Thoughts on Cuba and its Dual Economy

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It didn’t quite occur to me that I had visited Cuba as a political tourist until I was onboard the Mexicana flight out of Havana.  I spent 7 days avoiding tourist traps and CUCs and using Cuban pesos while soaking in the local lifestyle, and went away with the conclusion that Cuba is perhaps a little over-hyped and romanticized by mainstream media, but most certainly way overdue for major reforms.

A very postcard-ish shot, with the Capitolio in the distance and a well-maintained old American car.

An old American car along the streets, with Nacional Capitolio in the distance - Habana Vieja

Now don’t get me wrong – despite uttering a ton of mi no hablar/entiendo españyol and heading to Cuba with a bad stomach – the trip wasn’t a bad one; I picked up stick-shift driving from my fiancee in an hour, and had the chance to put my Olympus E-P2 through a rigorous field test.  I just think that decades of post-USSR neglect and mismanagement in Cuba against the backdrop of a generally prosperous global economy, have done far worse to a majority of its people’s dignity and psyche than any physical discomfort and inconveniences arising from the Cubans’ perennial shortage of food and necessities can ever inflict.  It’s about time ‘sustainable goodness’ came into the lives of the people in Cuba, and I do hope it’ll be sooner than later.

"Hasta la victoria siempre" - Forever, Until Victory

"Hasta la victoria siempre" or "Forever, Until Victory" - Centro Habana

Purchasing affordable air tickets to Cuba from San Francisco took a lot of poking around online.  I had to purchase the SFO-CUN route separately from the CUN-HAV route.  Getting the Cuban tourist pass (at US$15 per person) was a breeze (over-the-counter) once you’re at the Cancun airport. We rented a car from Havanautos for the 7 days that we were there, and drove around Le Habana and its surrounding suburbs, along the Autopista Nacional, and through mountainous and pot-hole ridden roads to the historic town of Trinidad through the sleepy towns of Matagua, Manicaragua and Guinia de Miranda.  Due to time constrains, I was unable to visit Santiago and Baracoa.  We passed through Cienfuegos before returning to Le Habana.

Art shop along the alleys of Habana Vieja; an example of tourist traps

Art shop along the alleys (tourist trap) - Habana Vieja

The Dual Economy: Disparity and Greed

There are two currencies in play in Cuba – the ‘local’ national currency, the Cuban peso, and the ‘tourist’ currency, the Convertible, or CUC for short. When we visited, the rate was approximately €1 to 1.2561 CUC, and US$0.95 to 1 CUC.  In comparison, 1 CUC gets you 25 pesos.

To help you calibrate and understand my subsequent point; drinks at paladares and restaurants typically sets you back between 1 to 3 CUCs, while a glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane or fruit-flavored milk shake along the streets costs only 1 – 3 pesos.  As for food, we were lucky to find a really tasty 5 CUC Spanish paella at Los Nardos (opposite Capitolio in Centro Havana); most other main courses at tourist-trap restaurants were priced at 6 – 8 CUC, while the casa de particulares that we stayed at (over)priced their home-styled dinners at 8 – 10 CUC per person.

A Cuban girl watches passer-bys with her meagre breakfast in hand.

A Cuban girl watches passer-bys with her meagre breakfast in hand - Trinidad

Approximately 10% of the Cuban locals have access to CUCs by working in tourism-related service jobs, while the remaining 90% of the population subsist on the meagre food rations from the government. We were told that each adult receives food sufficient for roughly 10 days.  It was also common practice for the distributors of food supplies to give people slightly less than what they were entitled to, so that they could resell the balance as extra income.  I tried assembling the following less-than-comprehensive food ration list:

  • 7 lbs of rice;
  • 5 lbs of sugar;
  • 0.5 lbs of oil;
  • 1 lb of chicken;
  • 11 ounces of fish;
  • 11 ounces of black beans
  • 11 ounches of brown beans
Cuban youths enjoying a game of Dominos in Trinidad

Cuban youths enjoying a game of Dominos - Trinidad

Driven by the socialist-induced hunger, and an average mark-up of 2000% to 4000% for tourists, it was therefore no surprise that Cubans become extremely enterprising – an elderly lady who sells home-made ice cream on wood splinters in lieu of ice cream sticks; a medical professional that doubles up as a musician at night; street touts peddling all sorts of wares ranging from cheap imitation cigars to Che Guevara t-shirts; owners of multiple casa particulars shuttling between casas to prepare dinners for their guests; a janitor of a printing press that gave us a tour of his premise in exchange for 1 CUC to scratch his nicotine itch.

Watching life go by, Habana Vieja

Watching life go by - Habana Vieja

As we wandered along the streets of Havana, I didn’t feel like we the tourists were especially welcomed, but were viewed more as money trees from which to shake a living out of; regrettable, but understandably so, given the economic conditions that Cubans were faced with.  There were quite a few angry store owners who tried to eke a peso out of me as I took my shots, including an angry street-side eatery owner who conveniently forgot that we had paid him 6 pesos for 2 drinks, and demanded 1 peso when I tried to take a photo of his busy store.  We were exploring Havana’s Chinatown, which was strangely devoid of Chinese, when my fiancee was hit on her shoulder by half an (eaten) orange, most likely thrown from above and directed at me.  All this, despite our best efforts at respecting their way of life and trying to blend in.  I could not comprehend the anger we were faced with.

It felt like the 10% of Cubans with access to CUCs were greedily trying to acquire more to better their lives, while a portion of the remaining 90% were either trying to get into the game, or were jealous and disgrunted with their inability to.

Barber along the streets of Centro Habana

Barber - Centro Habana

Food, (In)Glorious Food

Apart from tasty dinner at an illegal paladare (judging by the way the folk at the door were peering outside to look for police before letting us leave) and decent fare at one or two restaurants, most of the food in Cuba was forgettable.  It’s hard to blame a nation for its cuisine when there isn’t much access to ingredients in the first place.  I found the street side fare a more accurate reflection of status quo, and gravitated towards them for much of the trip.  Even then, we were hard-pressed to find sufficient variety to excite.  In the end, it was down to Havana’s one and only sugarcane juice store – at the corner of the large dilapidated building directly opposite the main entrance of the Capitolio – that did the honors of drawing us back for glass after glass of ice cold sugarcane juice every day we were in Havana.

Chef at a street side food store looks on at busy lunch crowd, Habana Vieja

Chef at a street side food store looks on at busy lunch crowd - Habana Vieja

Getting Around

Despite the endemic shortage of road signs, I found it surprisingly easy to navigate the streets of Havana.  We stayed at a casa towards the end of San Lazaro, and used either San Lazaro or the Malecon exclusively to get into Centro Habana and Habana Vieja.  Continuing east on the Malecon over the bay via the tunnel takes you towards the Autopista Nacional, which was what we took towards Trinidad.  On top of the maps in our copy of the Lonely Planet, I loaded my Garmin GPS with free maps of Cuba, which came in handy on a couple of occasions while we were switching between highways without any road signs!

Sunset along the Malecon

Sunset along the Malecon - Havana

Visual Paradise

I don’t know if it was the novelty of my new camera, or Cuba’s streets after streets of old cars, but I had a great time with photography and my E-P2.  Everywhere I turned was a photo asking to be taken, and it wasn’t just about the communist state’s aged automobiles.  Textures and colors were in such abundance!  I’ll leave the rest of the talking to my photos.

San Francisco de la Habana Basilica - Habana Vieja

San Cristóbal Cathedral - Habana Vieja

Shoes on overhead power lines - Habana Vieja

Shoes on overhead power lines - Habana Vieja

Student dashes up stairway in school - Habana Vieja

Student dashes up stairway in school - Habana Vieja

Cuban storeowner poses for my camera - Trinidad

Cuban storeowner poses for my camera - Trinidad

Of Dogs and Cars - Trinidad

Of Dogs and Cars - Trinidad

Bust of Jose Marti in school compound - Cienfuegos

Bust of Jose Marti in school compound - Cienfuegos

Night judo classes at a warehouse - Habana Vieja

Night judo classes at a warehouse - Habana Vieja

Grandmother and granddaughter - Habana Vieja

Grandmother and granddaughter - Habana Vieja

Sunset at the Malecon - Havana

Sunset at the Malecon - Havana

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.