Published: August 4th 2004August 4th 2004
When you land in Havana (or anywhere in Cuba - expecially if you go there during the summer) the humid air strikes you in the face, and oppresive heat, even in the evening. It takes you a few days to get accostumed, and then you are fine. Already at the airport you can see, that this is a different country. Cars are older, there are plenty old US cars parked and a few Lada taxis. We got a ride with the Lada taxi, and that returned me in the 80's when my dad used to have Lada. Even I had a Lada Samara, but that car was in much better state than the majority of cars in Cuba. Of course Lada driver never experienced air condition, and he understood open windows as air condition device. We were driving, and crossroads were really confusing, as it was 5 ways crossroad with only one traffic light. No problemo said the driver. We went past ministries, big billboards with communist propaganda (si, un mundo mejor es possible!!!) and monuments. During our stay in Cuba, we didn't stay in the hotel as it is too expensive, but in the so called casa particulares, with
the cuban family (for max. 20US$ per night). I have have to say that this is number one experience of cuba - staying with locals and talking with them.
In the first morning you can really see where you have landed - in Cuba. Havana is a disaster of the city, especially the center of Havana is completely ruined, but people are still living in those houses - it's free. Cubans cannot buy the houses, they just can permanently live in them and if they want to move, they must find a property to exchange. They also (officially) cannot buy new cars, and that was one of the first differences with socialism that we had in former Yugoslavia. You were able to buy cars and property. Lack of ownership means that houses are (literally) falling apart, as no one is taking care of them. And i fear of what will happen, when the socialism goes and when the capitalism comes. Those houses (and mansions by the Malecon) will be returned to previous owners (that are now most probably somewhere in Florida) or their ancestors and all those habitants will be expelled. That will cause one thing, that Cuba now
lacks - crime. Cuba is incredibly safe country, similar as it were all socialistic countries. And i fear that it will become similar to Russia as so many people will be left on the streets someday. A few people will become extremly rich and even richer, while majority will just stay poor.
Dollar... is the king of Cuba. Officialy, by Castro is despised, unofficially it rules the life. All people get their wages in pesos (moneda nacional), but in pesos you can buy only small stuff and actually only essential goods. If you want something more, you have to have dollars. And here comes the first problem - all wages (miserable, as the doctor gets around 40US$ in moneda national) are paid in pesos, and officially cubans are not alllowed to exchange that money into dollars. And therefor here comes the black market, which is actually very similar to extremly big black market that we had in Yugoslavia (where everything was connected to German Mark) and of course, on that black market you can exchange your money into dollars and you must pay everything in dollars. And i have to say, that you have to go on the black
market, otherwise you are left with miserable state supplies. There are also two kinds of shops, one for pesos (which look like warehouses and are by rule almost empty) and the other one for dollars, where you can buy almost everything - and that everything is as expensive (or sometimes even more) as in Europe...
So, if you want to survive or better, to live properly, you have to have regular access to dollars. And many cubans do, as they have families abroad in USA or in Europe. And a cuban can live in Cuba as a king for 200US$ for a month (after all, basic goods as bread, flour are extremly cheap!!!).
Second source is in connection with tourism or taxis. Having a casa particulares is a big thing as it is a good source of money (but still, they have to pay a FIX tax, no matter how many customers they have - around 170US$ per room per month), so is being a taxi driver. Scamming tourists and overcharging them is their daily business. Third source is begging, and that proves for some better alternative than working. Just image, if the average wage is under 20US$
per month and if you approach tourists on hourly basis with a sentence: Senhor, solamente un dollar por favor, i have a sick child blabla... And you can hear those sad stories every 5 minutes, one sadder than other.
The fourth category is the most dangerous for tourists - jinteiros. Men/Female that tries to sell you something on the street, that tries to invite you for a drink, meal, many of them seek for lonesome wealthy tourists to pay them food, clothes for a little sex exchange (and whatever they say, for me, this is still prostitution). They invite you for a drink, and there you pay a drinks also for them, many times also their friends come and sit, and on the end huge bill goes to you (and usually they drink or eat the mostly overpriced and expensive stuff), and thats not everything - they get a commission from the owner. Same goes with casas particulares, if you come in a tow with a jinteiro (or a taxi driver), you will be bound to pay (of course unknowingly) at least 5 dollars more per night... And those people are extremly agressive (they are not dangerous as such,
they are just dangerous for your wallet), and their contact sign is: Hola amigo, where are you from....
Hola amigo, where are you from presents a huge problem. After a few days you become so indifferent to their calls, so you don't even turn anymore. And problem is, that you are unable to differentiate between good and bad guys... Interesting thing happened when we were driving the car to Vinales from Havana (approx. 150km). We took a hitchhiker (that nothing unusal there - will explain on the next occassion in the next mail), and he tried to persuade us that the town (and the casa where we are going) is dirty, full and dangerous, but he knows a good place in a town 20km away... Of course, soon after i stopped and told him either to shut up or ... and he left the car :) Of course he would get a free ride to that town and commission from us... no thanks senhor... i don't have patience to deal with those people... But not all people are like that. We took several hithikers on a route between Baracoa-Santiago-Havana. All pleasant, interesting and it was a great pleasure to
have an insight into their lives and stories. Unfortunately, just one and unpleasant occurance can damage all the good ones...
Actually, getting the money out of tourist pockets is cuban national sport. Everything in connection with tourists is expensive and for every drink, food, museum or transport you will pay at least 20-30 times more than they would... (and i got furious when we payed like 5 dollars each entrance to the park and the guy there demanded another dollar just for 20 minutes stop with a car - ok, i don't mind paying, but so obviously sucking the money out of your pocket, and not telling you how much something costs... they don't have the measure and they think that everyone that comes to Cuba is a millioner - and that makes travelling around extremly expensive for solo, backpack travellers... But the real people with a lot of money usually hang out only in those all-inclusive hotels... Ok, no problemo they say, let's suck dry those tourists that are available...
Ok... enough... i got carried away a little bit. Yes, Cuban socialism has some similarities with yugoslavian, but i have to admit that we were lucky. We
lived in a more "liberal" country, as we were allowed to travel abroad and in the country, we were able to buy different goods,... Yes, there are positive things, as the full employment (everyone can work if the want), schools are free and obligatory and they are very good, health service is completely free and also very good... But unfortunately dollar brought differentiation - on the ones who have them, and the ones who don't have them, and social differences rise (although those differences are still minor in comparison with those that we can see in the USA). Officialy there is no racial segregation, but unofficialy black get worse jobs, they are treated as crooks by whites... Interestingly, 95% of jinhteiros are black or mixed...
It looks like that have a lot of criticism of Cuba. Well, its not like it looks. Life in Cuba is simple. There is no hassle, life is going slowly. You don't earn a lot, but you have a job. And you don't work much in that job, or if you do, you do it cuban style. These people really know how to enjoy a free time and a have a really good time
in such difficult times. It is a country well worth of visit, and if you plan to go there, go for the time of Castro. Life after Castro will change. Will it be better? Don't know... Its just a question which direction Cuba will take... unfortunately not everything that is $ is shining... so, somebody should explain that to their northern neigbours... but, i guess they won't listen...
So, my personal view. Do I like Cuba? Yes and no. I really have a mixed feeling. If you go to a all-inclusive place, thats not a proper Cuba. Thats just a Cuba that a regime wants you to see. The other Cuba is different. Life isn't easy, but again, at the same time, despite all the complaining, a lot of people are happy. What I didn't like was the people looking at you as walking wallet. Fortunately, not all people were like that. Thanks to families in Baracoa and Trinidad my view changed. A lot. But, will I return? Don't know.
For the end. The owner of our casa particulares in Santiago actually said that she has a friend in Italy. That she already spent there a few months.
But she didn't like it. Why? People work there too much and don't enjoy their lifes enough. And she prefers Cuba. :))
As Cubans say, hasta la victoria, siempre
There are more photos below