Those people, who stay in 5-star hotels and enjoy the “prepackaged” cultural experiences of the island, claim that they “have been to Cuba”. In reality, this touristy Cuba bears little or no resemblance to the country as a whole. Cuba, from the glossy tour agency’s booklets, offers nice hotels furnished with swimming pools, modern restaurants and bars, touristy nightclubs and cabarets where the admission price is almost equivalent to a monthly salary of an average local person. Yet, there is another Cuba of dirty peso-cafes (where you can find only two items on the menu- cheese sandwiches and ham and cheese sandwiches), almost empty government department stores, deteriorating residential buildings, and old cars belching black smoke to the extent that you can hardly breath on the streets of Havana. The Cuban government makes every effort to keep these two worlds separated by having two different currencies for foreigners and for locals and limiting the interactions between the tourists and the Cuban people.
One of the most shocking intercultural experiences I had was at Coppelia, a famous oversized havanan ice-cream shop. The huge futuristic building has several entrances, each with its own menu, dining are and an endless queue of young Cubans. All of the entrances are protected by security guards who block foreigners from entering, and then send them to a separate café with prices in Convertible pesos. I had the impression that this ice- cream place was a strategically important site, like a military base or a power plant. The security officer did not even allow me to take a picture of this place. What a surreal experience for a Western person! Can you imagine having a Starbucks surrounded by security guards with two separate entrances – one for foreigners, and one for Canadians- each with a totally different price for a grande latte?!
Money and salaries
Tourists in Cuba are supposed to use convertibles (CUC) that now cost the equivalent of 1.5 Canadian dollar or 1 Euro. One CUC is worth approximately 25 Cuban pesos. Having an average salary of around 250-300 pesos (10-12 CUCS), Cubans get from the government: pound of chicken and 10 eggs a month; two bars of soap for showering and washing clothes every two months; and a limited amount of grains. All the people I met said this was hardly enough to feed a family. Such everyday commodities like clothes, shoes or tooth paste have to be bought on the black market for CUCS with the prices similar to what they are in Canada. I remember a joke that was very popular back in the Soviet Union “I wish you to live only on your salary”. Only Cubans can understand this humour now. With monthly salaries worth less than lunch in a half-decent Torontonian restaurant, the people have no choice but to look for alternative sources of income. A restaurant’s cook would steal some oil and sell it on the side; a dentist would ask for some money from his patient suffering from severe tooth pain; a cab-driver would charge you 7 CUCS instead of 4 and pocket the difference; a kid on the street would beg you for money allegedly “to pay for his school”; a young girl would sleep with a 50 year old foreigner if he agrees to take her to a restaurant and give her a 5 dollar H&M tee-shirt. Unfortunately begging, scamming and prostitution are the most popular sources of income here. As a foreigner, you constantly feel as though you are being regarded mainly as a cash cow by the Cubans. Some tourists, however, may even enjoy and profit from this situation. Male tourists of any age and physical appearance definitely get more attention from women than they ever have in their native Winnipeg or Hamilton. Sadly enough, the Cuban capital is often reminiscent of one big brothel with middle-aged European and Canadian men enjoying the company of local young girls.
In the pursuit of equality
In times of the Soviet Union everyone was talking about building communism, but in reality the equality remained a pure utopia. Some people have always been treated more equally than others. I observed a similar phenomenon in Cuba. I have seen people living in tiny flats that don’t even have all the necessary amenities and people living in nice houses with a pool-size bath tab and modern kitchen. Some Cubans have families abroad who send them money, a small number of people belong to high- ranking officials and thus enjoy more privileges, others still live in big houses they used to live in before the revolution (unlike the Bolsheviks, the Cuban revolutionary government did not expropriate private houses) and make some money by renting out the rooms to tourists.
Modern Cuba bears striking resemblance to Russia before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although Fidel’s family and fellows in arms still hold all the political power, the new generation of Cuban people are no longer inspired by the ideas of Revolution and Communism. I don’t have any official statistics (which simply do not exist), but based on my numerous conversations with locals, it looks as though a huge number of people hates the regime and are anticipating changes. This generation of young Cubans look and act a lot more like their Canadian and American counterparts, than the young Communists who came before them. They listen to western music, watch western movies, dream about going to America and getting an iPhone and don’t give a shit about Socialism, the Communist party, or politics in general. This generation will sooner or later come to power.
The ugliest building in Havana. The USSR embassy
A typical residential building where average Cubans live
Inside the house of a relatively rich Cuban family