Cuba is an island often considered as a paradise, famous for beaches, cigars and vintage cars. Where the revolution is still alive and Che Guevara is a national hero. But sometimes reality is a bit different from the legend. Hoi Mun Yee is a Malaysian journalist that spent some days at the beginning of the year there and wrote his impression about this country.
I am naming this post after Michael Calvin’s excellent book and documentary about aspiring footballers in England and how their journeys are so heavily romanticized. Less than 1% of all young players actually make it to the glitz and glam of top level football.
How many Cubans actually just sit back all day in Varadero puffing cigars and dancing salsa? People go to Cuba expecting paradise; pristine beaches, delicious rum, cheap cigars, classic cars. It is supposedly a place filled with “don’t worry, be happy” vibes. I often wonder why people long for “authentic” experiences when travelling somewhere but never actually stop to think what “authentic” really means. Cuba, like most of Latin America and the Caribbean, is an impoverished country. It is a fact, there are no ways around it.
When I arrived in Havana, I was in awe with how different this place was to any other places I’ve ever been to. It felt like I went back in time, cars from the 50s and 60s filled the streets, people gathered outside in groups. It was like a huge movie setting, making it easy to forget that everything I saw was a reflection of the socioeconomic problems Cubans face. We’re talking about one of the last true socialist countries in the world, it isn’t just another island paradise where rich White people go for crazy beach parties.
Taken from my taxi in Havana. It was a two-seater with no safety belts nor air-conditioning. Cars are incredibly expensive in Cuba, for less than US$ 10,000 you can only get a model from the 60s. Anything considered “modern” (not from the 60s) can cost upwards of US$ 15,000. The old car vibe of Cuba is not just a show for tourists, many people can’t afford cars on an average state salary of US$ 20 per month. Driving an old taxi in Cuba is about as profitable as it gets for a local, one driver I encountered in Vinales told me he was a certified lawyer, but driving a taxi earns so much more since professionals get paid peanuts by the state.
Duplex houses in Cienfuegos. My bed and breakfast is on the second floor of the building on the right. Initially, I wanted to couchsurf with locals but I found out it is illegal for Cubans to host foreigners in their homes for free. Many turn their homes into B&B’s for extra income and to meet people, given they rarely have a chance to see much of the world. My host Alexey and his family were some of the loveliest people I’ve met on the road.
Locals of Cienfuegos. Most houses in Cuba are small with no yard or porch areas. Many people leave their doors open, probably to ventilate air and create an illusion of space.
The real Havana, the other side of paradise. Cubans enjoy free healthcare and education but high literacy rates do not translate to good living. The easiest way to earn a living is by exploiting the growing tourism industry. Being an obvious foreigner I was constantly heckled on the streets by illegal money changers, vendors, street performers and prostitutes. Cuba is one of the only countries that uses two currencies, the CUP (pesos) for locals and CUC (convertible pesos) for internationals. 1 CUC is equivalent to US$1.00 and 1 CUC is 25 CUP. As a foreigner you will always be given CUC when you exchange currency from legal bodies. Most vendors list two prices and paying in CUC will always lead to paying extra.
You can’t talk about Cuba and not mention Fidel and Che. The shadow of the Cuban Revolution still looms large over the island. Che Guevara is still the nation’s hero; a symbol of Latin America martyrdom. Fidel Castro is more polarizing given how he settled for the cushy job of dictator while Che continued fighting in the American continent against imperialists. However, the revolution’s impact goes far beyond producing figureheads, it created a precedence for anti-Americanism. Fidel and Che were key figures in ousting the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista who allowed private American businesses to dominate the country’s economy. This paved way for the rule of the Communist Party of Cuba. While it was a symbolic victory of the people, it was the beginning of a regime that probably set Cuba back a few decades. The Communist Party of Cuba only recently started loosening its socialist policies due to the poor economy. Currently, less than half the population have access to internet, which is state-controlled and can only be accessed through public WiFi hotspots. Mobile internet was only introduced in July this year. (For foreigners, purchase prepaid internet cards from ETECSA outlets, the country’s telecommunications company. 1 hour of internet costs 2 CUC. There will always be a line outside these outlets, you can’t miss them. Alternatively, some locals sell these cards for higher prices near main streets.)
“The Cretins” featuring Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, and George W. Bush. Taken in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Talk about anti-Americanism. I do believe this sentiment is winding down with the younger generations.
No doubt Cuba is a beautiful country with beautiful people capable of mesmerizing moments like this. Taken in Trinidad.
“Come for the rum, stay for Che.”
Tobacco farm in Vinales Valley.
A typical street in Havana.
A haunting reminder of how difficult life can be in Cuba. I am blessed to be given these opportunities to travel the world. It isn’t just about seeing the most beautiful sights in every continent. Sometimes beautiful buildings have less pretty stories.
Thanks to Hoi for sharing this story here. You can read it also in his personal website.