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Response to groundloop (Original post)

Mon Apr 8, 2019, 03:36 PM

36. I was in Cuba for a week this past July

I spent time in Havana as well as travelling elsewhere. On the positive side, the Cuban people, who have every reason to hate a lot of people (the Spaniards that colonized the country, the Americans that tried to run it and then embargoed it, the Russians who took over and then left the Cubans high and dry) -- are extremely warm and friendly. They also are very poor. Yes, they have free education and medical, but even professionals need government assistance just to be able to afford basic items like bread and milk. There is a two-tier currency in Cuba: the "convertible" peso (CUC), which is mostly used by tourists and the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is more commonly used by the locals. The value of a single CUC is 25 times the value of a single CUP. Those Cubans that work for the state (a lot) are typically paid in CUP. Our tour guide is an English teacher (being a tour guide is a good side job for those with strong English skills), her parents are teachers, her sister is a government lawyer. Yet she still needs government assistance to feed her children.

The Cuban people are fairly open about what they like about their government (free education/free medical/low crime) and what they don't (poverty/suspicion of corruption/buses that don't run on time and are falling apart). They want foreign investment, but they want to maintain control rather than have foreigners control things as they so often have in the past. They feel like they can speak more openly than they have in the past. And one of the more surprising things is the relative small level of police presence -- one doesn't feel like one is in a police state.

For a country that actually has a relatively good tourist economy (more from Europe than the US obviously), there is little for a tourist to buy outside of rum, cigars, hand made trinkets, and some t-shirts (more often with Che or Fidel on them). Getting to visit the US is a dream for many of them -- one made difficult by the strained relations between the two countries and by the sheer expense).

Buildings in Cuba range from old colonial buildings -- some restored and turned into restaurants by the families that still live in them but more often falling apart from neglect to apartment buildings that seem to have all of the charm one would associate with 1970s Soviet architecture -- soulless high rises with window air conditioners that often are barely hanging onto the side of the buildings. Most of the cars one sees are more newly painted than a lot of the buildings.

You see American style clothing -- jeans, t-shirts, sneakers etc. But one thing you almost never see is a piece of clothing with a corporate logo. The exception: Havana Club Rum, which is government owned.

Speaking of cars: most of the privately owned cars one sees are either old American cars from the 1940s through 1959 or Russian made cars from the 60s through the 80s. This isn't surprising since for many years foreign car imports were essentially banned or restricted. You see a lot of old motorcycles, trucks and the government buses are rusty hulks. As you get farther away from Havana you see more horse or mule drawn wagons, often travelling on the shoulder of modern highways. (The infrastructure, at least the main thoroughfares, is surprisingly good). There are nice shiny new tourist buses, however. And a fair number of Korean and Chinese sedans, almost all of which are government owned vehicles, taxis, or rental cars. Again, not surprising since the cost of buying a newer car is largely outside the financial wherewithal of most Cubans.

Finally, a word to the wise for anyone travelling to Cuba. It's easy to get there direct from the US (we flew JetBlue from Ft. Lauderdale). But be sure to have a sufficient supply of cash on hand to pay for luggage fees when leaving the country. As far as I know, US-issued credit cards are not accepted anywhere and there are no bank teller "cash" machines, not even in the airport. I know a few people that had to find friends to scrape together the necessary cash to pay for their luggage fees when departing.

All in all, its a terrific place to visit. Another friend was there on an "artists" trip a few months ago and he also had a terrific experience. The art and music is a big part of Cuban life and even the street musicians and artists are worth patronizing. Interestingly, because artists are able to sell their work outside the country, they are some of the more affluent members of Cuban society.

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groundloop Apr 2019 OP
malaise Apr 2019 #1
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