With tourism on the up, it’s clear Cuba’s intricacies continue to capture the imagination. The capital Havana is 230 miles south of Miami, but a world away in many respects.
Since the revolution Cuba has invested little in infrastructure or importing cars, mainly as a result of the blockade imposed by the United States. Smoky cadillacs dominate Havana’s streets lending to a feeling of being transported back to the 1950s.
Without investment, the cars are in a terrible condition though. Taxi doors sporadically pop open as excessive use means they no longer remain fixed in place. In few places will you see so many people trying desperately to get their car to start at the side of busy streets.
One local told me he wished to sell his car. By any measure it was in a poor state. The back doors barely closed without a vicious bang, the passenger seat’s window needed to be removed and reinserted when the door was open, almost the entire interior had been shredded, while the car frequently cut out. His asking price? 10,000 euro.
“There’s so few cars available that people will pay insane amounts for a piece of junk. This country is crazy I’m telling you”, he said.
For a tourist Havana isn’t cheap. The country operates a complicated dual currency system where one is pegged to the dollar and is mostly used in tourism-centred businesses; taxis, restaurants, hotels and so on. The other is the local currency.
The latter is 1/24th the value of the tourist currency and it leads to some peculiarities. I encountered one woman whose job it was to hail taxis on the street for tourists. Her previous job was as a doctor. Because her current work deals in the tourist currency, she could make more money hailing taxis than healing people.
As a result of the dual currency, everything in Cuba has two sides. Get a taxi from outside a hotel, pay in the tourist currency and it will likely cost you about half what a taxi in Ireland would. Hail one from the street, which doesn’t bring you to your destination but goes in a general direction and also picks up people along the way, expect to pay in the local currency at a cost of 20 cent.
Tourism is booming in Cuba and the trends only point upwards. With relations with the United States improving, Cuba could see an additional million people visit in the coming years on top of the three million that already come annually.
In late-November I couldn’t find a room in a hotel in the city for more than two nights as everything was booked out. It meant staying with a host family in a backroom they rent out. It’s a popular concept in Havana, as families are desperate to receive the tourist currency just like everyone else.
Shortages in supermarkets remains an issue, especially with goods like toilet paper. Walking into one supermarket, half the aisles were full with the bathroom product. It seemed that once it comes in, all the locals stock up so as not to be left short when the shelves empty again.
Few locals in Cuba have internet at home; those that do have found crafty ways to beat the system. It’s a system heavily regulated by the state, which operates Wifi zones as the only places where you can connect. At two euro for one hour of dial-up speed internet, Cuba remains far behind most of the rest of the world in terms of connectivity.
As I was leaving, and against this backdrop, I noted a peculiar entrance in the guestbook of the hotel. “Havana is amazing, gorgeous city. I hope it doesn’t change too much now that Cuba is opening up”. I wonder to what extent the locals would agree?
Journalist Fergal Browne was funded under the summer 2015 round to travel to Cuba to report on Cuba’s health diplomacy. Read Fergal’s first blog post on the topic here.