Lessons and Impressions from Cuba

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Totally fun to be driven around in this old car.

I spent New Year’s in Havana. Now seemed like an ideal moment to head there. Within a year, there’ll be commercial flights to Cuba from the United States. Tourism will boom. The island will get broadly available internet access. The old cars might be slowly replaced with modern cars. And so on. While great for the people of Cuba — always the most important consideration when contemplating the effects of globalization  — it will make it a less interesting place to visit as a tourist.

Havana is, overall, still quite poor. There aren’t any super luxurious hotels. There aren’t fancy restaurants, and the vast majority of restaurants are still government-owned. There isn’t widespread internet access or cell coverage, and that which exists is prohibitively slow and expensive (even for Americans). Credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere and the ATMs don’t work for foreigners. Outside of the old town in Havana, you see all the classic signs of poverty: run down homes, stray dogs, many people sleeping in one bedroom. One tour guide told us that the government monthly food rations hardly last a couple weeks.

The Cuban government is slowly loosening its authoritarian grip on its people. Just in the last few years people have been able to buy and own real estate. Just in the last few years they can now travel outside the country (other countries are reticent to offer visas but at least it’s no longer the Cuban government that’s the main problem). Just in the last few years international news and entertainment, illegally smuggled in via weekly shipments of USB sticks from Miami, has become de facto acceptable among sophisticated residents. More and more, it seems like Cuba is embracing elements of the market economy.

Some random impressions and lessons from the trip:

  • In the taxi from the airport to our casa particular — an Airbnb equivalent — we drove on smooth, paved streets, with “Hello” by Adele blasting on the radio. I was not expecting to hear Adele within 10 minutes of hitting the road in Cuba.
  • It didn’t take long to notice something different, though. A huge image of Che Guevera was lit up on the wall of one building as we drove into the city. And we began passing old American cars from the 50’s.
  • Cuba was super humid. Welcome to the Caribbean. The sweating was non-stop. Not fun. You take a shower, and begin sweating the moment you step outside.
  • The most crippling effect of the embargo for tourists — which persists, even as Obama has re-instated diplomatic channels — seems to be the stone-age banking system. No ATM machines accept American cards. Long lines to change money. No credit cards.
  • Learning about socialism — even as it slowly weakens under Raul, Fidel’s brother — was fascinating. Our tour guide was assigned a job after college by the government. He received food rations each month. “Why is this building so run down?” we asked someone. “Because the government hasn’t fixed it yet.” Can you imagine a government being responsible for maintaining every building in an entire country?
  • Although Russian cars are still on the road, there isn’t much fondness for Russia in general, obviously. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 89, Cuba’s economy — heavily subsidized by the Russians — plunged into a prolonged crisis. In the 90’s, food was scarce. Poverty rampant. They had to re-build their economy. In the 80’s, English was the language of the enemy. Today, Russian language is rarely heard in schools, and English is the clear secondary language on the island.
  • There are a bunch of fun, obvious tourist things to do in Havana. We had a drink at the Flordita bar, where Hemingway supposedly hung out and where the daiquiri was created. We enjoyed a meal in Havana’s Chinatown — Chinese and Mexican food serve as comfort food abroad for Americans. Hotel Nacional, the old famous hotel that played a cameo in The Godfather 2, sports a nice pool area and good views. Maybe the best thing we did was rent an old American Chevy for an hour, hire a driver, and just drive around in a convertible for an hour, feeling like we were in a time capsule.
  • There are two currencies in Cuba. This will be the source of societal unrest soon: uneducated taxi drivers who are driving tourists around and getting paid in the tourist currency — 25x the local peso rate — are making a lot more money than doctors and lawyers.
  • On the first day, as we hunted for a store from which to buy bottles of water, I asked someone where a supermercado was. Then I realized there weren’t supermarkets in Cuba. When we finally found a small market — filled with mostly generically labeled food — they were out of many staples. “There’ll be beer tomorrow, but not today,” the market owner told us.
  • Thinking of going to Cuba? This Medium post has a lot of good info for U.S. passport holders. It’s way easier than I thought it would be.

One of my beliefs about travel is that there are places that are good to live in, places that are good to travel to, and they’re not always the same place. Los Angeles is my go-to example: great place to live in, not a great place to visit as a tourist. Most poor countries are not especially enticing to live in, but those with fascinating histories, bright futures, or otherwise unique cultures, can be excellent places to spend a week or two as a tourist. Cuba fits in this boat. The recent Cold War-era history is super interesting. The economic structure of socialism is interesting. And the culture is still vibrant: dancing, music, cigars, and a generally friendly people. The locals seem unusually present in the moment since no is staring down at their phones. I found myself more present too, being off the grid for a full week. An unexpected benefit of visiting an unconnected island!

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