Saturday, January 21, 2017

Travel to Cuba: Initial Reflections

Everyone has an image of Cuba in their head: Old cars and crumbling architecture, cigars and rum, Fidel and Che.

After two weeks in Cuba the thing that is sticking with me most is the reality of Communism. It seems like a good theory -- everyone is equal, free education and health care, dominant international sports teams. 

But what happens when human nature is introduced? Curiosity, ego, jealousy, greed.

And what happens when tourists from other wealthier nations are introduced? Taxi drivers that make 10x what a doctor makes. Your big house (built during the prior regime) is bigger than mine and can be sub-divided into 4 rentable rooms while I only have 1 room to rent (and hence 1/4 the desirable external income as you).

If you can believe the government-reported statistics, Cuba scores very high in literacy rate and life expectancy. Little boys are playing stickball in the streets without fear. Crime is very low. Illegal drugs are...ahem...difficult to find.

It seems to me that Communism can only work well in a nation where all it's citizens are enlightened beings. Where no person desires any more than any other person.

My taxi ride from the airport to Old Havana cost $30, almost what a Cuban M.D. makes in a month. That's why virtually every man who has access to a family automobile purchased before the 1959 revolution has a degree in engineering but is a taxi driver.

It was quite fascinating to witness and begin to understand. Perhaps Communism wasn't as dangerous of a threat to Democracy as Americans thought in the years after WWII. China and Vietnam are doing fairly well, but their Communism is blended with a strong dose of Capitalism.

Pondering Communism in the gorgeous Cuban countryside
I spent a wonderful 15 days in Cuba and recommend the experience.  It is important to understand, though, that a visitor is seen as a revenue source to many Cubans. And can you blame them? We can't all be perfect Communists.

The mountainous countryside is beautifully peppered with tobacco and sugarcane plantations. West of Havana is the prime tobacco country and the mountains (here called mogotes) are drool-worthy.
Tobacco farms and mogotes beyond the hotel pool in Valle Vinales
Many European and Canadian tourists stay at huge resorts on the north coast east of Havana. With the proper frame of mind, you will find Cuba to be a wonderful travel destination. Perhaps you could even stay away from the colorful locals behind the safe walls of a Trump Resort one day soon.

Other Observations

  • Travel in Cuba was significantly more expensive for me than in Mexico, mostly due to the high transportation costs. A mojito cost $3 at most bars and a good entree cost about double that.
  • The only billboards we saw were government propaganda. Lots of pro-Fidel imagery just a couple months after he died.
  • The horse-drawn buggy is still alive and well in rural Cuba
  • 90% of the tobacco is sold by the farmers at a low price to the Cuban government who is responsible for the world-famous brands like Cohiba, Romeo and Juliet, Montecristo. 10% the farmers keep for themselves and sell to tourists.
  • Virtually all the stores and restaurants you see are government run. The restaurant business is becoming more privatized, though.
  • There are 6 television stations in Cuba, all run by the government. The only satellite dishes are seen at hotels. By contrast, in the poorest slums of Brazil and in rural Morocco, one sees many satellite dishes atop private homes.
  • All sporting events and concerts are free to attend, but there was a price for the playoff baseball game I went to: $.05 (that is not a typo).
  • On TV propaganda I saw a lot of buddy time between Fidel and Hugo Chavez, former ruler of Venezuela. But saw no propaganda of Fidel with Putin or any other Russian or Chinese leaders.
I'll share more about Cuba in another post.


Ann Vinciguerra said...

Thanks for sharing Kirk. I see that you're in San Diego. Must be kind of weird to be on U.S. soil after so long, especially at this time. Now that is another story to tell - being a traveler in your own country.

M said...

Forgot how expensive Cuba can be for a tourist -- the "dollar" economy is pretty expensive there. Also remember vividly our cardiologist tour guide. Hey top surgeons need to make a buck, too!

The reality, as you might expect, is it can be a lot cheaper if you can dial into the peso economy, but, alas, if you're an American gringo they won't allow for that. I recall taking an "illegal" ride in one of the old old old taxi cabs that was cheaper than dirt -- but those are supposed to be only for the Cubans and my driver told me if he got caught with me, he'd be in deep shit (true or not, I tipped him with some fat US dollars for taking the risk).

Matthew Maakestad said...

Kirk, In my mind I caption your cigar photo with "Here's to feeling good all the time."

Link to source material on YouTube:,d.amc

Kirk Ahlberg said...

Ann: I certainly have renewed respect for the U.S.A. and its wide sidewalks and flushable toilet paper. But "land of free" I'm not so sure about.

Kirk Ahlberg said...

Matthew: thanks for the laugh. Kramer pretty much has it all figured out.