Havana Cuba was the first place I’ve visited with a lot of preconceived notions and absolutely no idea what to expect. The images of Cuba I grew up with in the late 1990’s featured hungry people and crowded ‘cattle buses’ driving through central Havana’s crumbling buildings. That is NOT Havana today. Now it’s safe, relatively clean, and geared up for tourists, really.
To understand what is happening in Cuba today you need to look into it’s past. It’s a good idea to go back to 1959 and earlier, however the most relevant historical event shaping Cuba today happened on the other side of the world just 20 years ago.
When the eastern block fell in the late 1980’s Cuba lost 80% of it trading partners and 35% of it’s GDP between 1989 and 1993 alone. This was the start of the “Special Period” that lasted 10 years and a lot of people went hungry. Outside the island we saw boats of desperate immigrants escaping however possible.
Things have changed since the Special Period and Cuba is not the only communist country; we saw consulate cars from Korea, China, Syria, Iran etc… Cuba appears to be shifting to a more Chinese-like economic model where individuals can now; start a business, rent rooms, sell meals, even buy/sell property. Every Cuban we asked said not nearly enough has changed and they are pessimistic that daily life will improve.
Cuba currently has two currencies; the CUC = to Euro is available only to Foreigners, and the Cuban Peso about 24 Peso’s to every CUC. This two currency concept can be difficult to get your head around but here’s my best effort.
Cubans are paid in Pesos; have different banks, get free education, free health-care, housing and food staples. Since most Cubans are employed by the government one way or another, most make between 360 and 480 Peso’s a month = 15 to 20 CUC per month.
Now consider this, you can buy anything you want in Cuba, yeah really most anything. BUT foreign items are for sale only in CUC and at prices comparable to those you find in the rest of the world. So if you want a TV it’s 200 CUC, a pair of nice shoes is 40 CUC, bottle of Nivea Body Lotion is 6 CUC and dinner at a government owned restaurant is between 10 and 20 CUC. All of the sudden your 15-20 CUC per month isn’t buying much.
Hard working Cubans find jobs where they interact with foreigners who are paying, and tipping, in CUC or they rely on family abroad. The longest line you will see in Havana is for the Western Union. To get top jobs like in the Veradero Beach hotels (a modern resort community for foreigners one hour from Havana) or government restaurants, hotels, taxis and Cigar shops you must be loyal to the government and often personally connected to party leaders.
We rented a classic 1959 Ford Thunder Bird for a few hours tour. The driver was an mechanical engineer, he could work in the airport or a variety of government jobs but driving tourists he earns CUC + tips and in one day can get more then a month of government work.
Servicing foreigners has an additional benefit, you can meet people who may have the power to get you out of Cuba. Predatory marriage doesn’t happen everyday, and it’s not to say you can’t find true love in Cuba, but it’s certainly common enough to be mentioned.
Cuba’s Safe, really!
This surprised me a lot, especially considering the above about currency and marriage fraud scams, but I found Havana to be very safe. We were not approached by beggars, there were no sick or homeless people on the street, no gangs, and no guns.
This was the first thing our hotel host told us “This is a safe city, you will not be robbed or held at gun point, we have no terrorists, so please feel safe. BUT beware of scams and don’t have your money out often. Keep your passport and extra cash in the safe in your room, be aware and you will be fine.” After reading some Cuban newspapers I can see why she felt the need to tell us how safe it is; the press makes a point of saying how unsafe America is.
With so many people wanting more CUCs there are bound to be some scams. We only found one, but got approached several time with the same deal.
A like-aged couple walks up and asks where you are from; of course they have a cousin who lives there! We should all get a drink; let us show you a great local bar. Claim: you now have new Cuban friends. Truth: you all get drinks and the bill’s on you. The local bar suddenly takes only CUC and you just spend one nights hotel stay on two strangers who really didn’t teach you anything about Cuba. The bar gives a cut of the CUC profit to the couple. Lucky we figured it out first night as our travel radar was going off before the first drinks were finished.
We only experienced that one scam, but there were others I read about on-line including marriage fraud to get out of Cuba. Once you have helped export ‘True Love’ from Cuba they immediately disappear into their new home country and you are left alone, again.
Don’t let fear keep you in the tourists pack, explore, it’s safe, really.
The best place to see locals at their most natural and friendly is to visit the Melecon at sunset, especially on weekends.
- Havana Cuba – what I think I know – Part 1 – Accommodations and Food
- Havana Cuba – what I think I know – part 2 – Currency and Safety
- Havana Cuba – what I think I know – Part 3 – Rum and Cigars