Reasons we love Cuba

Cienfuegos, Cuba, header

We finished up our trip to Cuba with a relaxing 2 nights stay at a Casa in a residential neighborhood of Cienfuegos called Punta Gorda.

I can’t comment on Cienfuegos because we didn’t visit the historic center. It was incredibly hot and I just wanted to relax and drink beer. But we enjoyed Punta Gorda, a long peninsula on the south end of the city that juts out into the bay. It felt like a beach resort between the lovely views and the great patio of the casa (Casa Los Delfines).

car in Cienfuegos, Cuba

Cienfuegos sunsetjpg

I sat on the patio most of the last day thinking of our experiences on this trip. Some things were as expected, but I had some surprises as well.

Politics

Some people will never feel comfortable with socialism (you never see the word communism here, the word plastered everywhere is socialism). But, having travelled around the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, there is no doubt to me that the average person is better off here than in any other Latin American country covered in my blog.

Cuba’s citizens are given free education at every level as well as free health care (including dental). Basic staples are heavily subsidized (1/20th of the market price for milk, eggs, bread, meat, bathroom products etc). Nobody will exist solely on rations but at least it is a basic safety net. You don’t see the poverty in Cuba that you see in almost every Latin country. Cubans are incredibly literate and educated. Free health care means they live longer and healthier and have lower rates of infant mortality. According to the CIA World Factbook, 1) Cuba’s rate of literacy is higher than that of Canada or the USA, 2) its rate of infant mortality lower than both Canada’s and the US. In life expectancy, both Canada (14th in World) and the USA (50th) rank ahead of Cuba (57th). There are many problems in Cuba, most economic, but if I had to chose I’d rather be an average person in Cuba than an average person in any other Latin American country.

Unicef: Cuba is the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean to have eliminated severe malnutrition in children.

People

We met so many nice and interesting people on this trip. Cubans are well spoken and polite. Again, a product of the educational system (although there were exceptions, like the touts in Havana). Cubans also struck both of us as quite proud of their homeland and history.

Market System

One thing that surprised me was the extent to which the government has opened up the market system with the allowance of casas and paladares. I was struck by the prevalence of both everywhere we went. I was also surprised by the quality of the casas and paladares. I’m told many of the changes have come in the last year. Food is another issue (see below).

Food

Not as bad as everyone says as long as you are eating in a casa or paladar. It was simple but good, limited to the usual: fish, lobster, shrimp, chicken, and pork with rice, potatoes, avocado on the side. Deserts usually fruit or flan. We were prepared for the worst so it was much better than expected.

Outside of the tourist infrastructure (ie casas/paladars), food is seriously lacking. I didn’t see a food market on our trip. I’m sure there are food markets but where are they? One of the pleasures of visiting a country is going to its outdoor food markets. I found it incredibly strange not to see any. You don’t see “food stores” except for the ration shops. There are tourist shops where chips and chocolate bars are sold at extremely inflated prices (along with soft drinks, water and rum). Apart from these things you see a lot of empty shelves.

You won’t find any street food anywhere. I compare this to a country like Thailand where there seems to be a market or congregation of food carts at every corner and where you’ll never go hungry.

Communications

About 15 years behind the rest of the world. Email is limited to a few internet locations in town (all extremely slow). Some people have cable internet at home, mostly casa owners, but this is even slower. Internet is essential to what I do now and there is no way a business traveler can work effectively here if he/she needs internet communication. This alone would stop me from coming back for any length of time.

Banking

Also stuck in the dark ages. Very few ATMs in entire country, even if they work they only work for credit cards (not debit cards). And with every card transaction you are smacked with an 11% commission. Plus, with the whole dual currency thing – where foreigners have to use convertible pesos - a whole industry has grown around screwing the tourist. It was an ordeal every time we needed to get cash (either exchanging cash or getting from credit card) and honestly we know we got screwed every time.

Basically, summing it up, Cuba is a developed 1st world society within a 3rd world economy. Basic communications/banking are worse than anywhere I’ve ever been. Things are getting better according to people but there is a long way to go.

Safety

I’ve been to Cuba 5 times now and I have never, ever felt in danger. We had a few people tell us that nothing would happen to a tourist here, the consequences for perpetrators would be very severe.

Heat

Very, very humid!

Lissette & the Latin thing

Its always interesting seeing how people react to Lissette in different places we go. In the Dominican Republic they knew she was Latina but nobody confused her for a Dominican. She got a few curious questions but that’s it. In Colombia they figured her for a local and she felt judged for being with a white guy. We both loved Colombia but that was about the only aspect she didn’t feel comfortable with. In Cuba they were certain she was Cuban. She looks Cuban and on top of that, as we found out, many Cubans are named Lissette. There was no animosity towards her but there were many questions and then disbelief that she was not Cuban. People were incredibly friendly and treated her as one of them – she felt an affinity for Cubans that she hasn’t felt anywhere else. At the airport, leaving, the customs officer looked up and down at her while studying her passport and then asked her a blizzard of questions, trying to figure out how it is that a Cuban looking woman can be born in the US but be a Canadian. Again, no animosity, just lots of curiosity.

Flair Air

Cubana

Above: Cubana planes on the tarmac in Havana. Lissette was convinced that they’re for show, that they haven’t been flown in years.

We booked our flight to Cuba with Cubana – the flight from Montreal however is operated by a Canadian airline called Flair Air. It was totally no frills and you shouldn’t touch the food. It looked like it was prepared and frozen 50 years ago and just warmed up right then and there for your pleasure. Apart from that it was fine and everything was on time. It reminded me of travelling to Africa in the 1980s; the plane was a collection of weird individuals – locals, retirees going down for the winter, businessmen, a few tourists…The usual mix of oddballs that go to unlikely destinations.

There will be major changes coming to Cuba in the next few years, both because of internal and external influences. I noticed when flying out that there are now direct flights between Cienfuegos and Miami. That’s new. Travel restrictions will only continue to ease between the US and Cuba. Cuba is a unique place and unlike anywhere in the Americas – we felt a bond with the people and the place that we haven’t felt anywhere else for a while. It’s a special country. I’m sure changes will be welcome for the majority of Cubans but I’m glad we’ve had a chance to see the country before it all happens.

For more on Cuba, visit our Destination Guide page.

 

What do you think? Do you agree with the warmer relations between the USA and Cuba? Do you think they are for the better or for the worse?

 

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Comments

  1. Paul Fishman says:

    Cienfuegos and its Gardens would interest me. It seems possibly by 2016 Cuba will be open both to Tourism and Private Humanitarian Missions without a political agenda. Cuba should change on its own terms and not take out its props holding up until the country can develop its own infrastructure on its own terms. Also GET RID of the Guantanamo Bay American Military prison and give it back to Cuba to reconstruct into a new international tourist and business haven funded by a variety of Latin American, US and other international funders as well.

Thanks for reading! Feedback is always appreciated!

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