Free education, free university and free health care.
It sounds all well and almost too good to be true for a country in the depths of revolution for the last 60 years however there’s another side of the story that you will only hear when you’re on the ground speaking with locals.
Cuba is mostly known as a “must-do” travel destination, it could even be on your bucket list, yet as we travelled through the country over three weeks in November we began to see a different side to Cuba – a more human side.
The Cuban people are lovely, they freely open their homes to strangers, they will happily give you directions when you’re lost on the street and will make sure you have a positive experience of Cuba
At the same time, the Cuban people are struggling to access basic food needs – there are lines outside of grocery shops filled with hundreds of people to simply purchase eggs and milk, yet they’re not promised anything either as some days there are none to sell and the shelves are completely empty. All the “best” restaurants and hotels are likely to be Government owned, again restricting the tourist economy to flow to the Cuban people.
Given Cuba’s natural beauty we found it quite shocking when it came to environmental issues. With a seeming lack of understanding and education the local beaches are littered with rubbish and broken glass while the waterways are filled with human faeces.
Although the Cuban people work tirelessly for 12 hours or more a day, they have an extremely low monthly income averaging $15-20 USD per month – for instance we stayed with one family where the husband was a university professor and was only earning $30 USD per month while also needing to work a second job as a security guard to survive.
We were taught from one of our families that there are 3 big no-no’s every Cuban knows:
1. Purchasing illegally sold meat
Essentially everything in Cuba is Government owned, from grocery stores, transport, hotels, taxis, bars and restaurants. As a local, if you’re caught buying anything outside of these Government owned business (apart from the few privately owned) they face consequences like imprisonment and fines, making it almost impossible for locals to purchase everyday needs or promote the economy amongst each other.
Before arrival to Cuba on the visa form you have to declare if you possess any pornography, which we found quite strange. However, the Cuban government takes it very seriously to the point of expelling students and firing government staff for accessing and/or possessing a sexual image on their phone.
3. Anti-Government sentiment
You will notice Government propaganda almost everywhere in Cuba, from billboards, posters, stickers, TV and radio. You will see daily documentaries about the “great achievements” of the country on the few national TV channels, children singing songs about the revolution and hour long montages of Fidel Castro visiting other Communist leaders embracing their shared values.
So as you can probably imagine speaking against the Government in public brings with it imprisonment – which again makes it impossible for the Cuban people to voice their injustice and see progress in the country.
Moreover, you need to show your passport when staying at casa’s (local homes), exchanging and withdrawing money and purchasing internet. The constant watching eye of the Government is made very clear and definitely doesn’t escape tourists either. As internet is extremely limited, you will need to purchase hourly cards ( $1-2 USD ) with a unique code that allows the Government to monitor and control what you access. This is a very high price for the locals to pay as one hour is equivalent to 10% of a monthly wage.
This may be hard to comprehend yet this is what the reality of Cuba is
On our travels for the first week we stayed at an all inclusive hotel in Cayo Coco; sure it was fun and beautiful but we were well aware that this was not the real Cuba (even the locals will tell you that). If you’re planning on travelling to Cuba we suggest you go off the tourist track and visit a more authentic Cuba – eat where the locals eat, take a ride on the local bus, stay with a Cuban family and see what Cuba is really about. We enjoyed our last two weeks exploring Cuba more than the whole week in a hotel.
You can’t help but feel disheartened for the Cuban people. Some have a sense of perseverance and hope that Cuba will one day change but at the same time many seem quite content with the current situation. There were so many occasions where we’d find ourselves battling with our minds about the injustices we saw along the way (or at least what we thought were). Why were things not changing? Why do they think this is all there is? Do they know there’s more out there? How long will this go on?
The other challenges we faced were conflicting thoughts about our own society. Have we become so consumeristic that we’ve lost sense of what matters most? Does happiness and life really amount to owning the latest fashion trend, the latest car model or a new home? Are we less connected to each other more than ever before?
The real Cuba no one tells you about is an eye-opening, value-challenging, change-of-perspective experience. It is a Cuba that is far more than the facade of tourism campaigns or controversial modern day revolution.
Cuba is like something you’ve probably never seen before. Would I recommend it? Probably not for your everyday vacay. But if you’re an open minded individual who desires a unique experience or needs a good shaking from the western world, then go for it.