By Nick Ochs
Since President Trump re-restricted travel to Cuba this week you have missed your chance to visit the land of the mojito anytime soon. As one of the few Americans who have been to Cuba in 2017, let me assure you that you are not missing out.
Most Americans actually never knew you could go legally. For about the last year or so all you had to do was buy a ticket, choose one of 11 official reasons (“cultural exchange” being the typical incognito tourist one), and buy your 100 dollar visa as you get on the plane in Miami. That was it and no one checked on you. Now trying this will get you audited by the Treasury Department.
So what are you missing? Not the food for one. Cuba was literally out of beef the entire time I visited. Despite hamburguesas and pizza being advertised in every corner shop these things simply did not exist (no tomato sauce either). Cuba does not have the ingredients to make a Cuban sandwich. Your mojito will contain no mint leaves.
Cuban “pizza”: hard bread and cheese product.
Food and booze does remain at 1st world prices though, thanks to the Cuban Government’s admittedly clever idea to have two currencies – one for Cubans and one for everyone else. Foreigners get something call CUC (yes really) which are special bills with value based off the dollar, but really just meant to more easily set rip off prices for anything a tourist tries to buy. Regular Cuban pesos are illegal for non-citizens to possess but can be obtained with a little discrete bargaining.
There is a strong cultural tendency to get every cent out of visitors possible. This is perhaps understandable considering circumstances for most Cubans but incredibly annoying in practice. Minor acts of hospitality, say serving coffee to guests even after declined, will be turned into an attempt at cash. Once payment for something disingenuous is refused the first time, it is generally understood that you aren’t falling for it and it won’t be tried again. I never noticed any resentment or change in mood when this happens. Its just a standard practice that has to be gotten out of the way before any real conversation starts.
Cubans are friendly. Black, white, or brown the main divide in their society really seems to be based more on class than anything else. The equivalent of 15 dollars a month is what working Cubans really live on. The ration cards are real and most Cubans wouldn’t be able to eat enough to live without them, even if that means waiting two months for some ham. I can’t publish a photo of one here without its owner being in real trouble for it.
The easiest way to tell a Cuban Communist party member is that they are the only ones who can afford to drive a modern car. The split on the streets is about 80% ancient American cars and Ladas with the rest being anything from a decent Kia to top notch Mercedes.
This won’t last, and I mean physically. It’s not just the old cars breaking down, the buildings are falling apart. This is bad news for a government that claims to have eliminated homelessness. The most picturesque part of Havana, El Malecon, only looks good from a distance now. The old colonial structures are filled with people who may step into their building though a door or thru a hole in the lower wall.
Cannons as road repair material was a new one on me.
This I suspect is the real reason for the recent changes in Cuba – simple necessity. Yet that seems like enough. Facebook works now, still no Snapchat. AirBNB is in Cuba, Americans just can’t use it. I saw more t-shirt with American flags than Che Guevara on the streets. The 1960’s mindset is still strong however, at least officially. Anti-American propaganda tours are available form hotel staff for free. It’s a strange thing to see a decades old picture of a bored Marine Lance Corporal flipping off a camera being presented as a horrifying example of western imperialism. It is stranger yet to hear a grandmother from Minnesota turn basically turn red on vacation (“Now I understand we were wrong!” – A confused woman)
Yes, this is real.
Look, I don’t mean to say its not possible to enjoy yourself in Cuba. Plenty of rich young Europeans wearing communist berets seemed to be getting something out of the experience. For myself, one week in Cuba was about 6 days too long. I took part in a voodoo ritual, bought a bunch of cigars, and saw a land no one in my family has been to since 1959. Mostly though I just felt for the people there that can’t leave, because that’s what they will tell you: they want to leave.
All photos original.