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Cuba FAQ

Date: Sun,  2 Jul 1995 15:03:22 UTC

I have been to Cuba two times, during the summer of 1994 and 1995.  I
stayed most of the time in central Havana.  In the following I am going to
provide you with some information which I hope may be useful for other
travellers to Cuba.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has been in what is called
the "special period."  Food is rationed, but one's monthly food allowance
is ridiculously low.  Salaries, which are payed in Cuban pesos, have
remained unchanged, but there is hardly anything available to buy for
pesos these days.  The US dollar is the other legal currency in this
country.  The person who has dollars can get a lot of things in Cuba,
but prices are comparable to those of other countries.  The country has
had deflation, and dollar prices were somewhat lower in 1995 than in 1994.
Pesos can be exchanged to dollars, but a normal monthly salary of 150
pesos amounts to 4 dollars in 1995.  In 1994 the same salary would equal
only a little more than one dollar.

Needless to say, even though the value of the Cuban peso has increased
with 300% in one year, it makes little difference to Cubans, since a
fried chicken at a restaurant would still cost two weeks pay.  I have
been told that the situation is actually worse this year since there are
even fewer things available now that one can pay for directly in pesos.

Most Cubans survive by obtaining dollars from relatives abroad, or from
tourists visiting Cuba.

The people

The best thing with Cuba is its people.  They are friendly, fairly educated
and try to enjoy life in spite of their hard situation.  They like to sing,
dance salsa and to drink rum.  If they can, they will treat you with
whatever little they have.  The tourist who speaks Spanish will make many
friends, not all necessary genuine, however.  Some may have an explicit
purpose in trying to make friends with you, such as convincing you to buy
black market Cuban cigars.  Some people expect you to treat them to
something, others do not, but they will all be very happy if you do.
A beer costs around one dollar, and a fried chicken with home fries is
about two dollars.

According to some estimates, more than 60% of the Cubans are black.
Racial mixing does not appear to be very common.  There is some racism and
provinsialism in the Cuban society.  Whites resent blacks, and original
Havana citizens resent the people from the eastern provinces ("Oriente")
who have migrated to Havana in search of a better life.  A surprising
amount of the people that you meet on the street, who want to be your
friends, turn out to be from Oriente.  This may be because most of these
people are unemployed, so they have plenty of time to search for potential
tourist friends.  Incidentally, being unemployed is illegal in Cuba.

As a rule of thumb, any man under 35 and any woman under 30 that approaches
you, may be trying to hustle in one way or another.  It may just be an
attempt to be treated to a drink or lunch, but it could also be an attempt
to sell you bad cigars, drugs, or to get you housing or transportation for
a comission.  Older people usually have a couple of relatives living abroad
who are supplying them with hard currency.  These people may still be
involved in black market business, but since they do not have the same
pressing need they are usually more honest than the younger Cubans.

The girls

The girls that are the easiest to find are usually black and from Oriente.
I think the girls in the Dominican Republic, which are all mixed race,
are more beautiful than these Cuban girls.  But the black Cubans do not
have the same dark complexion as the Haitians.  There are also white girls,
but they may be a little bit harder to find and there are fewer of them.
Actually just about any unmarried Cuban girl is available, many of them
just don't know about it, until they make friends with a tourist.

I do not think many Cubans, in particular the girls from Oriente, speak
much English, so you should better practice your Spanish before you visit.
Of course, there are always some girls who speak foreign languages, but
your choices will be limited.

Many girls who I would call prostitutes do not use that word on themselves.
They prefer to call themselves "jineteras."  Anyone who makes a black
market living on tourists is a "jinetera" or "jinetero."  The word means
"horse rider."  The horse in this case is the tourist.
There are varying opinions on what it takes to be a jinetero.  Somebody
said that any Cuban that does not have relatives abroad that are
supporting him must be a jinetero of some sort.  Or else he be starved to
death.  But I have also been told that a girl was not a jinetera if she
had sex with tourists for money out of pure necessity.  A girl that would
continue doing this even if her most immediate needs were resolved,
however, would be a jinetera.  I wonder what it takes to be labeled a
prostitute in Cuba?

You can pick a different girl each night but chances are that some of
these girls will not want to leave you.   Tourists in Cuba are a scarce
commodity, and one does not let a good tourist go very easily.  Sometimes
the girl needs to go home during the day, because she has a child to take
care of, but she may want to come back later.  Be sure to make sure with
the girl whether you want to see her again.   I have had uninvited girls
knocking on my door at all ours, including in the middle of the night.
In a couple of cases, I opened the door, after long periods of persistent
knocking.  The girl that was outside stormed in and started fighting with
the girl that was currently in my bedroom.

If the girl does not have to go home to her family during the day, she
might become your girlfriend for 24 hours a day, possibly until the end
of your stay.  You may not have to pay her any money, but you you will
have to feed her, and take her on a shopping spree.  The Cuban girls seem
to need an incredible amount of clothes, and they hardly ever have any
clothes when they meet you.  Shopping for clothes could easily cost 100
dollars if you are not careful, so whether it is worthwile for you depends
on how often you go shopping and how often you switch girlfriends.  The
girl will protect you from hustlers, but she is usually a bad sightseeing
guide since she has not had the time to visit any of the museums in Havana
since her arrival from Oriente.

Almost all of these girls want to leave Cuba, and if you are not too old
they will probably beg you to marry them and to take them with you.  And
if you turn down the proposal, they will ask you to write an invitation
letter and host them in your country for a couple of months.  Although
this could possibly be an interesting idea for some, if the girl defects
while she is hosted by you, there is a chance that you will run into
legal trouble, and you might never be allowed to invite anyone to your
country again.

Your friends may introduce you to "normal" Cuban girls.  You should not
offer these girls any money for sex up front, as they may be insulted.
They do however have the same necessity as other Cubans, so if you have
sex, you should take them shopping for clothes and give them money for
food.  It is safest to find normal girls by oneself or through female
friends.  The guy that introduces you to a girl, or the girls "cousin"
or "brother" that often accompanies you, is most likely the girls
boyfriend, or husband, acting as a pimp.  Although one might be able to
take that, chances are that you will spend more money than you would
otherwise.  And if the girl and her friends are dishonest and lying to
you, chances are they may suddenly disappear with some of your belongings,
or rob you before you leave.

Where to find the girls

It is easy to find girls, or rather, the girls will find you easily.
They are cheap, but many have fairly regular looks, the beauties may be
harder to find.

In the summer months, the walled beach boulevard, the Malecon, is filled
with people sitting on the seawall.  Just walk along the Malecon after
sunset and you will be approached.  Chances are also good that you will
find someone during the day.  In the old town, La Habana Vieja, there is
a parade street called Prado, with a park separating a the two lanes.
During the day Prado is often filled with Cubans who are swaping
apartments.  But at night the scene changes.  Loads of girls and black
market types used to hang out on the benches of the Prado after dark in
1994.  In 1995 Prado was not quite as good, primarily because of a police
crackdown on prostitution in that area, and a lot of people who used to
be there were said to be in prison, either in Cuba or in the US naval
base at Guantanamo.

Cuba is one of the few countries in Latin America where it is safe to walk
around alone after dark.  Muggings and other violent crime is almost
unheard of.  Bag snatching is fairly common however.  Carry bags and
cameras in a firm grip during the day, and if possible leave them at home
at night.  Do not wear any chains as these may be torn from your body.
The thieves usually approach you on a bicycle at high speed.  The ones I
have seen are pretty amateurish and did not succeed in stealing anything.
If there are witnesses, they will often try to chase the thief.

Other places to find girls are outside hotels.  Unescorted Cubans are not
supposed to be allowed to enter hotels, but some of these girls become
close friends with the security guards.  There are a number of hotels along
Prado that are worth checking out.  These are Caribbean, Lido, Inglaterra,
Plaza and Sevilla.  The hotels all have bars in the lobby, but if there
are any girls there depends on the security guards, and it seems to change
from time to time.  In 1995 there were girls in Carribean and Plaza.

Other hotels include Deauville along the Malecon.  That area is a popular
night spot since there are two outdoor restaurants next to the hotel.
Further along the Malecon you will get to a more modern part of Havana
called Vedado.  There are lot of hotels here, the two fanciest being
Habana Libre and Nacional, both of which are clearly visible at a
distance while walking along the Malecon.  You will find a lot of single
girls outside these hotels and at bars and restaurants surrounding them.

There are also a lot of girls waiting for a new friend outside discos.
These girls are often more beautiful than the average girls that roam the
streets, and not all of them are black.  Some discos have a cover charge
of 2 up to 10 dollars, other simply do not allow unescorted women.  What
places are popular seem to change, so your best bet is to ask around.
A taxi driver always knows, although he may not recommend the nearest
disco.  In 1994 popular places included the disco at the Commodoro hotel,
El Palacio de la Salsa and a floating disco called El Galeon.  In 1995,
there was a new disco next to Hotel Riviera called something like Che
Cohiba.  In Habana Vieja there was a new disco along Prado at La Union
Arabe, and there is El Patio Colonial, where there is a disco at midnight
after the live show.

Where to take the girl

Hotels do not allow overnight guests, but it is possible to bend the
rules by bribing the security guard.   This is routinely done for 10
dollars at Carribean and Lido.  These two are also the cheapest hotels,
where a room costs 20-30 dollars.  Other hotels may have several security
guards so bribing may not be as easy, but if possible at all it will
definitely be more expensive.  It might be possible to register your
friend at the front desk, but this will be pretty expensive too.  If you
bribe the guard he will wake you up when his shift ends, usually at 6 am,
to make sure that the girl leaves the hotel.  This makes maintaining a
longer relationship with a girl a complicated and expensive business.

Fortuantely, near all hotels there are Cubans who have rooms or entire
apartments for rent.  Ask around for a "casa particular."  Prices range
from 8-15 dollars for a room to 12-25 dollars for an entire apartment.
For 15 dollars you should get a private bathroom, king size bed, fan,
and a fridge or a/c or possibly both.  Make sure you get a key of your
own so that you do not have to wake up the landlady when you get home
late at night.

Although Havana suffers from power outages, the areas surrounding hotels
usually have power all the time.  However, there is usually only running
water for a couple of hours every day.  Make sure you understand how the
water supply works before you rent anything.  Many places have a large
water tank that is used when the pipes are dry and it is refilled
automatically when the water returns.  At other places, however, the
landlady provides you with a bucket of water, so you will have to take a
Chinese style shower.

If a "friend" is showing you a "casa particular" and the prices are higher
than quoted above, he is probably intimidating the landlady to ask for a
higher price, expecting to get several dollars in commission on your daily
rent.  Try to come back later, without your friend, and prices may
suddenly have dropped.  In any case you should have a look at several
rooms, as the standard varies.  The rooms in Habana Vieja can be in
pretty bad shape, and you will find nicer and quieter places in Vedado.

When I fill in the paperwork and talk to immigration officers on arrival
in Cuba, I say that I am going to stay at a hotel, which I mention by
name.  But then I proceed directly to a private house, unless it is very
late at night.  I much rather sponsor a Cuban family by renting a room
in their house than giving the money directly to the Cuban government.
Many of the hotels are very overpriced considering the miserable condition
of the rooms.

Keep in mind that providing private housing is illegal (I am not sure if
this is always true.)  The family that provides the housing could get
into big trouble if authorities found out, but you as a tourist face no
risk of reprisal.  I don't give out the address to anyone, not even at
airline offices.  Once the police insisted on doing me a favor by driving
me back to my hotel, and I had to invent an excuse in order to avoid it.

Taking the girl from a disco to your house, and transportation in general,
can be arranged through private taxis.  Most of them are illegal.  They
sometimes drive quaint US cars from the 50'ies.  Fares range from one to
a few dollars depending on the distance and your bargaining skills.
Drivers or touts working on a commission can be found outisde all of the
hotels in Vedado and outside Hotel Inglaterra in Habana Vieja.  A legal
taxi, has a sign saying "Turistaxi."  They are metered, and are always
more expensive.  Taxis for Cubans have a sign that says only "Taxi."
Apparently these taxis have certain routes they must drive, with or
without passengers.  These taxis are supposed to charge only in pesos,
but the drivers seem to refuse Cubans who pay in pesos, and now only take
passengers that pay with dollars.  These taxis are a little bit harder to
find, but are usually cheaper than the black market taxis.  From the
airport, it is 15 dollars with a "Turistaxi", 10 dollars with a private
taxi, and 6 dollars with a Cuban "Taxi."

Girls and the police

When walking around with your girlfriend, make sure to hold hands if you
see the police.  Since there is little traditional crime in Cuba, the
police apparently does not have much to do, and they have begun a
crackdown on prostitution.  Anyone (male or female) who is talking to a
tourist and does not seem to be a very good friend of the tourist, may be
stopped by the police.  The police will ask to see the persons ID booklet
and girls will routinely be taken to the station and charged with
prostitution.  A repeat offender will have to pay a hefty fine.  If the
girl does not have the means to pay the fine, well, off the record at
least, she can have sex with the arresting officer.  This also probably
saves her from being arrested very often in the future.  I have observed
that while some girls are afraid of the police, others hug and kiss the
officers and they never seem to get arrested.

Cubans are treated as second class citizens in their own country.  You,
the tourist, is the first class citizen.  If you and your Cuban girl are
holding hands it will be clear to the police that you are good friends,
and nothing will happen.  If she is arrested, however, you should follow
her to the station and refuse to leave until she is released.  Say that
she is your fiancee, that you are about to marry soon.  If the officers
say she is a prostitute, you can say that it must have been before you
met her.  Also threaten to call your embassy (unless you are a US citizen!)
Nothing will ever happen to you as long as you behave respectfully and
within legal limits at the police station.  A tourist friend lost his
temper in this very situation and punched an officer in the face.  He had
to sleep on the concrete floor in a cell for two days.

What to buy

One may be approached more than a dozen times every day by people who
want to sell Cuban cigars.  A box of cigars can be bought at a store for
90 dollars.  The people who sell them on the street say that they work
at the factory and that it is part of their free allowance, or that they
stole them from the factory.  Other Cubans, including the police, have
told me that these cigars are invariably counterfeit.  I do not know what
is true since I never bought any, but somebody told me that even if the
cigars are counterfeit, they are still Cuban cigars, and as such much
better than most.  Remember that it is illegal to enter Cuban cigars to
the US.

The other thing to buy is Cuban rum.  The cheaper ones, which can be
bought on the street for one or two dollars taste pretty bad, but I like
the Havana Club that has been aged 5 years.

Almost anything that is for sale in a store can be bought cheaper on the
street.  The vendors are usually standing right outside the very store
from which the merchandise has been stolen.  Although I would normally
object to buying stolen merchandise, I much rather give my money to a
suffering Cuban than to the Cuban government.

Money

For a trip to Havana, the best thing is to bring a Visa or Master Card
credit card and make cash advances at the bank in the Habana Libre hotel.
Please note that it is not possible to use a credit card that has been
issued by a US bank.  Travellers cheques, from non-US banks, such as
Thomas Cook are accepted.  As far as I know, this is the only bank in
Cuba where one can make a cash advance.  (They might have one in Varadero
too, but I don't know for sure.)  This is worth remembering when planning
for a trip to the interior.

I once travelled with a girl to a nearby city in the interior.  The girl,
who never or very rarely has relationships with foreigners, seemed like
a kid in a candy store as soon as we got close to anywhere they would
sell clothes.  I was constantly worrying whether I had enough cash.  I
gave her my wallet and said, "Look, this is all the cash I have left and
it must last for this two-day excursion.  Take the wallet and spend it
as you please, but remember to leave money for the return trip and for
our food tomorrow.  Make a budget."  Maybe she didn't know what a budget
was, because she spent all of the money the same day, and we couldn't
afford dinner and had to travel back to the bank in Havana the following
morning.  It was fortunate that the taxi driver would drive us all the
way to Havana even though I could not pay him until I went to the bank.

How and when to go

The best time to go to Havana seems to be during the last week of June,
July, and parts or maybe all of August.  This is when most Cubans have
vacation so there will be a lot more people out on the street at night.
Schools have recess, and high school girls from Oriente come to Havana
to make a buck during the summer.  I have been told that the Malecon,
which runs next to the sea, is often flooded during the winter.

Most tourists seem to go to the beach in Varadero, which has its own
airport.  I don't like touristy places so I have never been there.  I
think that if one wants to hang out at a beach, there are other, less
complicated, destinations to choose from that also have beaches.  I
don't know which airlines fly to Varadero but one can get there by taxi
from Havana, although it is a several hours drive.

There are two airlines that fly to Havana from the Dominican Republic,
Cubana which flies from Santo Domingo on Thursdays and Sundays, and
Aerocaribe which flies from Puerto Plata on Mondays and Fridays.  Cubana
also flies to Jamaica.  Lacsa has a flight from Costa Rica.  Viasa flies
from Caracas.  There are flights from Cancun, Mexico, and from Canada.
The cheapest flight from Europe is with Aeroflot through Moscow and
Shannon, but it is also possible to fly with Iberia through Madrid and
with KLM from Amsterdam.  There are other ways of getting to Cuba too,
but I don't remember them all.

Tourists usually need to get a visa in form of a tourist card that is
valid for a month and costs 15 dollars.  The card can be obtained from a
Cuban embassy, but the travel agent that sells the ticket to Cuba usually
also provides a tourist card.  Cuban immigration will put entry and exit
stamps on the card.  If you only transit through Cuba you do not need a
card and they will stamp the passport instead.  This could be a problem if
you are a US citizen since you may have to spend a long time in a US jail
if Uncle Sam finds out that you have visited Cuba.

Good luck.

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