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Americans Helping Cubans

American Cuba

American going to Cuba?

Whatever your reasons are for visiting Cuba, whether it is simple curiosity or a lifelong yearning of pent up desire from having been prohibited from visiting there; our government has made it clear that what they want for the Cuban people is liberty. Not just of expression but also freedom to make decisions on their own without the big brother of communism knocking at the door. The latest easing of American restrictions by the Obama administration are clearly linked to nurturing those objectives by specifically empowering Cubans. It should be no surprise that by allowing ANY AMERICAN to send money to Cuba and, not just those with family there, has empowerment focused undertones. So, if you do travel to Cuba how can you add your grain of sand to the democratic sand castle? We all want Cubans to benefit from our presence in Cuba but how can we do this?

First off we need a history lesson and, some simple facts. The newer generations of Americans are unaware or ill informed about what communism means. For some, the concept is inconceivable, especially if we´ve lived our whole lives in a free market society and democracy but, some of the things that communism means are the following:

  • Government owns all business, even the corner store
  • Government controls all media only broadcasting or writing positive things about themselves and negative propaganda about adversaries
  • Government controls the books you can obtain and read
  • Government owns all property, even your home
  • Government decides if you need a bigger house who you can “exchange” your smaller house with and no money can change hands as this is illegal
  • Government employs most of the population
  • Government decides who gets paid, who gets fired and who gets work
  • Government banishes detractors from society and sometimes imprisons them
  • Government owns your car
  • Government decides what you can buy at their stores and, how much these goods or services will cost

Etc, Etc, the list goes on….

The above are just a few points which are simply inconceivable as an American but, in Cuba, the above is the norm and has been this way for over 50 years.

So back to the topic, if we are to visit Cuba how can we empower Cubans?

Eating

We all need to eat and boy do we American´s know how to do it! However, it’s real easy for us to look at a nice restaurant and contemplate that the man looking sharply dressed attending to some patrons could actually be the owner, right? Well, in Cuba, any restaurant which is not a Paladar is wholly owned by the Cuban government and workers there are paid around 24 USD per month. Yes, 24 dollars… In fact, it’s quite disconcerting to know that the meal for two people you just paid, probably cost more than the whole week’s salary of two waitresses who served you. When Cubans who work for these restaurants can´t make ends meet and take some food home for their children they risk being fired or worse, being indicted by their own government for theft…(honestly) Therefore, while thinking of where to dine, bare a thought for this state of affairs, things are not always how they appear, especially in Cuba.

On the other hand, forced by the dire economic circumstances the government faces they have had no choice but to begrudgingly offer those Cubans, their communist system is unable to provide jobs for, a way of making ends meet. Enter the now infamous “Paladar”.

An American does not understand “Cubans make 24USD per month”

A Paladar is a restaurant usually situated in the home of a Cuban family. Cubans being entrepreneurial by nature have turned this slight easing of controls into a whirlwind success. And this despite the insurmountable odds faced when opening a business your government begrudgingly had no choice but to permit. Owners of Paladares, and you will hopefully talk to many of them, have to jump through hoops and tackle bureaucracy you only thought existed in movies… However, these are the people who are the fledgling generation a democratic Cubans

So, hopefully as an American you´ll need no coaxing to use Paladares as much as you can when dining out in Cuba. It’s not easy to shun these mythical places like Bodegita del Medio, El Aljibe or the Tropicana Cabaret, we know this but, by using these family owned restaurants you’re directly empowering the Cubans who work there, their families, relatives and friends, rather than a massive government tourism cash machine which controls everything.

Accommodation

All previously mentioned comments apply here. All hotels in Cuba are owned by the government. Don´t be fooled by the names of say Sol Melia, Barcelo or Accor Hotels that emblazon hotels in Cuba. These are simply management companies who have either leased for X years the property in question or, are simply guests of the Cuban government to run their properties while it suits them. Likewise, Cuban employees are paid the customary 24 USD per month but, conversely, foreign staffs are paid thousands of dollars per month while working side by side with their Cuban colleagues.

On the other hand, due to economic strife and also to tax Cubans who were (illegally) renting out their rooms to foreign tourists, long before this became legal, the Cuban government reluctantly allowed this form of private enterprise, again, begrudgingly tolerated.

Actually, few know that the licensing of Casa Particulars began three months prior to the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II because the Cuban Government wanted to extend an olive branch of pseudo liberation to its people before his arrival but, also because at the time there were simply not enough hotel rooms in Havana to accommodate the throng of visitors. During the subsequent years a massive crack down ensued under the then Fidel Castro to try and eradicate this form of self employment. Thankfully, the attempt failed but many Cubans lost their family homes for having rented more than one bedroom etc. Very sad.

Today however, Casa Particulars are less of a stigma to the government, probably because in these very difficult times, they charge each home owner around 250 CUC (almost one year’s Cuban salary) per bedroom and per month in licensing duty. Yes, Cubans who rent out their bedrooms to you pay around 10 days of the nightly rent just to be able to do it.

With all this said, you should need no further enticing to stay at a Casa Particular whenever you can. The money you pay will help the Cuban families who have risen up as entrepreneurs to pay the draconian licensing rights but, above all, we Americans will show each and every Casa owner who Americans really are and what we are about. Whether it is a casual chat over breakfast or that special meal you offered to the owners as a thank you, they´ll receive one grain of your culture. This people to people exchange is precisely what Cubans need now, more than ever.

Getting around

We won´t beleaguer the point, you already got it, right? All rental cars, official taxis, buses and airplanes are owned, controlled and run by the government. When you rent a car for 3 times the monthly Cuban salary “per day” you are paying the government this money. Not the smiley gentlemen who kindly completed your contract and helped you carry your luggage. Same applies to every other “official” form of transport. However, as with the aforementioned cases, the Cuban Government got tired of confiscating cars from entrepreneurial Cubans who were simply trying to make ends meet by ferrying a few tourists around the town and begrudgingly allowed private taxi licenses. These are the sometimes beaten up cars that swerve in quickly when they see an obvious tourist and beg to take you “somewhere”. These private taxis, most of the time lacking the accoutrement’s of air-con, air bags and nice seats also pay “licensing” rights to the Cuban Government to use their own cars, fuel and time to try and make a buck. Using these taxis, although counter-intuitive, is again a way of getting your dollars straight to the Cubans who need them.

CUP payments

CUP or the Cuban Peso is the money Cubans use and get paid in at their government jobs. The second currency, created purely as a parallel tourist dollar to bilk visitors, is the CUC or Cuban Convertible peso. Cubans can´t afford to pay 1 CUC for a coffee because 1 CUC is more than one day’s salary to them. Yes, we know it sounds crazy but, your morning coffee at a government run slick tourist trap costs as much as the person who is serving it gets paid for that whole days work. However, this parallel system brings dividends to you as an American because; if you want to help real Cubans you can change 1 CUC into 24 CUP and get a coffee on a street corner for less than 5 cents. You´ll also be getting coffee where millions of Cubans have no choice but to get theirs with all the kudos that comes with mixing in with the general population. This is but one example but there are many more. For instance, if you’re on a budget and want a pizza or some rice and beans, these can be had on a street corner for less than 10 cents. The same food served (and often worse) at a tourist trap, although served on a nice clean plate will cost you 10-15 times more. Of course, there´s one very important point here though. When you pay in CUP to a Cuban street vendor you are paying him and him alone. He´s the one who gets the benefits of your hard earned dollars. Food for thought.

As an American “I did my part to help”

Gifts

That old Ipod you upgraded for new one with more gigabytes some years ago, the old film camera you have not used since you got the digital, your old shirts you no longer fit into, those sunglasses that went out of fashion last spring, they´re all remnants of our consumer society. In Cuba these items will be like gold, bringing smiles and friendship to all those who receive them. If it’s your first trip, don´t leave this until your next trip. You´ll wish you hadn´t a few days after arriving. It’s so hard to conceive just how few material items Cubans actually have. But you bet, they want more just like any other human being on our planet, they want betterment in life and material goods are the basic rewards we give ourselves through life. You´re old stuff will do just fine. Therefore, make the effort, clean out that draw, dig out those old boxes and take some small gifts with you. Don´t just hand them to your casa owner, he/she already has access to more foreigners than most people. No, go out, wander around and make some kid or person happy by giving. This is what we Americans are about, let us not forget this. Our generosity is world renowned so carry the flag, ok?

Over generosity

Don´t single out a few lucky ones and bombard them with gifts and trinkets. Beyond being the height of bad taste, it may also have the opposite effect you were trying to achieve. Instead of making the beneficiary happy he/she will become the envy of friends, family and neighbors. Sort of the “chosen one” if you like, this is obviously counterproductive because all Cubans should receive an equal dose of your limited hospitality if you are to earn respect and make the right impression. However, it’s easy to take a liking to just a few people but, we urge you to do everything in moderation. Be fair.

Final note

All forms of free enterprise in Cuba are begrudged by the government. Don´t think for a second that these have been allowed to liberate Cubans. Each and every one is a daily reminder to pro government Cubans that their system has failed and, this sentiment is made obvious by the officials who police these businesses each and every day via draconian rules imposed upon those Cubans who have decided to “go it alone”. So negative was the government image portrayed of these “cuenta propistas” or self employed some years ago that they inherited the name more commonly used by government supporters for Cuban Americans, the infamous “gusanos” or worms. While today, again due to these tough economic times, the government has endeavored to correct this image they themselves promoted some years ago, Cuban entrepreneurs still feel like outcasts. That is until you show up and make it all worthwhile…Right?

 

American in Cuba 101

 

 




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