December 18, 2004
Although Cuba welcomes more tourists from Canada than from any other country, some of us don’t know what to expect when we travel to that island paradise. Some travel tips:
Bring a flashlight. Power rationing and cuts, voltage drops and frequency fluctuations, have been getting worse. Blackouts lasting hours are now routine and the government this week hinted that worse electricity shortages may be on the way.
Bring Canadian currency. Cuba now charges a 10% tax to convert U.S. currency. The Canadian dollar can still enter the country duty-free.
Bring toilet paper. But don’t unthinkingly flush it! The little plastic pails commonly found in toilet stalls, including in major buildings such as the Habana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton), are for soiled toilet paper. Because water pressure is often so low that it slows to a trickle, the burden of paper down a toilet can clog a building’s plumbing system.
Don’t bring bottled water. Bottled water is plentiful in Cuba, even if water from the tap is not.
If you’re travelling with children, you’ll notice that public playgrounds tend to be locked during much of the day and that, in any case, most have such meagre equipment, and it is in such disrepair, that you wouldn’t want your children on it. Well maintained public playgrounds for more privileged Cuban children do exist, however, offering not only the swings, slides, and teeter totters common to Canadian playgrounds but also carousels and other more elaborate playground toys. These public playgrounds require a fee for general admission and additional fees to use the more elaborate equipment. The fees exceed a day’s wage for a Cuban, more than sufficient to keep Cuban riffraff out. If you chance upon a nice playground that doesn’t charge user fees, you’ve probably found a private playground for the children of government officials. Poor children can only watch but the attendant won’t object if you let your children try out the equipment.
Many independent tourists get to know ordinary Cubans in their travels and develop a sympathy for the Cuban people, once the most prosperous in the Caribbean, now among the poorest. If you would like to help, there are several ways to do so, even if travelling on a budget:
Bring lots of pharmaceuticals. Cuba has drugs aplenty for those who count – senior officials in the government or military and tourists bringing foreign exchange – but ordinary Cubans are out of luck if they need help, even in life-threatening situations. Drugs are in such short supply, in fact, that the state has ordered doctors not to prescribe medicines that aren’t available to the general public (although many will quietly slip their patients a note describing the medication they need, in hopes they can somehow obtain it). Hospital care is free but patients are expected to bring their own bandages, sheets and food.
By cleaning out your medicine chest at home of supplies that you’re unlikely to use, you can do great good at little trouble and expense. With the collapse of socialized medicine, Cuban churches have become major distributors of donated pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. They will gladly receive any health care products that you can drop off, and bless you for it.
Take a Cuban family out to dinner. Cubans who work in tourism and other government patronage jobs fare relatively well but less favoured workers in the Cuban economy often don’t get enough to eat – their monthly ration cards will only meet about one-third of their food needs. Consider asking them out to dinner. Many Cubans will refuse, both out of fear to be seen with you and from a sense that they won’t be allowed into a better restaurant. But others will jump at the chance to give themselves and their family a treat and enjoy, for example, a piece of chicken or true Cuban coffee (the government exports Cuban coffee, or reserves it for tourists, to earn foreign exchange, and imports cheap Vietnamese coffee, which it mixes with ground chick peas, for distribution via ration cards – less than one ounce of coffee per month).
Leave excess clothes behind in Cuba: Travellers to Cuba often lug spare clothing, to accommodate the variable weather – hot days, cool nights – that they’re likely to encounter. These clothes can become a liability if packing space is required for gifts, souvenirs, and other finds that they want to bring back home. To make room for those souvenirs, consider bringing clothes with you that you can leave behind for needy families (they’re virtually all needy). Don’t worry about offending them. Cubans will receive such gifts with grace and dignity, genuinely grateful even for clothes in need of repair. These industrious people have lots of labour with which to renovate clothes but little fabric or much of anything else.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.