by Quentin Pache
In many ways, Cuba lives up to its reputation. White beaches, delicious rum, tasty cigars, old cars and passionate salsa – tourists can definitely enjoy them all when traveling to the biggest island of the Caribbean. But Cuba is above all the spirit of la revolución, the U.S. embargo and the last real socialist country. In this regard, the visitor will not be disappointed. Socialist propaganda and homages to the revolution still decorate half of the island’s walls. Sixty-year-old Mustangs and Chevrolets drive through the streets of La Havana as an anachronism on wheels and el comandante “Che” Guevara is still portrayed as a flawless hero of the socialist revolution.
Yet, behind the seductive smoke of Cuban cigars and other exciting stereotypes lies the profound malaise of the Cuban society: a system that is not functioning, though still surviving despite all the prognoses of American and European experts. In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the American-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. He nationalized businesses and factories, provoking the clash with the American government and consequently, in 1960, the infamous embargo. Since then, specialists have continued to give Castro’s socialist regime five to ten years of life expectancy. In spite of all expectations, the island has endured the embargo for 50 years without giving in to American capitalism. The country has nevertheless shown a tendency towards a slow opening, especially since Raúl Castro took over in 2008. Some modern cars and imported products can be found, but at unthinkable prices vis-à-vis the standard Cuban wage.
No matter how well you prepare yourself for being a tourist in Cuba, no guidebook will reveal a surprising truth that on the island, a taxi driver can earn more than a doctor. The average monthly salary is the equivalent of $20—shockingly low in comparison to the price of certain goods such as soap or gasoline ($1.20 per liter). Of course, Cubans enjoy a range of free social benefits such as education and health care, as well as reduced housing costs and the infamous libreta, or ration book, which allows each family to receive some rice, sugar, matches and oil each month. Nevertheless, this is not enough to make ends meet and extra goods are very costly. Cubans thus find alternative sources of income to survive and tourists are understandably a very attractive one. Do not be surprised if you encounter a university professor driving his car around for tourists. He can easily make better money this way.
A classic tourist trap is the cooperativa. The friendly Cubans you meet in the streets of La Havana will most likely bring you to an apparently official shop where cigars of famous brands can be bought at discounted prices – in most cases a dark bar where a guy will draw out a box of “real” cigars from below the counter while looking at the window. These fancy places are usually a touch too expensive – especially considering the fake boxes, the fake bands and even the fake government seals. At night in the lively streets of the Cuban capital, you will be offered salsa shows for the equivalent of two monthly Cuban salaries or any other kind of goods and services imaginable, from a photo with a hawk to a straw hat to a poached lobster.
Do not be mistaken, this was not written to complain about the Cuban hustlers and other tourist traps. Although the ceaseless soliciting endured in the streets can be tiring, it illustrates the need for locals to find alternative ways to make a living. And who can blame them when their weekly salary is equal to the price of a Big Mac in Europe?
Finding alternative ways does not only mean scamming tourists, but also engaging in mutual help. Solidarity is very important to Cubans. You go to get some ice from the neighbors because they have a freezer, and the next time you will give them some of the extra mangos you collected. If you give something to a Cuban family, they will most likely share it with their community. Moreover, despite the hard conditions of life and the limited access to various basic goods, many locals would show great generosity and hospitability towards visitors. For a few years now, the government has made it possible for Cubans to transform their homes into casa particulares, which means keeping one or two rooms for tourists to rent. For locals, it is a chance to make some extra money despite the heavy taxes, and for visitors, it is an opportunity to live the Cuban life while avoiding ridiculously expensive hotels.
Cuba’s charm does not simply come from its beaches, alcohol and tobacco, but also from its people. They know how to survive as a community, and despite their hardships, many would tell you that they would not exchange their lives for a fancy life in the old continent. Broaching the subject of politics remains very difficult. Cubans hardly dare to criticize the regime, though sometimes a bit of humor and irony can explain everything. If you befriend a cheeky Cuban and show too much interest in politics, he may grab a bottle of rum and ask you over and over, “Do you want a lie,” while smiling at your confused face, until sardonically reformulating the question, “Do you want a Cuba Libre?”