These Cubans Were Proud to Tell Us Why They Can’t Wait to Leave
By Jamey Melcher
“The USA and Cuba. We have two problems between us. The governments.” We heard this expression from many of the Cuban people we met. Or “It’s not the people, it’s the government” more often than any other greeting.
I’m no political scientist or sociologist. I’m just an obsessive travel junkie and student of different cultures. One lesson I have learned is that the best classroom is a new, never before visited location. Cuba did not disappoint.
The Cuban people were outstanding teachers on the subject of their home country. In fact, I was blown away by how much I didn’t know about daily life for Cubans before my trip and conversations there.
This country, which is typically described as 90 miles away from the USA, is not a tropical vacation paradise. It’s nothing like the Mexican Yucatan, Jamaica, or the Dominican Republic which US tourists regularly visit.
Cuba Travel Isn’t Easy
Travel isn’t easy in Cuba. Americans can’t use credit or debit cards, the internet is spotty and unreliable, and transportation is slow.
But, I will definitely be going back because my discussions with the people I met were far more fulfilling than any beach resort or swim-up bar could possibly be.
The Cubans we talked to are resourceful, curious, generous, and also absolutely furious. When they had the opportunity to share their stories, even with the threat of government minders close by, they did so without holding back.
I had a lot of questions. In Havana, why are there so many street portraits of Che but very few of Fidel?
“Because Che had an open mind. He wanted people to think for themselves. Fidel didn’t want freedom for the people.”
Alejandro, our hiking guide in the Vinales Valley, was eager to answer my questions and explain life under the Cuban government.
Once we were alone, without other Cubans who could potentially overhear and report his conversation to the authorities, Alejandro spoke freely.
He was educated as a social worker, but the government job he had been prepared for was essentially a monitor, a spy.
He spent his days riding in fuel trucks or fishing boats making sure the drivers didn’t stop to sell gasoline on the black market.
About 8 years ago, when many Cubans first began to access the internet, Alejandro learned what it meant to be a social worker in other parts of the world.
That’s when he left his official government job and started earning far more money by showing tourists the Cuban countryside that he loves.
He is also trying to navigate the expensive and difficult process of getting a passport, visa, and permission to travel to the US as a musician.
His application for travel — over 11 documents are required for this request – will likely take about 10 months and he’s hopeful but not counting on it being approved.
Why will taxi drivers only take dollars, but shop owners only take Cuban pesos?
Valentina, the rental manager of our casa in Havana, supports herself, her two-year-old son, and her mother by hosting tourists and cleaning rental units.
She was happy to arrange a currency exchange for us, but she made it very clear that she would not partake in the transaction from dollars to pesos.
Why? Because officially the Cuban peso is the only currency allowed in the country, and to receive payment in dollars would be an illegal activity.
At least that was her concern, and when the government’s rules or tolerance for such actions is so capricious, I can’t blame her.
Risking the Transaction
Taxi drivers and others who can’t resist the stability that the dollar offers, are willing to risk the transaction and prefer payment in US dollars or Euros only.
This is certainly a convenience for the foreign traveler, but definitely not something you can count on.
So, at least two currencies are necessary when traveling in Cuba, and of course, for the US traveler cash is the only way you can spend money there.
Although the official exchange rate was 1 USD to 24 CUP, the street rate was 1 USD to 160 CUP when we were there in December 2022. That’s because in the past year, Cuba has experienced an inflation rate as high as 500% by some calculations.
Life is hard for Cubans. There are long lines to get into mostly empty stores that were once stocked with food and essentials like cooking oil or soap.
There is little medicine, power outages are common, and Cubans are attempting to migrate to the US, Central America, or Europe in historic numbers.
“I’m afraid my country will be a place of old, sick people within a couple of years”
Mario is a teacher at the University in Havana. He’s passionate about his country and also at the boiling point of frustration with his government. He makes about $20 per month.
It takes about 3 hours one way to navigate the 17-mile ride on a crowded bus from his apartment to his job. He is 30 years old and has seen many of the professionals in his generation leave Cuba because “The promise of socialism isn’t the reality.”
“We always said socialism is the road to capitalism,” Mario told us. “But Cuba didn’t do socialism right, and now the government is trying to control capitalism for their own profit.”
Cubans Understanding the Outside World
When internet access became more widely available, at least to those in Havana, in the mid-2010s, educated Cubans like Mario began to understand the world outside their island for the first time.
It has led to unrest, like in July 2021 when Cubans protested publicly in a rare show of opposition to the government.
Cuba is a beautiful country, with romantic city architecture that is crumbling around the people who live in it. The agrarian way of life outside the cities has a peaceful, century-old feel to it.
It’s an easy place to fall in love with, for a visitor. It’s an incredibly frustrating place to live, for Cubans who can’t find a way to improve it.
The people we spoke to are poised for a change, a move into the modern world, but currently don’t see a way to get there without leaving Cuba.
Tips for Americans Traveling to Cuba in 2023
You must have a Cuban tourist card, sometimes called a visa, and declare a reason for travel. You can apply for the tourist card online, and Support of the Cuban People is the easiest category of travel to select.
Americans traveling to Cuba must support the Cuban people directly and may not spend money at government-run hotels or resorts. Casa particulars are homes or apartments rented by Cubans and a great variety can be found on Airbnb.
Most casa particulars will provide guests with a meal or two for a small additional charge – Cuban food is often about $5 per meal.
American debit or credit cards will not work in Cuba and you can not exchange money prior to your arrival. Bring as much cash (and a little additional) as you will need for your entire stay. Drivers will accept US dollars, but many restaurants or merchants will only take Cuban Pesos.
Your casa host is your best resource for money exchange, but you can also find many street vendors willing to change dollars for pesos.
Arrange transportation from the airport or throughout the island with your casa host. Use a private taxi or taxi colectivo instead of the bus system. Typical costs from Havana airport to locations in Havana Vieja are $15-20.
Havana is beautiful, but make sure to get out of the city. Head to the beach towns along the north coast, the tobacco plantations and farmland of Pinar Del Rio, or if time allows to the expansive eastern part of the island.
Be patient! Travel is slow, lines are long, and the way of life requires a slower pace than you might be used to.
The names of Cubans in this story have been altered for their safety and privacy.
Jamey Melcher is an avid traveler favoring unusual and adventurous destinations over the more commonplace ones. Biking, hiking, and meeting new people are her favorite travel activities.
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One thought on “What I Learned from Talking to Cuban People in 2022”
Thank you for this article. Hopefully soon the Cuban people will achieve the dignity freedom offer: a free press, freedom of assembly, of expression.