One of our primary goals as we travel is to experience life as much as possible as a local. We like to meet everyday people and get to know how they live their lives, how they view the world, we like to get as close as possible to experiencing life as a native would.
It was tough to do this in Cuba since we were only there for 5 days and stayed in tourist hotels and ate at restaurants. However, we did get to meet a fair number of people and had various levels of conversations with them. Here are some of our experiences and stories of the people we met.
In general, the people of Cuba we met were friendly. Because we were in the tourist area, most of the people we met spoke some English, but not all. Just about everyone we talked to was surprised and delighted to meet an American. The next words out of their mouth was typically that they had a cousin, uncle, brother, grandmother or someone in the USA. Most of them mentioned that their relative was either in Florida or New York City.
Some other common themes with the Cubans we talked to were that they loved the American people and hoped that the USA and Cuban governments could get together more on normalizing relationships between the countries. Most were quick to tell us how safe Havana was. We didn’t have to worry about our personal safety. I got the sense that people were proud to be Cuban and loved their families, however, just about everyone that we talked to told us in one way or another that, “Life is hard for the Cuban people.”
Middle class begging – this was one aspect that I wasn’t expecting. Let me explain what I mean. My wife and I are fairly friendly people. We are not extremely gregarious, but tend to be on the friendly side and will typically greet people with a smile and a nod even if we don’t know them or are just passing them on the street and make eye contact.
In the USA most of the begging that you see is someone at the roadside with a hand printed cardboard sign explaining that they are: disabled, homeless, stranded, unemployed, a veteran, etc. You might also find someone on the street that asks you for some spare change or a few dollars so they can get something to eat.
In developing countries, you see people begging as well. Most often they are shabbily dressed, disabled or trying to perform some sort of small service or function, wash the window or your car, shine your shoes, etc. Unfortunately, in many developing countries you will find numerous children begging.
In Cuba, we only saw one or two of what I would describe as a typical beggar. There was one blind guy that walked up and down the street shaking a jar of coins and I think we saw an older woman who appeared to not be 100% in her right mind begging.
What we did encounter very often is what we came to call middle class begging. Here is how it typically played out. A pedicab driver or someone else selling some sort of wares would greet you, ask you if you wanted a ride and when you declined the ride or trinket they were selling would ask where you were from. Typically, they got excited when they found you were American, asked you some more questions and then ended the conversation with, “As you probably know, the food situation is bad here in Cuba. We barely have enough to eat and I don’t have enough quality food for my children. Could you spare a few pesos so that I can buy milk for my children?” This could also be someone who just approached us because we looked American and started a conversation. I would say that at least 80% of the people we talked to asked us for money so they could buy food for their children.
We saw this enough that I wanted to explain middle class begging in general before I relate some of the specific conversations we had with people. Later in our visit we did talk to a few Cubans about this phenomena of middle class begging. The ones we asked about it didn’t have much sympathy for it and felt it was wrong.
Italian Restaurant Manager – after checking into the hotel we walked up the Main Street towards Central Park. Outside an empty Italian restaurant, the manager was trying to entice people into the restaurant. He asked us where we were from and was excited to hear that we were Americans. He invited us into his restaurant. I told him that we were not hungry. “No, no. Not to eat. Just to talk. Please, I don’t want you to buy anything, just talk. I want to find out more about America.” We went in and sat down. He told the bartender to fix the three of us mojitos. My wife interrupted and asked what was in it because we don’t drink. “For you, madam, no alcohol. For your husband, just a little bit of rum,” he said showing with his thumb and forefinger how little rum would be in my drink.
“No thank-you,” I said laughing. Soon we were sipping on some virgin mojitos.
“When you go back to the United States, tell the American people that the Cuban people need them,” he said. “The American people and the Cuban people are brothers. It is our governments that have kept us apart. The Cuban people have a hard life. They need America.” He proceeded to tell me how that with Obama, he had hope that things would improve in Cuban-American relations. As a side note, most of the people that we talked to who mentioned the President, spoke of him in glowing terms. They liked President Obama and didn’t like George W, Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush.
“See that American flag,” he said, pointing to a small US flag between a couple of bottles behind the bar. “I have run this restaurant for 25 years and have had flags from many different countries here for a long time. Until last December it was forbidden to have an American flag. I wanted to have an American flag for many years. I am so glad I can finally display an American flag.”
We talked about American movies. He told me how he didn’t want to talk with me out on the street because the Secret Police might hear him and he needed to be cautious. He asked if I had heard of the ration books and proceeded to show me his ration book that listed the foods covered by rations, staples like rice, beans, oil, eggs. “These rations only last about one and a half weeks,” he said.
I asked about Fidel. “Is he still around? Does anyone know for sure?”
“Yes, he is still around, but he is very old and sick. Raul runs the country now. Did you know that the older brother, Ramone, died yesterday? Here it is in the paper.” He pulled out today’s copy of the Grama – the official newspaper – and showed me the article and told me I could keep the newspaper.
After some more conversation we got up to leave. “As you know, the food situation is very poor here. We don’t have enough to eat with the rations. Can you help out a little so that my children can have some rice and beans?” This caught me off-guard, my first of what was to become many examples of middle class begging. My typical response to any sort of begging is to not give anything. It can be heartbreaking at times when you see obviously poor people, especially children, begging. However, anything I have read has said that you should not give to beggars. If you want to help, give to recognized charities or organizations that can help people. However, this time I gave him 10 CUC, about $10. I guess the combination of the surprise and also rationalizing that he did give me a couple of drinks and a newspaper led me to give him something.
The cigar guy – as you walk down the street in Havana many people will approach you asking you if you want to buy cigars. They never have the cigars with them but will lead you to a house or an apartment where they have the cigars. It was explained to me by one of the clerks at the hotel and one or two other people that one weekend a month the people that worked at the cigar factory, or co-operative as they called it, were allowed to purchase cigars at a discount and were allowed to resell those cigars.
One day we were trying to find a way into the Capitol building. We had heard and read about it and wanted to see the inside. From our vantage point, there were a lot of construction barriers around the one particular entrance we could see. I asked a man standing on the street, “Perdon senor, el Capitol es abierto?” (Excuse me sir, is the Capitol open?) He did not speak any English but proceeded to tell us that the Capitol had been closed for about a year for renovation. It used to house a museum but was now going to be used for parliament and would no longer be open to the public.
He then asked us if we wanted to buy some cigars. I declined and said that I didn’t smoke cigars. He told me I could use them as a gift for my brothers or friends. I declined again and we continued to have a conversation about where we were from, I asked if had children and if he lived nearby. Remember, this conversation is taking place totally in Spanish and I was also using this as practice and feeling pretty good that we actually seemed to be communicating, I was picking up most of the conversation.
He asked us if we would like to see his apartment, he had something to show us. I hesitated a little, but was curious about what the inside of a Cuban apartment looked like. “Don’t worry, Havana is very safe,” he told us as he led us down a dark corridor to his apartment. Inside the apartment was a small room, about 10 x 10 that doubled as a living room and eating area. A Formica topped kitchen table was against the wall with three 1970’s type aluminum and vinyl chairs around it. On the opposite side of the room was an elderly woman lying on a couch watching a grainy image on a TV. From her age, I assumed it was his mother or mother in law. The apartment was clean, but very sparse.
He then pulled out a cloth bag that had three boxes of cigars in them. Oh brother! I again declined and he repeated that these could be gifts and were very fine cigars. Again I declined and started for the door. He let us out and followed us. “Sir, the food situation is difficult here. Can you please give me 10 pesos so that I can buy milk for my children?”
Angry Taxi Driver – internet access in Cuba is a little tricky. It is available, but the only way I found to get on was to buy an internet card good for one hour of internet. The first night in Havana I bought one from the front desk at the hotel where we were staying, it cost me 4 pesos. At our next hotel, I tried to purchase one from the front desk but they were all out. They suggested the first hotel I stayed at. They didn’t have one either and suggested the Park Central hotel. The Park Central is probably the newest and most expensive hotel in Havana. We did find internet cards there. Better yet, they only charged me 2 pesos, half the price of the first hotel for the same thing!
As we exited the hotel a taxi driver with a 1950s American car approached us, “Taxi sir?” he said in perfect English. We declined saying we didn’t need a taxi. He then went into the next level of his spiel, very typical, “I can give you the best tour of Havana. Private tour. Only 20 pesos for one hour. You get to ride in my nice car.” Next he asked where we were from and when he found we were from the USA he got a little more excited, “I have two cousins in the US, one in Miami and one in New Jersey.” He then launched into a speech about how the American people and Cuban people were brothers and Fidel screwed up things and Bush made things even worse. Both governments were corrupt, etc.
Then came the middle class begging. “If you won’t take a ride in my taxi, can you give me 5 pesos so that I can get milk for my children?” I declined and he launched into a tirade. “You come to my country and only support the rich hotel owners and the government that they pay huge taxes to. You are not helping the people of Cuba, only the government. You are a very bad person!”
This was the first time I had heard this. Most people were disappointed when I didn’t give them money, but I had never had someone get upset like this. I didn’t feel like having a philosophical argument with this guy, and I don’t think he would listen to reason. I am sure that he wouldn’t agree given how vehemently he had earlier denounced Castro and the political system, but he was displaying a very socialist attitude. I had been in Cuba for three days and now suddenly it was my responsibility to support him, a stranger, and his children and the Cuban people because I was American and theoretically had more money than him? He didn’t say this in as many words, but he was basically implying, “You are rich because you are from America and therefore you owe me because you have more money than me.” I am sure he wouldn’t be interested or if it would matter that I gave a fair amount to the home based church we attended the other night and had given money to a few other people. No, he was mad because I was rich and he was poor and he deserved my money.
These were just a few of the examples of middle class begging we ran into in Havana. Don’t get me wrong, they do have a pretty bad life in my opinion. I wouldn’t want to trade places with them, however, they have jobs, they have food, a place to live in, free education, free healthcare. The middle class begging was very interesting to us and something we weren’t expecting. Here we were in what could be defined as a socialist utopia. Nobody goes hungry or is malnourished. The government supplies a place to live for everyone. You get free, high quality healthcare as well. You can get as much free education as you want and are willing to study for including PhDs. And yet, most people we talked to told us about how hard life was for the Cuban people. Many were reduced to begging as the only viable option they saw to improving their lives.