing region in Cuba and the government establishes a quota for each farm. Whatever production is leftover, the farmer can sell to tourists.
Cuba is energy efficient! In 2005, Castro decreed an Energy Revolution and required all Cubans to turn in their old incandescent bulbs in exchange for energy efficient, less luminescent replacements.
In reality, blackouts can be common.
Another thing Castro implemented?
Pressure cooking. In March of 2005, Castro’s government handed out 100,000 pressure cookers a month until millions were given out and also offered subsidized pressure cookers for purchase.
Perhaps the pressure cooker campaign is one of the reasons why shredded beef is a delicious, must try dish in the country? I thought it was fantastic when we had it at a Casa Particular in Havana.
25. Stuck in the ’50s
As a result of the American embargo, Cuban cars primarily date prior to 1959. They of course don’t look anything ancient!
Most were shiny, snazzy and looked like they rolled off the car lot that morning. Inside, most parts have been entirely replaced with ingenuity, given the lack of replacement parts due to the embargo. All of the cars now run on diesel, as it’s more economical.
These cars are a tourist attraction. It is far too expensive for locals to use these as personal cars, due to their maintenance and upkeep.
While the cars can be fixed up to act to attract tourist dollars, most of the magnificent buildings are crumbling. Unfortunately building materials are in short supply so you’ll see chipped paint, well worn surfaces and broken tiles.
People to People
I highly recommend choosing a People to People experience if you’re interested in a deeper cultural experience when visiting Cuba. One of the aspects I looked forward to the most were the discussions about politics, economy and life.
Cuba holds a certain mystery for those in our parents generation, as they remember what Havana was like pre embargo. It’s no surprise that the Fathom cruise was predominantly filled with retirees!
But for anyone interested in deeper travel, it was an incredibly rewarding experience.
Unfortunately Fathom no longer offers the Cuba cruise itinerary that I took, but you can check here for all cruises to Cuba.
If you don’t want to cruise, but still want an immersive, People to People experience that supports local businesses, check out Intrepid‘s 1 week Cuba tour. They organize everything, including visits to Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, and keep the tour sizes small.
Check out Intrepid’s Cuba itinerary here.
Have you been to Cuba? Let me know about your experience in the comments.
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Thank you to Fathom for bringing me as a guest on their Cuba route.