Fri 1 Jun 2012 - Sat 16 Jun 2012
In my opinion, Communism and Tourism don’t mix. Here’s how it works: in a communist country, such as Cuba, everyone is equal. People are provided with the basics of life, free of charge, including housing, education and healthcare. With those costs of living provided, salaries don’t need to be too high to cover the remaining necessities. This is why the average Cuban government employee, from engineers to doctors to bus ticket vendors, earns about $10 - $20 USD per month. Prices for locally produced products are generally low, and food is rationed. Now enter tourists. It would be ridiculous for us to pay the same prices that Cubans do, and the government would be missing out on the all-important tourism income, so instead there is a two-currency system in place. Convertibles are about on par with USD, while Pesos are 25x less. For certain things, like museum entrances, we pay 25 times more than a Cuban would pay. But for other items, the price is equal, making the item unobtainable for all except the wealthiest Cubans.
But wait. I have already expressed two ideas that are contrary to communism; 1) making money from tourists, 2) having wealthy Cubans. If Cuba is purely communist, then they wouldn’t be interested in making profits from tourism, and there wouldn’t be a distinction between the socioeconomic status of Cubans.
And herein lies the problem. First, Cubans who work with tourists, such as waiters, bartenders, guides, hotel staff, musicians, etc. all receive tips in Convertibles in addition to their monthly salary. Then there are the Cubans who have family living overseas, most often in the States, who send hundreds of dollars back to their family members in Cuba. The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is often quite distinct.
The consequences of this disparity affect tourists in Cuba greatly. Casa Particular (small, family-owned guesthouses in the owner's home) owners mob tourists getting off the tourist-only buses, trying to get business for their home. Musicians are never more than a few feet away, ready to burst into song for tips at a moment’s notice. Guides, taxi drivers and others often resort to lying in order to obtain a customer.
Our experience in Cuba showed us the best and worst of the country. On the one hand, the lush, green landscapes were feasts for our eyes, the juicy, fresh fruit was music to our taste-buds, and the rhythms of the music and dance permeated the air. On the other hand, sitting in restaurants that Cubans were excluded from, and sitting in tourist-class buses, driving by locals waving money in their hands for bus fare, made us feel like precisely the bourgeoisie that Marx was writing about in the Communist Manifesto. Interactions with Cubans were limited to transactions. To truly know Cuba, once needs to be Cuban. Full stop.
There is a myth perpetuating online that tends to circulate around all-inclusive tourists to Cuba. It is said that while staying at your hotel, you should bring goodies for the cleaning ladies, who are too poor to purchase these things, or can’t find the same quality products in Cuba. There are entire chat room threads full of comments by obviously generous, but also obviously ignorant, well-meaning people, chatting about whether soap or shampoo would make the best gift for their cleaning ladies. Then I read this article, which helped tremendously to put things in perspective for me. While very few people asked for pens, soap, shampoo, etc. while we were in Cuba, I decided to refuse, as I would have felt like a royal arse walking around with goodies to give out like it was Hallowe-en. I did tip for services based on local prices, and would encourage other travellers to do so as well.
Finally, a word of caution about Casa Particulars. We found our own Casa in Havana and Vinales ($35 and $15 respectively) and both were good experiences. But then we started to ask for recommendations for the next town. The perk of doing this is that someone meets you at the bus station and you can walk right through the throngs of touts who want your business. However, we quickly found out that in order to pay the commissions for these services, our prices were upped. We paid a reasonable $25 in Cienfuegos and Trinidad, but then in empty Sancti Spiritus, the Casa wanted $25 for a place quite far from the city centre. This same Casa charged us $20 for a nice dinner, but $8 for a breakfast that we had to be convinced to take before our early bus, and we ate next to nothing. They also called a taxi for us, left us to negotiate the price on our own, and "let" the driver/friend charge us twice what he should have. When we (thankfully) missed the next pick up in Santa Clara, we took a taxi to the centre, found a Casa with a prime location and rock bottom prices. This amazing hostess reminded us that perhaps the popular places you can book online or find in a guide book are taking advantage of the good reviews to quietly gouge tourists in the name of "friendship". My advice is to be realistic; you are a guest and a customer. Ask for prices before agreeing to a room or a meal, and don't hesitate to share your precious dollars with other establishments as well.