The Third World ... and Welcome To It*
Updated: Nov 13
I‘ve just spent a couple of weeks in Cuba. If I were the Cuban authorities, I wouldn’t let me in again. The first time I came here, back in 2016, Fidel Castro had just died. This time Hurricane Ian hit the western end of the island. Clearly, I don’t bring good luck with me when I come to Cuba.
Nevertheless I love the island and its long-suffering people. Havana is an elegant old Spanish colonial town, beautiful in its way. The beaches are great, and the rum is superb. (I don’t smoke, so I have to take the cigars on trust.) Every bar on the island, it seemed to me, was the very bar where Ernest Hemingway invented the daiquiri.
It isn’t all roses, of course. Some 770 people are known to have been incarcerated for years without charge and without trial and are denied proper legal representation. And that’s just the Americans at Guantanamo Bay Who knows what happens on the rest of the island?
A few things have changed since I was last here. There is no longer a separate currency (meet CUCs – pronounced kooks or Cuban Convertible Currency Units) for the tourists and CUPs (Cuban pesos, pronounced coops) for the local population, with an abysmal exchange rate for tourist CUCs. Now there are only CUPs, but with two exchange rates. If you can find a shop which will accept credit cards, you will get 24 CUPs for your dollar, pound or euro. If you change hard currency for cash at a bank, at the time of writing they will perfectly legally give you 112 CUPs, not 24, for your dollar, pound or euro. Our hotel was even more generous, offering 140 CUPs to the euro. Some hotels will even go as high as 200 CUPs to the dollar or euro. So fill your wallet or purse with hard currency in cash before you arrive, and you’ll be rolling in money for the rest of your stay.
The Cubans seem to regard their own currency with the disdain people normally reserve for wilted lettuce leaves in their salad or four-days-old boiled cabbage on their plate. Be warned. There is no shop on the air side at Havana airport willing to accept anything other than foreign currency. One shop is quite up front about it. There is a sign outside bluntly declaring that Cuban currency is not accepted. In fact trading in US dollars is supposed to be illegal in Cuba, but nobody takes a blind bit of notice and US dollars are both widely accepted and easily traded. So if you are thinking of a last margarita or daiquiri or even a glass of water before your flight, better have some dollars in your purse.
There is even a tentative experiment in private enterprise. Government-run hotels are large and reputedly crammed with surly staff. Private, smaller and better hotels have sprung up. Ditto restaurants. As well Cubans are now allowed to let spare rooms to tourists, and most guide books rightly recommend this as the best and cheapest way to stay in Cuba, and to meet and talk to Cubans. No fewer than 178 categories of private business are now permitted, giving rise to a sprightly generation of hairdressers and refillers of throwaway cigarette lighters (I kid you not!)
Some unnecessary warnings. If you come to Cuba and are approached in the street by someone offering a very good exchange rate for your cash, tell them to buzz off. If you accept, you should not be allowed to travel outside your home country, your passport should be confiscated, and it may be that you are too stupid to live. Ditto for cheap cigars, and cheap rum, not to mention “the best mojito in Havana”.
So, over all, how does Cuba shape up against first world countries? Here’s some numbers:
Population 11.3m 330m
Average life expectancy 79 rising 76 falling
Literacy rate 99% 79%
Deaths from Hurricane Ian 0 117
Average income (US dollars ) 2 400 50 000
GDP per head 9 100 61 000
Car ownership per thousand people 38 797
Now I'll admit that this gives a too-rosy picture of Cuban life. For instance the reason for the rising life expectancy in Cuba and the falling life expectancy in the US is probably more attributable to the Cubans' passably competent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.in comparison with the US, where politicians like Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, and Ron deSantis, governor of Florida, contributed mightily to the US Covid-19 death toll with their anti-scientific nonsense.
Are the Cubans happy? Not very, they would have you believe.: they moan and complain like nobody's business. But so do he French (without much cause) and the British (well, how would you have liked Liz Truss as YOUR prime minister?) Conventional economic theory decrees that Communist countries don't have inflation, they have shortages instead. The Cubans manage shortages with some pretty serious inflation thrown in for good measure. The price of powdered milk has multiplied TEN TIMES in the last few years, for example. While we were there, the island had a serious shortage of petrol and electricity, thanks to Hurricane Ian. However the hurricane had nothing to do with the fact that the air compressor wasn't working at our resort, so the advertised SCUBA diving courses were out. Nevertheless after two visits and conversations with innumerable Cubans of all ages, shapes and colours I have never met anyone who longed for the Good Old Days, when Cuba was jointly run by the Batista family and the US Mafia. Castro's 1958 "revolution" seems preferable to that.
What irritates the Cubans is that the revolution has failed to deliver. In China Xi Jinping cynically trades prosperity for power. As a result he's pretty safe, as long as his people see themselves as better fed, housed and clothed than they were before the bountiful Chinese Communist Party did the business. Ditto for Vietnam. There are department stores in Saigon that would not look out of place in London or Paris. City folk are smartly dressed, and look prosperous. Not so the Cubans. The sophisticated view is that the Castro brothers failed to read the writing on the wall in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.
You could hardly blame them for missing the signs. I was told more than once that Cuba's most prosperous time was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Havana harbour was crammed with Russian ships full of consumer cargo. Cruise ships also packed into the harbour, bearing rouble-spending Russian tourists. The Castro brothers even encouraged the teaching of Russian as a second language in Cuba Now, like it or not, the second language of Cuba is English. And the tourists are mostly Europeans and Canadians, with a sprinkling of Americans. The English have discovered Cuba as a kind of ersatz Spain of the 1970s, when Spanish beaches and booze were both cheap and readily reachable. and the exchange rate between the pound and the peseta was, to put it mildly, liberating.
So what is Cuba like? I can't do better than show you some pictures. But let's get a bit of elementary stuff out of the way first. In 2016, when my wife and I first visited Cuba, we were part of a (French) group of about 40. I'm glad of it, and I recommend that anyone going to Cuba for the first time goes as part of a group. That way all your visas and so on are done for you, as is hotel booking and internal travel. You learn that the guide books are right when they say ATMs are few and far between and most shops don't take credit cards. However after a bit more than a week in Cuba the first time around, I felt I knew enough to risk it on our own. Again, that worked.
This trip we flew from Bordeaux to Madrid, changed planes, and then flew to Havana. We spent what amounted to three days and four nights in Havana before moving on to the Memories resort in Jibacoa, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) east of Havana. On the first trip to Cuba we had our last night on the island at Memories and thought well of it. You pay for everything in advance, about 150 € a day, and after that everything is 'free': drinks, meals, daily Spanish lessons, tennis, the gym, even a sail on a catamaran. Here are a couple of pix from Memories: the beach, about 50 metres from our room, and the room itself ...
... complete with two bedspreads folded into swan shapes.
The resort even provided free entertainment. The picture at the beginning of this blog entry shows 'Opera Night' at which we were treated to classic arias like 'My Way', 'Hit The Road, Jack', and Abba's 'Dancing Queen'. If any of you go to Jibacoa, then Thursday night is
Opera Night. If they sing a few quasi-operatic numbers from 'Man Of La Mancha' like 'Impossible Dream' then you have me to thank or blame. (Please write to me at email@example.com so that I can write to Yani and thank her for taking trouble.)
Throughout Cuba the Castro 'revolution' is relentlessly celebrated as though it was the last thing that happened on the island. The museum pictured below commemorates one of the pivotal moments of the revolution, while the massive colonial building below it is, we were assured, the old Bank of America, now undergoing conversion into a hotel after being nationalised during the revolution. The fact that the revolution took place over 60 years ago and the refurb is at last under way will give you an idea of the pace at which things happen in Cuba.
We went to Cuba for the most recent trip in October, which is, as any decent guide book will tell you, the peak of the hurricane season. Hurricane Ian was nothing if not punctual. We arrived in Havana on a Sunday evening. Ian hit on Tuesday afternoon, a bit over 300 km west of Havana. These hurricanes are no joke. If you look carefully at the Havana street scene below you will see a substantial and ornate street lamp on the right. If you look even more closely you will see its twin beyond it, well demolished by the wind and lying flat on its back.
Only the Cubans would erect a statue to Sancho Panza, the clumsy donkey-riding squire to the knight Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes superb novel Don Quixote (often revered as the greatest novel ever written.) Here's Sancho, looking convivial in one of Old Havana's nicer squares.
Music is everywhere in Cuba. The street musician in the picture below is in full song, rendering that great Cuban anthem Guantanamera ("The Woman From Guantanamo") to an enthusiastic audience of tourists not far from the port of Old Havana.
Finally, let's talk about our hotel in Old Havana. Hostal Bien Viaje in Lamparilla is an architectural masterpiece and one of the new private enterprise businesses now permitted in the workers' paradise that is 21st Century Cuba. Each morning at breakfast we were asked if we would like an omelette or, as the Spanish would have it, a tortilla? We usually said yes. Would we like onion with it, or cheese, or tomato? Again, yes. Later I was chastened to read that this simple dish probably represented three hours of patient queuing and ingenious scrounging every morning before it reached our plate, all made possible by hard-won local knowledge. No wonder the Cubans ask in despair: why can't life be easy?
Here's the hotel's central atrium. The vines are real, by the way.
This blog entry wouldn't be complete without a few traveller's tips. Here goes ...
Pay for as much as you can before you get to Cuba. This includes air fares, visas, hotels, resorts, internal travel, even car hire if you are game.
Pay in your home currency if you can, otherwise in a 'hard' currency like the US dollar, the euro, or the British pound. You'll save money this way.
If you hire a car, beware. Cuba has yet to discover the motorway direction sign. As well, Cuban drivers have a pretty free-wheeling view of road rules.
A beer costs about 350 CUPs (US$2.50) throughout Cuba. A mojito or other cocktail costs about the same or a bit more. A restaurant meal in Havana will set you back about US$12 a head, including drinks. Wine, by the way, isn't always on the menu. We ate an excellent grilled lobster in Old Havana for 900 CUPs each (a bit less than US$7 each).
Pay with CUPs in cash when you can. If a bar or restaurant doesn't at least quote prices in CUPs, don't go there.
Take plenty of hard currency cash with you when you leave home, particularly small denominations, but don't carry it on your person while out and about in Cuba, and don't flash it around. The small denomination stuff is perfect for tips. Even a single dollar note is very acceptable.
Don't change all your hard currency cash into CUPs early in your trip. Change money as and when you need it. Literally no one will change it back for you into 'hard' currency. You don't want to store an envelope full of useless CUPs for the rest of your life, now do you? (I know. And I've got 3400 CUPs - about US$26 - in an envelope to show for it!)
*With apologies to the late, great James Thurber, for nicking his joke. Thurber titled a collection of his short pieces My world - and welcome to it. Buy the collection and read it: it's wonderful!