Since I’m from the Estados Unidos (more fittingly known as ‘Estamos Jodidos,’ or the independent republic of ‘We’re Screwed’), very few friends have visited me here on the “wrong side” of the Straits (see note 1). The lengths the US goes to keep Cuba down makes me indignant, but also sad since my peeps haven’t been able to experience this place for themselves and draw their own conclusions as to how good (or not so) things are in my world.
Last week however, the friend blockade was broken by some dear old amigos who finally made the leap and turned up for a visit.
As you might expect, they had lots of questions about governance and control, salaries and employment, the burgeoning private sector, tourism, race relations, emigration and myriad other aspects of Cuban life. Their curiosity and desire to better understand the sometimes unfathomable reality that is Cuba, forced me into a thoughtful analysis of the mundane, germane, and slightly insane features of life here.
Since the contemporary Cuban reality is so complex and different from what most people know, I’ve developed several rules of thumb for travelers wanting to maximize their Cuba visit. Part philosophical, part practical, the following complement Trip Tips: Havana Independently, posted in these pages some time ago.
– 8 out of 10 people approaching you on the street want something. ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Where you from?’ and ‘Hello, my fren! Francia?! Italia?!’ are the most common lines used on new arrivals by jineteros. These are always asked with a good dose of charm in some of the best English you’re likely to hear in Cuba and it usually takes a couple of days before visitors get clued in to the hustle.
Conner’s Rule of Thumb #1: Deny hustlers an easy opening by eschewing clothing or accessories that identify your nationality and learn a few deterring phrases. These might include ‘déjame en paz’ (leave me alone) or for those who won’t take no for an answer: ‘no te metes conmigo, coño’ (don’t mess with me damn it). If you’re a hustler magnet (or hater), consider steering clear of tourist hot spots in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana altogether. In the end, all foreigners are seen as rubes and marks regardless of station, education, or experience.
– Cubans tell you what they think you want to hear. As a rule, foreigners receive the ‘poor oppressed us’ line first. A sympathy ploy laced with political assumption, this tactic is tiresome for its banality and blatant disregard for facts. You’ll be told, for example, about the stiff penalties incurred for killing a cow, but this ‘woe’s me’ contingent will conveniently leave out the part about the government guaranteeing milk for all children under 7, pregnant women, and other vulnerable groups – the reason cows are protected property. Cubans renting rooms in their houses are notorious for this type of incomplete picture peddling, complaining to clients about the taxes levied upon their business. What they neglect to mention is that their income-earning homes are provided by the government virtually rent-free. Wanting a rent-free property to run a business and be tax exempt? That’s chutzpah.
But this cuts both ways. If, for instance, you evidence respect and awe for the Cuban Revolution, you’re likely to hear about free education and the wonders of organic farming. What you won’t necessarily hear about are the overcrowded dormitories with shitty food and water shortages or the country’s experiments with genetically-modified crops.
Conner’s Rule of Thumb #2: Cubans tend to see things as black and white, when the truth more often resides in the gray. When picking a Cuban’s brain, always consider the source and listen to the complainers very closely: you’ll likely hear the axe they’re grinding loud and clear.
– You can’t ‘fix’ Cuba. There’s an especially annoying type of tourist who after two weeks here is convinced they’ve got it all figured, that they know precisely how to fix what’s broken (see note 2). Their simplistic ideas often disregard the complexities of Cuban society and illustrate a woeful ignorance of history, geo-politics, even the weather. For example, if you think hurricanes have little connection to health and housing in Cuba, you might be this type of visitor. Even after living here for 9 years, I can’t figure it all out and while it’s possible some tourist is better positioned to analyze Cuba, it’s not likely.
Conner’s Rule of Thumb #3: The more you know about Cuba, the less you understand. Remember: it’s better to remain silent and appear a fool than open your mouth and prove it. If you’re truly keen to learn, read widely before your trip, ask lots of questions once here, and avoid declarations.
– The more things change, the more they stay the same. Huge, watershed changes are taking place here, but at its core, Cuba is still Cuba. It’s a cultural constancy that may be drawing to a close as market forces gather momentum, but I’m not so sure. Consider this quote:
It is plain there is a good deal to be learned here…Things which we cannot do without, we must go out of the house to find, and those which we can do without we must dispense with. This is odd and strange, but not uninteresting and affords scope for contrivance and the exercise of influence and other administrative powers…I must inform myself on the subject of this strange development of capital over labor.”
– Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
What’s so interesting about this observation is that it could have easily been made yesterday, but dates from 1859.
Conner’s Rule of Thumb #4: Cuba is evolving, but not necessarily in the direction or way you or I might think (or want). Though the steps people take to maintain balance might change, the fact that the ground is always moving never does. Do like Cubans and roll with it.
– No coge lucha. Threats to national sovereignty notwithstanding, Cubans don’t take too much too seriously, preferring to get and go along over fussing and fighting. I’m convinced it has something to do with the weather – this heat is enough to wither anyone’s defenses – but is probably also related to the fact that there is so little housing and employment movement here, if you piss a neighbor or co-worker off, you’re in for a lifetime of problems.
Conner’s Rule of Thumb #5: Don’t get your knickers in a twist if things don’t go as planned or a government drone isn’t cooperating. Have a sense of humor, laugh it off and follow the old axiom: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
Writing all this, I realize I’d be wise to take my own advice!
1. For anyone new to this blog +/o US-Cuba relations, the freedom for US citizens and residents to travel to the island has been restricted for 50 years. As I type this, the House Appropriations Committee has just voted to reverse the small opening Obama offered US travelers wanting to travel to Cuba.
2. These types really chap my ass, almost as much as the Cuban émigré who hasn’t been here in 20 years or worse, the person sitting at their computer who has never been here.