Tourism in Cuba

The overall idea of Cuba is paradise beaches, rum, mojitos and old American cars. There might be some people interested in salsa or maybe know a bit about its History. I went to dance salsa and get to know a country I was intrigued by. It had been closed for years, so until you don’t go there yourself, you don’t really know what to expect. It doesn’t matter how many blogs, articles, documentaries you read and see. What striked me the most was the treatment tourist got.

For a Cuban, a foreigner, no matter where they are from, is rich. The starting point for this assumption comes from the minimum salary contrast. Taking into account that a Cuban doctor earns an average of 40 pesos (equivalent to 40 US dollars) per month, anywhere else in Europe is going to have a higher salary. So foreigners, are rich. How do they know the average minimum salary? Television, which the government is in total control of. Until very few years ago, there was no internet. Now there is, but it is still limited. Some people have done their research and have a wider point of view, but other generations don’t. They only know that any foreigner earns more than them, they are rich and that’s that.

The fact that there is internet in Cuba now and that the country has opened this recent years has make tourism to increase. Not everyone who visits Cuba is about that luxury holiday. There are more and more backpackers (myself included) who go to Cuba to explore and live the culture, rather than all included hotels, which was more usual before. I think this also influences them to think that “foreigners are rich”. Many times, even if they wanted to, they can’t travel. Sometimes it’s a money issue, others it’s a visa issue.

Another thing is the current situation of the country: escarce food and resources. Even eggs are difficult to get. If you want to buy more than what it is stipulated they can fine you because you are “hoarding”. However, you go to a hotel for tourist and you have an actual mountain of eggs for the tourists’ breakfast. Another example are the infamous cars. These old American cars work because of the way Cubans solve problems. It is very expensive to import a car, so they need to fix anything that breaks. 

What I find frustrating is that they don’t take into account other countries’ situation. Yes, Cuba’s situation is not easy. And yes, I am from Europe, where the situation is way better than other countries in the world. I am the first one to call myself privileged and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had just to have been born in Spain. Nevertheless, the situation that I have lived in Europe, not only in Spain, is that after finishing university it is difficult to get a job at whatever area you studied. The companies I applied to, have answered that I do not have experience, that I needed to get an internship and then, maybe we could talk. When you do find internships they are not paid and you work the same or even more than someone with a salary. I have ended up working in the restaurant/coffee scene because I personally don’t feed from oxygen. I have been lucky enough to have liked the job and also been able to learn and get promotions. 

The salary is higher than in Cuba. Yes. But you also have to spend more. In my case, I was working in London, not cheap. To make the math easy:

Let’s suppose I earn 1000 pounds per month:

– House: 500 pounds (renting a small room)

– Electricity, water, heating, internet: 100 pounds 

– Transportation in the Underground: 200 pounds (depending on where you live, and rounding up)

– Food: 100 pounds (rounding up)

You are left with 100 pounds. Pray that you don’t have any issues at your rented house or that no one’s birthday is coming up. You are working 45 hours per week, barely any holidays and no weekends (restaurant job). A Cuban could tell me “yes, but you have internet at home, the possibility to go to a supermarket and chose whatever you want to eat, a good transportation system…” Of course, but that does not make me rich.

If you spend a day in a random street in La Habana, you can see people sitting at the door of their house and not doing anything all day. Maybe they socialise with the neighbours, who have a small paladar where they sell coffee and pizza to the three daily clients. The other neighbour has a cock waking them up every day and sometimes giving them eggs. In the evening, 5 or 6 friends get together and play domino in the middle of the street, betting and drinking rum. With these things I don’t mean that Cubans are lazy. Not at all. Cubans don’t work 45 hours per week because they live in a “communist” system and work a certain amount of hours per week. The rest of the time they try to earn money from wherever they can find it, because the salary the State is giving them is not enough.

The other side of the coin is the treatment the tourist get. Cubans are really nice and open. However, the minute they hear your accent, they know they can get more money from you than from a Cuban. They take you then to a place for tourist. I experienced it quite a few times in restaurants and transportation. I spent a whole month in the island, so I was not about to pay the tourist price, specially for food. When I went to Cuban paladares and they heard my accent, they stared at me and was the last one to be served my order. In terms of transportation, they would tell me to use Viazul, a bus company. When I asked why, they would reply that “conditions are better” and the Cubans want to offer the best they can offer. I know that is true and I appreciate and am thankful for the generosity of giving the foreigner the best they have. But I am not asking for it, nor I needed it.

It’s confusing and frustrating because in Europe we don’t treat different anyone just because they are foreigner. The price is the same for everyone and the transportation is the one we all use. I would understand the treatment back in the days when tourism wasn’t as developed. But right now, I don’t think it makes sense.

I want to reiterate that it is my point of view and I think it is frustrating because I talked to different people and I understand both sides, the tourists and the Cubans’ point of view.