Cuba: People, Poverty and Myths

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You probably have heard or read before that Cuban people are unique. Isolated on the island, communist, poor, with no access to the rest of the world.

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From what I’ve experienced, that is partly true, however, not everything that we read these days on blogs, hear from other travellers, imagine ourselves or even being told by Cubans about their own life is true.

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Every Cuban person that you meet on your way would probably tell you that it’s very hard there and that they are very poor. You will be asked for a dollar on every other corner of the country. Kids would beg for pens and sweets. Girls might ask for shower gel and cosmetic products. In a month that we spent there we’ve heard so many times that doctors in Cuba earn equivalent to $30 a month and a teacher about $15. Officially. Which is true. However, no Cuban person discloses how much of black cash they get monthly.

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For instance, on public bus in Habana half of the passengers throw coins into machine, but half of them give money directly to the driver.

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I’ve seen cashiers in the supermarket avoid scanning certain products, charging for them and putting money into their pockets.

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The doctors that earn $30 per month accept appointments during holidays for a generous contribution.

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The construction workers that earn officially $20 per month for installing windows, steal the supplies ordered by the government and install windows around their neighbourhood for hundreds of dollars. What is to say, our Cuban friend admitted that working as a waiter in the restaurant he earns $120 a month.

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And this is just the beginning, ways in which they tend to overcharge tourists in black can reach amazing levels. Of course, everyone knows that tourism is pretty much everything Cuba has, so people realised that it is much easier to earn their official monthly wage through only a few tourists they meet on their way.

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We were walking around Malecon in Habana one day and this guy came up to us, he was friendly, he asked where are we from and what are we up to, he told us that he’s first job is on constructions that bring him mentioned everywhere $20 a month, but his second job- wait for it- is to talk to tourists. TALK. Point out where the light house is, where Castle and where Capitolio is and get tipped in dollars for that.

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A police officer outside Museo De La Revolution sells post cards (even though he gave us all his post cards for free and turned out to be an amazing guy, he was still doing it).

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We wanted to explore Casa Blanca and we were told prior our journey that ferry going there from Habana Vjeha costs 1 peso Cubano. We got to the place, asked a policeman how much it costs, and he said he had no idea. We went to the queue and the ferry driver asked us for 4 dollars, when we asked why locals pay 1 peso he said that they are Cubans and they have different tariffs, then he bargained to 2, then 1, and finally we gave him 1 peso Cubano each and went off. The guy was holding Cucs (dollar alternative) in his hands, which meant there were others who agreed to that price.

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These are just basic examples that we got to notice throughout our long-ish journey, things that we overheard, overseen or being told, things that no Cuban of course would admit anything like that. They wouldn’t admit that because they can either go to jail or they can lose their easy tourist cash that they get only if they maintain that image.

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I’m not writing this to judge anybody, or to say it’s bad; not at all, but it is the way they make their living but in big cities, generally ideas about poverty are over exaggerated. Keeping it in mind would make your journey much easier.

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3 thoughts on “Cuba: People, Poverty and Myths

  1. I’m happy that you didn’t pay the overpriced tourist fee. Being quite tall (186cm), rather young (19) and about as white as new paper, I get targeted often as a tourist who will pay more money than others. I take offense to this because I am far from it (I think that most true travellers cringe when being thought of as a tourist). All in all, I’m very happy you posted this, because most people in first world nations have a skewed opinion of poverty outside our borders.

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    1. Believe me it wasn’t easy to avoid the fees! And speaking spanish really helped, otherwise, it would have been hell. I’ve heard the worst stories of how Tourists got scammed in Cuba and not just Cuba. It is really not the question of money, but rather of being seeing as a walking wallet. Can be upsetting. I hope negative experience didn’t ruin your trip in the end!

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      1. No, it’s never a bad experience. There comes a point though, in bartering, when the person realizes that you aren’t going to pay the amount they want. That moment is always funny to me, it’s as if you’re suddenly seen as a person.

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