I have been a capitalist since my teens and my recent to Cuba has cemented my views that capitalism is the only way to ensure the advancement of the quality of life for people. I think it is in human nature to work for themselves and their families. Ensuring that each person has an incentive to strive and work for their profit feeds entrepreneurship, initiative, passion and drive. Unfortunately, due to the socialist regime in Cuba, there is little incentive to strive and as a result this beautiful country is stuck in the past and the Cubans struggle with the menial needs of every day life and the magnificent human spirit is worn down and wasted in this country.
Following is a general overview of the various aspects of Cuba from my point of view followed with some pictures from 2 weeks in Cuba.
Buildings and Vehicles in Cuba
When I got to Havana, the first word that came to mind when I was in the taxi from the airport to Old Havana was decrepid. The buildings are old and the cars are old. Cuba has been stuck in a time warp. Everything has been made to last out of need. And yet, when we returned to Havana from the countryside, I was struck by how much more well-off and built up Havana is compared to the other towns. It says a lot about the state of the other towns.
A lot of the nicer looking buildings, I would consider refurbished, renovated or extended. There are no really new buildings at all. The age of the cars vary significantly, with old vintage cars from the 50’s still in use. On major roads we often shared the space with horse and carts. How is it that the horse and cart is a mode of transportation for people and goods in 2015? Whilst another person may find the vintage features on buildings, classic cars and horse and carts quaint and charming, this is the sad reality of a Cuban person’s life in 2015. A life where with everything, they have to just “make do”.
Accommodation in Cuba
During our 2 weeks in Cuba, we stayed mostly in Casa Paticulares which are homestays. These Cuban families apply to the government for a licence to house foreigners in their own homes. This is allowed because there is a shortage of state run hotels. The accommodation was better than expected in that every room we stayed in had air-con, albeit incredibly old and noisy units. The hot water and water pressure was hit and miss and the hosts were professional but not particularly welcoming or engaging.
We were led to believe that staying in Casa Particulares or homestays were a good way to interact with local Cubans and to see how they live. I don’t think that these homestays were really representative of the home of the average Cuban. These people are significantly better off than the average Cuban.
Food in cuba
The food in Cuba is boring. It did get much more interesting in Baracoa, which is on the eastern side of Cuba, but this is because this area developed in isolation to the rest of Cuba for a long time. The Baracoan cuisine is totally different and much more interesting and creative.
We had some tasty food in Santiago de Cuba in a Casa Particulares or homestay. I think that home cooked food by an enthusiastic cook/eater always tends to be tastier and more wholesome.
The rest of the food we had however, unfortunately, was uninspired, boring and repetitive. I was really surprised because sometimes the struggle for life leads to the best and most creative food. I thought that food shortages would result in creative, ingenious and delicious dishes. This was not the case. There is no use of marinades, interesting sauces, herbs etc. It felt to me like the struggle of life sucked the joy even out of the food. It’s probably not true because in general, Latin American cuisine does tend to be quite plain compared to Asian cuisines.
Shops in Cuba
The shops in Cuba are a shock for those of us from western, developed, democratic, capitalist countries. The shelves are often empty. There no different brands to choose from and there is often shortages. One afternoon, a member of our group had to try 8 different shops before she could buy some bottled water. Our guide was suffered for days with a blister on his foot because band-aids were hard to come by. A beggar on the street had a sign – he wanted pens or body lotion. A restaurant manager was complaining to me about how from day to day, it’s hard to get the stuff he needs for his restaurants like serviettes or various ingredients. On the days we were in Baracoa, no one seemed to have any chicken breast to serve. It’s really sad that there is no reliable supply of these basic items. It makes just every day living a struggle.
People of cuba
Foreigners have so much more wealth than the average Cuban that it seems like the foreigner is constantly being “milked” for money in the form of payments, tips etc . It can get tiring and raises up your defenses because no interaction feels genuine. Just some precursor to an excuse to ask for money.
I felt many of the statements and stories we were told by the Cuban people were quite despondent, defeatist and negative. I guess 50 years of socialism will wear down the spirit of any population. There is no incentive to strive at all. I do think though that things are looking hopeful in Cuba due to the influx of American tourists that will be allowed to visit soon. They will bring a lot of money to Cuba but I suspect they will bring a host problems as well. Currently, Cuba is quite safe for tourists but with a lot more American tourists, the bad elements of touts, scammers and petty thieves will be out in force.
I did find the people in Baracoa kinder and more genuine and less opportunistic than those in other parts of Cuba.
Life in Cuba
It’s a struggle. Cuban people are so much poorer than in other countries. No one is starving in the street, everyone is well dressed, there is free education and health care but people have to work long hours to make ends meet. We were speaking to a local whose wife is a lawyer. She works as a lawyer and her husband works as a tour guide and yet she needs to take on extra work as a manicurist on the side to make ends meet.
A educated man, trained as an English teacher waits every day at a obscure tourist look-out point because he makes a better living spouting a few facts for the loose change out of a foreigner’s pocket than he does teaching the children of Cuba.
The average wage for the Cuban is about $15-20USD/month. They are provided rations of basic items so no one is starving but life is tough. As a result, it feels to me like the agenda of our tour guide is often to help himself and his Cuban network of homestay and restaurant owners and local guides at our expense. It’s understandable but sometimes it’s a bit hard to take being viewed as a walking ATM. An example of this was when he booked taxi’s for some of the group for the airport. He said it costs $30CUC (approx $30USD). On the street, without any bargaining, a taxi would quote $20CUC and with some bargaining, could be convinced down to $10CUC. A tour guide who has his group’s best interests at heart would try to get the best price for us but he prefers to help the homestay owner and the taxi driver friend and get his tour group to pay the high price. I know the extra money makes a big difference to them but I don’t appreciate being treated like an unlimited source of money because I’m not.
Cuba is blessed in so many ways. It has the beautiful coastline on the Carribean sea with that vividly beautiful blue waters. It has wonderful natural areas and in most parts is very, very fertile. It is also in close proximity to America. They could be doing so well. It’s a tragedy that Cubans have to live in a situation where those that are doing well due to their own initiative and hard work have to sneak their new TV into their homes under the cover of darkness in a sack for fear of the gossip and jealousy of neighbours.
I have some additional photos following. The thing to remember is that Cuba is very pretty but sometimes the truth of the situation is hard to capture within the frame of a photo.
This is a photo of 2 men on a motorcycle. Note that the guy on the back is wearing a helmet which has obviously been in a serious accident before and has a big split. This guy has fixed his helmet with some wire so he can continue using it.