A little off-brand here, but I spent last week in Cuba for Spring Break with fellow Harvard students, and wanted to share my thoughts on the trip. It was one of the most outer-worldly travel experiences I’ve had, and I feel lucky that I got to see the country at the dawn of a lot of great change it is starting to experience. Below are my unfiltered, high-level impressions of the experience: the country, ideology and the great people I met.
1. Communism objectively doesn’t work: Cuba feels like a country in a time lapse. The old cars, crumbling infrastructure, lack of cell phones and many modern amenities. It’s surprising to know that time has virtually stopped here. The country doesn’t feel destitute, but clearly is suffering from 60+ years of decline. The infrastructure is weak and inefficient and most notably the interpersonal relationships such as service suffer because these people are not incentivized to do a good job. Cubans are warm and friendly, but the standards for service are very different.
2. The propaganda machine is real: they brainwash against Americans and capitalism via propaganda, but people of our generation are starting to question what they know. That being said, it doesn’t feel like they want to do much about it in the short term, and the government still seems wary of really allowing foreign direct investment to open it up.
They still heavily regulate communications with the “outside word.” For example, did you know that Cubans were not allowed to leave Cuba until 2008? Most Cubans have never left this island. I knew about the travel ban inward, but I didn’t realize the reverse was also true. To make matters worse, even though they are allowed to travel now, the government makes it nearly impossible to obtain a passport, rendering it still essentially impossible to travel. Finally, because they have so little money and no means of making extra money on the side, even if they could obtain a passport, they wouldn’t be able to afford to travel. Very sad.
But! There seems to be a ton of fanfare and open-mindedness around Obama’s visit.
3. The food and accommodations in Cuba are not ready for tourism: I can’t figure out if it’s due to lack of good produce or lack of skill, but it’s very surprising how bad the food is. The accommodations are also pretty rundown but I can’t tell if it’s a function of where we chose to stay.
4. Havana is a fantastic city, and I see why this is such an attractive tourist destination. There is real culture and activity, and the beaches are beautiful. The nightlife and music scene are vibrant, the colorful buildings of Havana make wandering the streets enjoyable, and the beaches are relatively underpopulated.
5. Being a tourist here is not like being a tourist anywhere else. Agendas and itineraries are subject to changes at the whim of the government, but we are never in control. We wanted to do things on our own, and the tour guide told us we were not allowed to. We can’t peel away from the group in major ways (ex take a taxi back to Havana for the last night when we wanted to leave the beach). We also couldn’t request a schedule change because the government owns the bus and they decided that they did not approve of the change. Finally, we couldn’t change our flights last night when our plane was delayed 8+ hours until 3am, because you can’t simply buy a new plane ticket. Everything is still heavily monitored.