Cuba is trapped in the past: some facts about the Caribbean communist nation

HAVANA, Cuba — Travelling to Cuba is a lot like going back to the 1960s. Time seems to have stalled in this era, as seen in the bright paint jobs and classic builds of the cars on the street.

Even the prices seem from a previous decade. A 26-ounce bottle of white Havana Club Rum costs 3.80 Cuban pesos, roughly $4. People could drink the bottle — the entire bottle — and get behind the wheel, facing only a ticket for impaired driving and a slap on the wrist.

A slap on the wrist, or a wrap around the telephone pole.

The DUI ticket would amount to less than the cost of the bottle of rum. The $3 fine would even be reduced to $1.50 if paid within three days. Though drinking and driving carries light legal consequences in Cuba, laws on gun possession, pornography and prostitution are more strictly enforced than in Canada. Being caught dealing marijuana is punishable with a 20-year prison sentence.

The government’s $40 monthly allowance is not enough for most Cubans to survive on, so many choose to busk in tourist areas, work jobs in the service industry where tipping is encouraged, or barter in the marketplace to supplement working full-time jobs for government-controlled salaries.

On the streets, you will notice children standing and waving at passing tourists, sometimes alone and sometimes with a parent. Walking around Havana you will be approached by traditionally-dressed women who will attach themselves to you and encourage a picture to be taken, or men following tourists around with pads of paper drawing quick portraits for a peso or two. They might earn 10 bucks in two hours, while full-time work would earn them no more than their government allowance.

American cars in Cuba are from the ’50s and ’60s due to the trade embargo.

However, Cubans do not have to worry about paying for health care, education or rent. While they do have to purchase their homes, it is a one-time cost. Cubans are responsible for maintaining their own properties. For approximately a month’s salary, they may purchase their own apartment or house, but may only have one home in Cuba. They cannot, for instance, have one property in Varadero and another in Havana.

In six months the government, under new leadership, will begin handing out work visas for Cubans to travel to other countries for job opportunities in order to bring more money into the country and better support their families.

From a tourist’s point of view, it’s hard to say how the locals feel about their circumstances. Although their way of living may not be understood by tourists, on the surface there seems to be a fierce sense of loyalty and pride toward the government. Revolutionary imagery lionizing Fidel Castro and Che Guevara still lines the streets, and our tour guide insisted that they were still beloved by the people — symbols of strength.

This driver looks like he’s from Mad Men, not the 21st century.

Taking the chance to visit Cuba, despite being a Canadian citizen, may still have consequences. Cuban border officials give you a separate visa on a sheet of paper instead of stamping your passport. With a stamp from Cuba you will be denied access into the United States for six months or be required to pay a fine. The United States has enforced a strict embargo and travel ban against Cuba since the 1962 missile crisis, although Cuba still welcomes American tourists who can circumvent the ban.

A trip to Cuba is only worth taking if you’re interested in the culture and history of the country. Cuba does not compare with other vacation locations such as the Bahamas, Hawaii or Mexico in terms of scenery, food or entertainment.

The food in Cuba is less than spectacular. If you choose to visit, staying at an all-inclusive resort is your best option for a safe vacation. You’ll likely spend your week lining up in the buffet queue for mass quantities of vinegar-soaked vegetables, cold side-dishes and meats.

Dancers from Havana’s Tropicana Cabaret perform for tourists.

In terms of entertainment, many of the sites visited were overcrowded with competing tour companies. Though Havana’s Tropicana Cabaret was upbeat and visually stimulating, the dance routines lacked variety and story and were unable to hold the audience’s attention for the full two-hour performance.

Organized tours are a good option to safely explore the country, but they also provide locals with an excess of opportunity to capitalize on foreign sympathy. During the vacation we spent more tipping buskers and peddlers than on food, drinks or souvenirs.

A good idea for visiting Cuba, if you plan to go, is to bring gifts for the locals or cleaning staff. Items such as Tylenol, toothbrushes, clothing and toys are hard to come by and are appreciated when left on the hotel room pillows.


Photos: Jenna Mann