Trip to Cuba

I ran into a Mahahual resident, Phil Edwards, yesterday, and he just recently returned from a trip to Cuba.  He is a Facebook friend of mine, and he has been posting articles on his trip to Cuba on Facebook.

I told him I would post his whole article on this blog, because I think a lot of people are interested in taking a trip to Cuba in the future, and his information would really be helpful.

So here is Phil Edward’s guide to Cuba.

Cuba for Beginners (subject to frequent changes as Cuba modernizes)

                The Beginning, and Money

                We were, of course, beginners on our first trip to Cuba.

                 We flew from Mexico (Cancun) because we live in Mahahual in the winter, but you can also fly direct from Miami now, though you land at an airport east of Havana, Juan Gualberto Gomez, rather than the main airport southwest of Havana, Jose Marti. Not that it’s a disadvantage–the small airport is much closer to the beaches. You need a visa to enter Cuba; at Cancun we were sent across the room to purchase ours from the Aeromexico agent for about fifteen dollars each.

                 We changed money at the airport in Havana. They take your U.S. dollars and discount them 10% (see Embargo), then change them to CUC, the tourist currency in Cuba. So even though the CUC is pegged exactly to the dollar we got about 435 CUC for our 500 dollars. They wouldn’t change our Mexican pesos at the airport–we had to go to a Cadeca office in town for that. There’s one in every sizable town, and it’s where you get the best rate. You can also change money in the banks, though the exchange rate is slightly lower at banks. I have heard there are also independent casas de cambio, though they are possibly not completely legal–not that it matters if you want to change money and don’t mind paying a small premium.)

                 We learned the hard way that the Cadecas are closed Saturday and Sunday; standing forlornly outside the office I was approached immediately by a man on a bike who changed dollars  on the side.  If it had been dollars I wanted to change I would have gone with him without hesitation–more on that later (see Honesty)–and the difference in rate would have been trivial.

                 Allow me to explain the difference between the CUC and the CUP. Both are pesos. The CUC is the tourist money and the CUP is the money of the people. Prices are almost always shown in CUC (though at fast food stands and other small entrepreneurial  shops they quote CUP). If you have a peso note (they come in 1s, 3s, 5s, 10s, 20s and 100s) and it has a monument on it it’s a CUC note; if it has a face it’s a CUP note.

                 What money to bring? Cash is king in Cuba–although Visa has an arrangement with Cuba there are few ATMs, and only Visa cards from non-U.S. banks are honored. In some places only Visa debit cards are honored, not credit. Even when they are honored, expect to be asked that some of the purchase be paid in cash, and/or to have a surcharge added (at least 3%). So which cash? Clearly the American dollar is what they want but is the worst deal exchange-wise. Cuban CUC pesos are therefore the best if you can find them before you leave home (there are no restrictions on hard currency entering the country). Euros and Canadian dollars are not discounted by 10%, so they are second best,  and Mexican pesos work fine too. There are tons of English and Swiss tourists here, so presumably their currencies can be changed, though it may be that the savvy Europeans change to Euros before they fly.

                 Back to the Airport

                Whoops–I didn’t tell you how to get from the airport to Havana. It’s easy–take a taxi. They are completely regulated and from Marti will charge (now) 25 CUC to any address in Havana. Probably a higher price to Havana from the other airport, but less to the beaches. You can also take a taxi from the airport to almost anywhere else, but you would have to ask the price first or–if the meter is working–rely on the meter. Of course if you are going to a resort they will pick you up or tell you exactly how to get from there to them.

                 Accommodations

                The big hotels in Havana are expensive. We saw quotes in the 250-400CUC area, though some smaller hotels may be more affordable. Same for the hotels in the tourist destinations. The economical way is to use the casas particulares. These are rooms in private homes set aside for use by tourists. It was only a few years ago the government (see Government) first allowed homeowners to profit in this way from the rental of extra space to foreigners. It is now a well-established and amazingly efficient business model.

                We don’t know if there are strict government standards that have to be followed (suspect a ‘yes’ on that), but from our observations they have in common:

                1. a completely private room with your own key

                2. a completely private bathroom with shower (hot water may be working)

                3. access to a common area for sitting, etc.

                4. ability to come and go from the house at any hour, often with your own key to the outside door.

                Other observations are that there is usually a welcoming gift; also usually a refrigerator or space in one that you can put your stuff; access to water and/or beer you may consume on the honor system; the offer of a good breakfast for a modest fee. Sometimes dinner. aundry service.

                Probably the nicest thing is that these casas operate on an informal network: if you are going to another city your hosts will most probably have a recommendedcasa or casas there and they will make  all the arrangements (reservation and transportation) for you. Before we left Mexico we made a reservation on-line for one in Havana, Casa Lilly, 55CUC/night, paid 25% down using Paypal, (un-refundable if we failed to show up), then paid the balance in CUC at the end of our stay. From then on, it was all done by the network (see Telephone and Internet).

                 Transportation

                We are people who like to fly into a city, pick up our Hertz Gold car, and take off. No reservations, nothing but a vague idea what we’re going to do. This is not so comfortably or easily done in Cuba, but if you have enough cash you can do it that way. Since we didn’t know what to expect in Cuba (it’s a communist country for cryin’ out loud) we started out with the casa reservation and figured we’d do the car rental from inside the city. It can work, but factors mitigate against it: It’s an absolute that you must return the car to where you rented it, among other things, and they don’t really want your Visa card (especially if it’s American). Also it’s expensive, even for the minicars that hold the two of you and one suitcase apiece.

                We decided to go (after two days in Havana) to the historic town of Trinidad in the southeast. (Havana is on the Atlantic, Trinidad is near the Caribbean.) Lilly had acasa connection in Trinidad and also knew a driver who takes people there. We decided to forego the car for a few more days and took the combi  (30 CUC each) to Trinidad, four hours away. The combis work by appointment, and it’s door to door. We were picked up at 8:30 am and drove around the city collecting other people then it was off to Trinidad. A big bus would have been more comfortable, and we could have done that, but the experience of the combi was worth some discomfort (see Honesty).

                Trinidad was great, and our hosts arranged for a bike-cab to show us the city, take us to dinner, etc. Alternatively we could have walked out to the street and found a cab of any sort we wanted, or done the whole city on foot (though we don’t really do treks anymore). The rental car came up again, but we quickly decided against it. By now we pretty much knew where else we wanted to go (Bay of Pigs a must), and our hosts arranged our next three nights at casas along the way. Transportation was no longer an issue–we now knew that no matter where we were there was someone who would take care of our transportation needs.

                Since Trinidad we’ve used private taxis (similar to combis but just us) to go between cities. It costs about 25 CUC an hour, but it’s door to door as with the combis, and the taxi man is responsible for finding the address in often-confusing places. Warning to the faint-hearted–these guys tear through the countryside at break-neck speed and don’t use or offer seat belts. We have not seen one accident or evidence of a past accident since we’ve been here, and we’ve covered easily 1000 km on roads of all types, some of it in very heavy rain.

                Most towns have as many bike-cabs and horse-drawn cabs as regular taxis–great for local orientation and sight-seeing tours.

                 Telephone and Internet

                The telephone system in Cuba is wonderful–for the Cubans. Don’t expect your U.S. phone or even your Mexican phone to work [remember this is all as of now]. I am told there is an office (in Cuba there is an office for everything) where you can buy a SIM card, but I wouldn’t bet that it’s easy or cheap. That said, the casas particulares and the transportation work entirely on the telephone network. The telephone is the Cuban internet with a small ‘i’. In the middle of the cane marshes, miles from any sizable town, our combi driver was constantly getting calls (and was only a little distracted as we hurtled past tourist buses and horse-drawn carts). [Can you ‘hurtle’ past something, or do you have to hurdle over it?]

                The Internet is practically non-existent in Cuba. Where you can get it, it is controlled by ETECSA and highly censored. (Aside–the Cuban Customs form list Pornography as something that, like heavy machinery or disease specimens, must be declared upon entry.) We went to the Hotel Presidente in Havana where they have WIFI from an ETECSA exchange and paid 2 CUC for a card that gives you one hour of internet. It was slow, but we did get email. The most annoying thing about not having the internet is that you find yourself constantly wanting to look things up–like when was the U.S.S. Maine sunk, did Cortez ever land on Cuba, what do the reviews say about Casa Lilly, even: is it going to rain today? If  you had a problem that you would normally solve with the internet (whoops, I forgot to pay the rent before I left) you could probably solve it but you might just decide that it can wait.

                If you must have it, most cities have an ETECSA office. You’ll know you’re near it when you see bunches of foreigners clustered on the sidewalks or in the streets fiddling with phones or tablets. The wireless networks are fairly strong (we’ve seen people a block away from the office talking on Skype or WhatsApp) and you don’t have to buy a new card until your old one runs out. Today we saw a small ETECSA truck with a ladder–could the internet be coming to private houses?

                Note: my U.S. Samsung G4 refused to detect the wi-fi  signal, and Suzanne’s Kindle Fire found the signal but refused to let her enter our user id and password (it’s on the ETECSA card). So I had to  use my laptop.

                 Honesty and the Culture of Cuba

                This is a country in which, for almost anyone you meet, there has been only one president (Raul counts as part of Fidel). The oldest person we talked with was 13 at the time of the revolution. He says he can remember when things were different. Hemay have meant better, but it didn’t really seem so. His family lives at a lower level of affluence than they did before Fidel, but something seems to have made up for that change, at least on a collective basis (pun intended).

                We can’t tell what the underlying sentiments are, but we don’t see a seething discontent, even though our ears are on high alert. We do see rundown conditions everywhere: apartment buildings with sagging balconies, patched-up Russian tractors, just the fact that, in the countryside, about half the vehicles are rubber-tired horse-drawn carts.  And the cars(!) we’d estimate 40% are pre-1960 American clunkers, maybe 30% Pradas and other cars from communist countries, and many other aging German, Italian or Scandinavian imports from the 60s, 70s, or 80s. When you see a car that’s less than a decade old, you notice it.

                Maybe one measure of the success or failure of a culture is the honesty coefficient. For example, how many police cars are there? In the U.S. you’re probably going to see a police car for every hour of driving (more in NYC). In Mexico you’re going to see twenty for every hour of driving. In Cuba, we’re not sure we’ve seen one (there was a beat-up car with three uniformed men in it, but they may have been private guards). Lilly’s father (the one who was 13 in 1959) did caution us not to carry our money around–‘it’s winter, and the people are hungry.’  Finally saw a police vehicle, a motorcycle, in Cienfuegos, but no policeperson.

                Yet we haven’t seen or heard of anything resembling dishonestly, at least not yet. Anecdote: our first combi driver stopped at a gas station/minimart after two hours. We all jumped out to use the bathroom and get a snack. He said something about ‘ten minutes’. While we were queuing up he drove off. There were eight of us. All of our suitcases were still in the van, as was my briefcase, open and on the floor of the front seat, with my passport, my computer, two phones, and all the cash except for what was in my pocket. We muttered to each other things like ‘what if he doesn’t come back?’. Maybe twenty minutes later he came back to collect us. Everything was intact and untouched.

                Aside from other tourists, we also talked to the young men and women who own and run the casas particulares, to our transportation operators (from cab drivers to bike-cab drivers to van operators), and also to waiters and  waitresses. No one bashes Fidel, no one growls about government interfering with their lives. No one even bashes the U.S., though the embargo is mentioned from time to time when they apologize that things aren’t as nice as they could be.

                One scam that would be easy at least to try on tourists is to mix CUP in when making change. The CUP is worth about four cents to a dollar for the CUC. You could pay for something with a twenty CUC and someone could give a ten and a five in CUP for change. Hasn’t happened yet to us.

                Officially and apparently, there are no unemployed in Cuba, no homeless, no involuntary illiterates, no one starving, no one whose illness goes untreated for lack of money or insurance. What does it say about the success of free-market economic democracy if we have all of the above in large numbers? In Cuba everyone studies English in school (though some take to it better than others), the arts are encouraged and appreciated.

                Big negative: The press essentially does not exist (a small relief during our overheated quadrennial election news cycle).

                 The Embargo

                A brief history: Cuba was settled by the Spanish (e.g. Cuidad de Trinidad: 1519) and remained part of the Spanish empire for three-quarters of a century afterSpain lost California, Mexico, and Central and South America in the 1820s. Not until the U.S.S. Maine blew up in Havana harbor in 1898 was Cuba seriously in danger of being lost to another power or becoming independent (despite several wars of independence). After Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill the Spanish surrendered their western hemisphere possessions to the U.S. (Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines). The U.S considered keeping Cuba as a possession (like Puerto Rico), but in 1903 left her to her own devices. The local aristocracy continued Spanish Empirical practices, so during the first half of the 20th century there were only rich landed Cubans or very poor landless Cubans. Trade with the U.S., primarily in cane sugar, grew rapidly after the second world war, and by the mid-50s, under Juan Batista, Cuba had a seething underclass. U.S. business asserted its hegemony, however, and reforms were put down mercilessly. Enter Fidel and Che, and in only four years a nagging guerilla movement was turned into a full revolution and, notwithstanding the support of U.S. business interests, Batista fell.

                Distrust and rancor between the U.S. and the revolutionaries resulted in an arms embargo, then an oil embargo, finally a sugar embargo (nicely enriching U.S. sugar producers), with the result that Fidel nationalized the oil refineries, and eventually everything else American, without compensation. That Fidel then officially took on the philosophy of socialism-communism–the elevation of the worker, the suppression of the ruling class, the end of private ownership–created  the conditions for a major escalation of the cold war and spurred a massive flight of capital and capitalistic citizens out of Cuba and into the nearest port of safety–the U.S.A.

                Fidel toured the U.S. and spoke before the U.N., trying to make a case that Cuba and all the rest of the Americas could continue to be vibrant trade partners and generally good neighbors, but wide opposition from many interest groups,  and the distrust (to put it mildly) of communism’s world-wide intents, made for an impossible situation. When the U.S. congress blocked the sale of tractors Fidel sought to help develop a modern Cuba, he gt them from Russia. Russia was happy to help in return for a base for nuclear missiles aimed at the U.S. The U.S. retaliated by cutting off imports of everything else Cuban. The Soviets moved the nuclear missiles in, and we had the Cuban missile crisis.

                Fifty years later the embargo was still in effect. Exports to Cuba were frozen; imports from Cuba were banned. Cubans in America were cut off from their families back in Cuba. Americans could no longer travel to Cuba. Bringing even a single Cuban cigar into the U.S. from Mexico or Canada became a crime. Cubans were subjected to the harsh conditions of managed economies, private business was virtually eliminated, assets were frozen, and to leave Cuba even with nothing but the clothes on your back became forbidden. Progress and enlightenment did not stop, Cuba did not become medieval; but the new Cuban ideology, combined with the lack of resources that would otherwise be available in the free market did force Cuba to take a different path in its development of society. Hence the ongoing punitive 10% discount of U.S. dollars–it’s intended to be a reminder and a small repayment for the grief caused by the embargo.

Phil Edwards
Las Chachalacas
(near Rio Huach)

Thanks for reading,

Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s