25 Things I Learned About Life In Cuba (After 53 Years of Fidel Castro Rule)

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This article has been syndicated to Her Campus from Sher She Goes, an InfluenceHer Collective member. Read the full post here. 

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When I boarded Fathom’s small ship to head off to Cuba for a week, I had no idea what to expect. I thought perhaps the people might have an aversion to Americans suddenly flooding the country. Perhaps the American / Cuba political thaw might also extend to the people.

It just so happened that the week I spent in Cuba (November 27th – December 4th) was just days after Fidel Castro passed away and the entire country plunged into official mourning for 9 days. This meant no music, no alcohol, no dancing, no nightlife and instead the Cuban people paid their solemn respects and farewells to one of their country’s longest leaders.

What attracted me most about seeing Cuba with Fathom Travel was the opportunity for an immersive, People to People experience where we as tourists would have chance to visit, speak and spend time with local Cubans to understand their daily life and history. Here’s a compilation of what I learned and experienced on that journey.

Life in Cuba

POLITICS

1 Cubans (in Cuba) by and large like and support Fidel Castro. While the Cubans in Miami threw a jubilant celebration, those who remained in Cuba come from a different socioeconomic class and strata of society and were sad at his passing. The exodus of Cubans in the 50s were primarily the rich and supporters of Batista. Meanwhile, the poor, disenfranchised and Castro supporters remained. Today Cubans have the right to free education (including post graduate education), universal free healthcare and a guaranteed job and are by and large grateful to Fidel for establishing such birthrights.

2 During the 9 day mourning period, an official ban was placed on alcohol, music and dancing. This meant the once harmonious streets were silent and beer, mojitos and wine were conspicuously absent from meal times. That being said… if you wanted to find a drink, you could. Here’s my food & drink recommendations for Havana.

3 When Fidel transferred power over to his brother Raoul in 2008, Raoul opened up the economy slightly by allowing people to hold 2 jobs and permitting the privatization of homes for hotel rooms and restaurants. Private homes for rent are called casa particulares in Cuba and typically are slightly better kept than the government run hotels. For $30-40 a night (you can book on AirBnB in advance or show up and ask around) you’ll get a small, clean room and Cuban breakfast (fresh fruit, coffee, ham) in the mornings. Private restaurants are called paladars and typically offer better service than their government counterparts. If you prefer a hotel, here are my best Havana hotel recommendations.

4 During the 9 day mourning period, Fidel Castro’s ashes went on a country wide procession from Havana to his final resting place in Santiago. When we stopped in Cienfuegos, we noticed a long square wrapping line of students waiting for the procession and in Santiago, many students went to the town square to sign the memorial book.

5 Raoul Castro is 85 years old. Transfer of power is not expected to pass on to his son or relative and locals thought there might be a vacuum while the country waited for a new dynamic leader. Cuba of course, is a one party state.

CURRENCY AND MONEY

11 I’m sure many people know that Cuba has two currencies (I briefly explained the two in this earlier post, How to Travel to Cuba as an American). I thought the CUC would be pronounced “see-you-see” as in the letters, but it’s actually pronounced “kooks” with a hard c, sounded out. It’s roughly 25 pesos nacional (local currency) to 1 CUC (tourist currency).

12 The average Cuban makes 12 CUCs a month (roughly 12 euros, or 12 American dollars due to the 10% tax on American currency). While this is extremely low for our standard of living, you have to keep in mind that Cubans receive a guaranteed job, free education including post secondary education, free rent and free healthcare – so their expenses are quite minimal.

(Because Cuba offers universal healthcare, its required of travelers to have their own health insurance before arrival. They used to check at the airport and port entry points although they did not seem to check for me when I went. If you want to get travel insurance with trip cancellation / gear protection/ medial coverage, I recommend World Nomads)

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