|US $1 = .9 Cuban convertable pesos (CUC) = 22 national pesos
I know I keep saying this at every stop, but Cuba is my favorite destination so far. It is a little difficult due to Cuban government restrictions and the US embargo, but the trip was well worth it. The Cuban people are warm and outgoing, they love to dance and socialize, and they don't let the unfortunate political situation and economy get them down too much.
There are two currencies here: The national peso is what Cubans earn and it can only be used to purchase rationed food and basic services. The Cuban convertable peso is a hard currency that is used by tourists and by locals wanting to purchase goods other than the basics.
I spent most of my time in Havana, with a quick side trip to a beach area called Varadero. In Varadero I stayed in a government-run resort (the only option) and it was nice, but it could have been anywhere in the Caribbean. There was nothing Cuban about it. I went back to Havana early and had a great time.
Havana is beautiful in a rustic, run-down kind of way. The buildings are crumbling, all the paint is peeling, and everything is in disrepair. The old American cars are fifty years old, and it looks like they have been patched and fixed so much that none of the original metal remains! The effect is of living in a city designed by a lowbrow Martha Stewart in that "distressed" furniture style. But if you add some sun, music, and smiling people, it all kind of works and is charming in its own way.
I wanted to avoid the tourist areas and meet real Cuban people, so rather than stay in the historic Old Havana neighborhood, I found a place in Havana Centro. This neighborhood is next to Old Havana, and close to the boardwalk (called the Malecon), so I could walk to both easily.
In Cuba, there are only two types of private businesses allowed: People can rent one or two rooms in their homes to tourists, which is called a Casa Particular. The other is called a Paladar, which is a restaurant in your home with up to 12 seats. Even these two businesses are highly regulated and taxed, but they are two of the few legal ways the local people can get hard currency and improve their economic situation. I found a great Casa Particular run by a sweet couple named Cary and Nilo. Check out the photos. I have also listed contact information at the end of this post.
As a student of economics and politics, Cuba was fascinating. It is like a time capsule with an authentic old-school communist state inside. Even originally communist countries such as Vietnam have liberalized economically and the frenetic commercial activity seems familiar to me. Cuba however is still a complete central control economy, there is no private property, and no civil rights. No free press, no free speech, and most importantly our sacred "pursuit of happiness" is not a civil right available to the Cuban people. The totalitarian state also tries to limit interaction with the outside world, prohibiting Cuban people from hotels and resorts where they could mingle with foreigners. Internet access is thereby denied since the only internet computers are located at the hotels for use by tourists.
I spoke to many Cuban people about the situation there. The people are so poor, I suggested to one person that he and his friends offer salsa classes to tourists at night on the Malecon. He said that was a great idea, but starting a business is prohibited, and he would be arrested. It is hard to dance in handcuffs. My friend also explained how the Cuban people are economically imprisoned on the island. Since wages in Cuba range from about $10 to $25 per month (yes, month), there is no way for someone to save the hundreds of dollars necessary to get a passport, visa, flight, etc. If a Cuban somehow has that much money, the government assumes it was obtained illegally, and that is a problem. The only way for most people to leave Cuba is by risking their lives trying to get to Florida, and thousands still do that every year.
The obvious question was, why would you bother working for so little money, especially if your room and board is covered? It turns out it is illegal to not have a job. That is probably one reason so many young people go to college (provided at no charge) since it is easier than working. The monetary incentive for college is not there however since college graduates still only earn $20-25 a month. That reality led to some uncomfortable questions about how much money I make, or how much my camera cost. The Cuban people know that the average American makes in an hour what they make in a month, and that is the main reason everyone I spoke with under 50 years-old wanted to get to Florida.
I think what keeps the Cuban people from revolting is that their most basic needs are provided, and the punishment for opposition is swift and severe. Cuba has a food ration system that supplements diets with a subsidized basket of rice, beans, potatoes, bread, eggs, a little meat, and other goods. But even with free housing and health services and subsidized services, Cubans complain that salaries averaging about 350 pesos a month ($16.60) don't buy more than a few items, such as onions and garlic and maybe a few tropical fruits. The only way to make their lives more comfortable is through access to hard currency, either by working with tourists, or by having a family member in the US sending dollars.
Speaking of healthcare, Michael Moore's new movie "Sicko" is coming out next week. I mentioned that to my Cuban friends, and they laughed at the naivete of people who admire the Cuban medical system. They explained that, if you break your arm you can go to a doctor and get a cast, but you still need money to pay for medicine. The wait is also long for any surgery that isn't life threatening. As with most countries with socialized medicine, there is a higher-quality network for foreigners and people with money, and there is a low-quality system for everyone else. I suspected this was the case when everyone suggested I bring a bag of gifts to Cuba, and the most common gift suggestion was medicine. I went to a dollar store in LA and bought things like aspirine, ibuprofin, and antibiotic cream, and the people really appreciated it.
Even with all their hardships, the Cuban people I met were very open and friendly. They wanted to talk with me, invited me to their homes, and took me around town. The younger people like my friends Oscar and Alfred were especially excited to show me the Havana nightlife since I would pay for their cover charges and beers and they didn't have any money. That was fine by me though since I was able to experience some local places with great music and very few tourists. We were out dancing every night and it was a blast. One night we saw the most famous salsa band from Cuba called Van Van, and another night we saw a popular band playing reggaeton, which is a great combination of reggae, salsa, and hip-hop.
Cuba, with all it's problems, was still a great place to visit. I hope to get there again.
Casa Colonial - Cary and Nilo
Casa Osiris and Gongalo
Paladar "La Tasquita"
Calle 27 de Noviembre