Sunday, June 25, 2017

10 Reasons to Avoid Cuba (Part 1)

I just returned from three months living in Latin America, including Cuba. So many Spanish curse words to learn, so little time. Pinga. Maricon. Mierda. Puta. Best of all, if you want to double down, you just add a "re" to the beginning of a swear word, and you've got a new way to express yourself.  These words would come in handy in Havana... 

Plaza de Revolucion

My first day, I walked past a building that looked like a kid's powder-blue castle. I entered and realized it was a police department. Seeing Fidel Castro's words on various plaques on the walls, I thought I'd take a picture and translate it later. Someone stopped me at and directed me to the front desk, about 30 feet away. I approached and asked if I could take a photo of the plaque. The uniformed woman said I couldn't.  Stunned at her lack of common sense, I walked backwards, sarcastically saying, "No es posible tomar una photo de palabras de Fidel Castro? En Cuba? Viva la revolucion!" 

My month-long experience in Havana did not get better from there. Before I explain exactly why and how Cuba relies on hype to boost its tourism numbers, I'll give you some tips if you--against all reason and decency--still want to visit.

The Good

You can see Havana in three days. Almost all the action is in or near Old Town, or Havana Vieja, and if you want to visit, stay there. An excellent tour bus costing 10 USD per person starts and ends at Plaza de Revolucion--you should take it as soon as possible to see where you'd like to go.

The usual list of places to see includes Capitolio (similar to America's Congress), Ernest Hemingway's house, Playas de Este (a beach), 
a tobacco factory or shop, Casa de la Musica, the Malecon, Bodeguita del Medio, Callejon de Hamel, Museo del Chocolate (a cafe), Hotel Nacional, Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana), and Fabrica de Arte (a hipster club).  Some people take bus tours via Cubatur or Havanatur to Trinidad, Varadero, Vinales, or Cienfuegos (known for fishing), but I only stayed in Havana.

My favorite spots were Museo del Chocolate, 
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 
the beach (Playas de Este--wear sunscreen!), and Hotel Nacional (go inside and to the outdoor bar).  
by Mariano Rodriguez
Playas de Este
"Museum" of Chocolate

Cuba is unique because it lacks widespread WiFi (pronounced wee-fee in Cuba). To access WiFi, you must find hotspots throughout the city and input a number from a card.  You can buy a one-hour card from someone in the hotspot area for 3 USD.  If you're frugal like me, go directly to the local phone company's office (I went to the one on 17th and B), wait in line, show ID, and buy one for 1.50 USD. (Cuba's economy is so terrible, buying and re-selling anything to tourists is usually more attractive than working for the government.) 

Make sure the password isn't already scratched off, clear your browser's cache, and you'll get a pop-up ETECSA website prompting you for the two numbers you'll see on the card.  

Some other information:

1.  Cuba's national soda brand is Ciego Montero, and the cola flavor is better than Coke. As you might expect, it uses real sugar. If Cuba adds a small sticker on each can or bottle saying, "Made with Real Cuban Sugar" and exports it to the EU and China, it can watch the money roll in. Unfortunately, there's a U.S. naval blockade, and other countries aren't keen to let foreign companies compete with their own. 

The more you travel, the more you realize there's no such thing as "free trade." Every country protects its own farmers and agricultural sector, and the reason foreign-produced coffee is so widely available in North America is because its soil isn't ideal for growing coffee beans commercially.  In other words, there's no domestic coffee bean industry to protect, so America has few restrictions on foreign coffee beans. You still won't see many Juan Valdez or Cafe Britt cafes in North America, partly because of higher operating and legal compliance costs, which make it harder for countries with weaker currencies to open physical locations in the U.S. without preferences (such as lower tariffs and low insurance costs). Sadly, it's easier for developed countries to whine about trade deficits than actually create long-term incentives for truly effective international competition and cross-border investment. 
Cuba's best products -- not coming to a store near you

2.  When you go to any busy place, there will be a line.  Always ask, "Ultimo?" to determine whom you're behind, and when that person gets in line or moves forward, follow him or her. 

3.  Finally, download, a free VPN, and an offline Spanish-to-English dictionary on your cell phone before you visit.  Once you're in the country, some apps or webpages might not work, even if you have WiFi. I noticed one Google article on Cuba didn't load when I had WiFi. Next time I accessed WiFi, I tried again with the VPN and downloaded the article--which was not critical of Cuba--seamlessly. If something doesn't work in Cuba, don't automatically assume the government is blocking it--it's more likely Cuba doesn't have the necessary infrastructure to be compatible or to make it work.

The Bad and Ugly

I've visited about 40 countries, including impoverished ones like India, where I saw people living in shacks and sleeping on the ground a few meters from the Baby Taj, and people desperate enough to follow me for half a mile begging for money. I don't mind a lack of first-world amenities. I always try to live like the locals when I travel, partly because it's cheaper, but also because I don't see the point in traveling just to meet other tourists or see yet another beach. (Unless you're in Nice, France, where the beach has a stone surface, how much water and sand can you see in one lifetime?)  

I *uckin' hated Cuba.

1.  Cuba is like America, if the Least Business-Savvy Cotton Plantation Owners Had Won the Civil War

Cuba has all of modern America's worst traits--its jingoism, its excessive patriotism, its inability to handle criticism--and none of its best traits--entrepreneurship, technological infrastructure, and open media. After hearing me criticize Cuba, one waitress became upset and told me, "We have a saying in Cuba: 'If you don't love your country, it's like you don't love your mother.'" (I didn't ask if the phrase still applied if your mother was an abusive kleptocrat.)

Cuba was the penultimate country in the Western Hemisphere to ban slavery in 1886 (Brasil banned it in 1888, though it banned slave trading earlier). Cuba relies and relied so much on its tobacco, cocoa, and sugar industries--all linked to manual labor--it needed slaves to run its economy, just like Brasil. Today, in Cuba, a clear racial division exists between higher class jobs in medicine and academia and other jobs, even if the pay isn't vastly different.

I try to walk about 7 miles a day and take public transportation when abroad, so I notice patterns others might not see. When I passed by local hospitals or saw doctors in local restaurants getting lunch, almost every doctor had blue or green eyes and light skin. I met a black medical professor and raised my concerns with her. She agreed and said black professionals need to be twice as a good as non-black ones to be accepted in educated Cuban society. (Pop quiz: what other country does that remind you of?)

William Faulkner, on race relations generally and Emmett Till specifically

Property ownership is another way to gauge wealth. My Airbnb property owner had whiter skin than most Scandinavians. The government tries to provide housing for Cubans, but so many people have moved to Havana from smaller cities looking for tourism-related work, it could not keep up with demand. In Havana and elsewhere in Cuba, almost everyone lives in crowded conditions with family unless they have generous remittances or bought property a long time ago. 

Who rides the cramped buses in Havana? Besides me, almost all black-skinned persons, senior citizens, and almost no one with light eyes, indicating they need to commute to work much longer distances or can't afford taxis. Mind you, shared taxis for locals aren't very expensive--about 50 cents--but the bus is even cheaper at about 4 cents a ride. 

One doesn't need to be a keen observer to notice Cuba's oddities. A neighbor in my apartment complex enjoyed blasting music or the television at 12 in the morning. When I complained to my Airbnb landlord's assistant, she warned me against confronting him and pointed to her arm, saying, "Negro"--black.  Except for America, I've never been in a country where it was so openly acceptable to link a lack of manners to one's skin color. (My landlord eventually talked to him, and after some yelling, he stopped playing loud music at 11pm.)

Cuba taught me that it's possible to have racism without segregation. Like Brasil and Costa Rica, Cuba is racially diverse. I was born in the Middle East, and I can pass for a local in all three countries, but only in Cuba did I realize why Southern whites supported Jim Crow in America. If you had to deal with millions of poor people suddenly having the same rights as you, but without an education or way to succeed economically, would you take advantage of an opportunity to keep them away from your neighborhood, at least until they had similar education or financial support as you? 

Most Cubans have someone in Miami sending them money each month, but I wouldn't be surprised if most of the darker-skinned Cubans lack such connections because their families live or lived in more rural places where manual labor jobs would be more plentiful and news of refugee and exile programs more difficult to verify. In short, remittances from Miami probably favor educated and/or light-skinned Cubans. With private businesses finally being allowed, but banking loans unavailable to most people, Cuba might end up with major wealth disparities based on race--just like America.  (Some revolution, huh?)  

When you allow chattel slavery, it has long-term consequences. When looking for a place to live, if you can choose, pick a place that banned slavery or slave trading earlier rather than later, allowing more time for economic progress. Such a yardstick might not be useful in isolation, though. For example, Vermont partially banned slavery in 1777, but didn't need slaves to run the comparatively less labor-intensive business of dairy farming. Even today, Vermont is 95% white. 

Contrast Vermont's ban with Cuba's, and you'll see a potential source of Havana's odd culture. Spain banned slavery in 1811, including in colonies like Cuba; however, Cuba rejected the ban. In other words, given a choice, it intentionally decided not to take the more moral option.

Both America and Cuba have sold themselves a revolutionary vision that has no connection with what's actually happening on the ground. If America doesn't make a cultural u-turn, it may resemble Cuba in 200 years--glossy on the outside, rotten on the inside, bolstered by slick propaganda, and divided based on race and wealth.

2.  Smoking is Everywhere

Dunhill cigarettes cost 1.75 USD.  There is no sales tax.  I've never seen so many high school kids smoking in my life.  I even saw middle schoolers smoking. So much for Cuba's great educational system.  

To be fair, the elementary school kids I saw were well-behaved and played well together, and one Canadian-born father told me when the teachers tell the pre-schoolers to sleep, they all sleep without a fuss.

3.  Health Care is Free for Locals but is Decades Behind

I haven't gotten to Cuba's dual currency system, which incentivizes tourist theft, but let me tell you a story: when I needed Immodium, I asked a doctor, who said he needed to write me a prescription (probably for generic loperamide). He'd do it for free if he had a script, but he didn't have one, so he had to borrow one from a co-worker, and he needed 15 USD for it. Unfortunately for him, as he was saying this, he opened his wallet, which had a script. I didn't take him up on the offer. (In case it's not obvious, t
ourists do not receive free healthcare, and I'm not sure if Cuba still requires incoming airlines to add and collect a small healthcare fee on its behalf.) 

Why did I need a prescription for anti-diarrhea medicine? Because Cuba regulates and controls everything. When I got sick in the Philippines or Thailand, I could go anywhere and get medicines that would require a prescription in the U.S.  (I still remember floating in the air and giggling after taking muscle relaxants in Bangkok that were suggested to help me recover from diarrhea and exhaustion.) Pharmacies, when you can find them, only seem to have Vitamin B and C available, though I did see a Cuban-made anti-cholesterol medicine in one of Old Havana's pharmacies. I couldn't find ibuprofen or antibiotic cream in any pharmacy.

The lack of selection isn't limited to OTC drugs. I've been hearing-impaired since birth and have been lucky to see firsthand technological improvements in hearing aids over three decades. In Cuba, I saw a few people wearing hearing aids. They were the same ones I wore about 20 years ago. 

Don't believe the hype--Cuba lacks technology, including in medicine, though basic care is quite good. The people most fervent about Cuban healthcare are younger Cubans, who have only experienced rudimentary functions like annual checkups or vaccinations. Many people will tell you about someone with cancer who was cured after receiving free treatment, but upon delicate cross-examination, will disclose they don't actually know the person who received cancer treatment; in other words, it's hearsay and unreliable. It's true foreign medical students study in Cuba, but if you look closely at the flag on their sleeves above the Cuban flag, it's almost always an African country even poorer than Cuba. 

4.  Everyone Will Try to Rip You Off if You Don't Speak Spanish or Look Cuban

I expect a certain level of mendacity when I travel to poorer countries, but in Cuba, it's practically a national pastime. 

Cubans are poor, and main sources of wealth include tourism jobs, Miami remittances, or smuggled items (I met a Floridan in the airport who brought 5,000 USD cash to his relatives--he told me Cuba has been going downhill for a while). Because private businesses are new concepts to many Cubans, they haven't learned that creating good relationships can lead to higher income or repeat business. Like some American businesses, they tend to see everything in the short-term--a one-off opportunity to extract as much money from you as possible--a mindset encouraged by most tourists' decisions to stay only three or four days in Cuba. 

It's hard to hold a grudge, though. Doctors, like most government employees, make the equivalent of about 25 USD a month in Cuba, not including bonuses. As I explained above, they will rip you off just like almost everyone else in Cuba if given a chance.

Many restaurants and food stalls "forgot" to give me proper change or substituted the wrong currency. Even a fancy restaurant in Old Havana, when given a 100 CUC bill for a 20 CUC charge, gave me back 60 CUC. (That reminds me--when exchanging currency, get 10 CUC bills--anything larger will be difficult to break. Also, there's a 10% fee for changing U.S. dollars but not any other country's currency. Bring Euros, pounds, or Canadian dollars to avoid the ripoff, er, fee.)

In case you don't know already, Cuba has two currencies. One is called CUP, or moneda nacional. The one used by most tourists is called CUC.  Technically, as a tourist, you're not supposed to have CUP, but you'll get some as change if you pay CUC to an honest street vendor or build a relationship with a local business and ask to do an exchange.

CUCs are equivalent to U.S. dollars, and it takes 24 or 25 CUP to equal a single CUC.  You'll be able to identify the difference after a day or two, but just remember: CUC bills do not have pictures of people on the front, and CUC coins are generally silver-colored, not gold-colored. (By the way, if you're American, you cannot use the ATM machines--sanctions inconvenience you, too--whatever cash you bring in, that's it.)

Quick--which one's worth more? 

Sometimes, the dual currency system leads to genuine mistakes. For example, a taxi ride in an old American car within Havana is usually 5 CUC for a tourist, but only 40 to 60 cents for a local. (The yellow cabs charge 5 CUC for any number of people if empty, but the price will vary depending on your Spanish.) When I was with a Cuban friend for a day, he told me to keep my mouth shut in taxis so we wouldn't be charged the tourist rate. At the end of our tour, before we went separate ways, he negotiated a ride in a motorized "rickshaw" after confirming in English with me it would be 10 CUP. The driver, however, thought he was being helped by his Cuban colleague and would be paid 10 CUC (double the tourist rate!). At the end of the short trip, after some yelling and threats of physical violence, the driver and I both departed angry. 

Cuba's attitude seems to be, "If you get hustled, you deserved it."  There's no remorse whatsoever. Always r
emember: you are expected to negotiate in Cuba. Most prices should be cut in half unless you know the going rate. Go with a local Cuban everywhere if you can, and let him or her do the talking. Your experience will be much more pleasant. If renting from Airbnb, stay with a family and negotiate your meals being included. I stayed in an apartment solo, which was a mistake. Most Cuban residential buildings aren't set up to have privacy, so I gained little by having a place to myself.

I'll end Part 1 with a joke:

Q: How do you know when a Cuban is lying to you? 
A: His lips are moving.

I wish I was kidding. 

[To be continued...

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