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Tour du monde en autostop - Jeremy Marie

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 Travel Diary : Stopover in Havana

From the United States, I went to this country which is surely considered as its most faithful enemy: Cuba

From Key West, I succeeded to cross by boat-hitchhiking the 90 miles of water separating the two countries. My goal is still to reach South America, but also to discover the world, I didn't hesitate a minute to accept the offer to go to Havana.

I only stayed two weeks in this country and especially in its capital. Nevertheless, I had the chance to observe a unique way of living. Never during this trip, I had been able to see something like that.

Cuba is unique and its history also. The fight that has been led for an idealism of freedom ended up by the building of a society that has been considered as an alternative way of living of the western capitalistic system.

I have been able to see Havana at the end of the government of Fidel Castro. After the United States, the cultural shock was indeed huge, but very interesting.

Welcome to Cuba, one of the last communist country in the world.


The socialist idealism

Considered by some as a socialist republic, by others as a communist dictatorship, the cuban political system is at least provocating discusses.

Since 1959 and the arrival of Fidel Castro in the government, we can say that Cuba is today a country coming from the revolution.

Todo por la Revolution!

In the streets of Havana, I could see some walls painted at the glory of the 50 years of the Revolution, celebrated last year.


The idea, in few words, was to unify the population under valors of equality and social life. A life of brotherhood in community in a certain way.

Cuba had for many years an alliance with the communist system of USSR who was financially supporting Cuba in return.

The russian embassy in Havana, and its very typical Soviet communist architecture.



What the system is offering

Today, there is still positive things in this system. It is of course a very easily criticizable system but let's not forget that we can't compare Cuba with England or Germany. Cuba is closer to a Third World country than with a developed country. Its political system had to deal with this situation before the revolution.

-Education

Indeed, the system of Fidel Castro is offering education for everyone and it is free and an obligation. I think that this is a success, when we see the last studies of the PNUD (Program of the United Nation for the Development) that say that the cuban alphabetization rate is reaching 99,8%.

-The health system

There is a free health care for the population. The cuban doctors have an international reputation and most of the population can take advantage of it.

However, I heard that the majority of the hospitals were in bad shape and were missing medics. I didn't verify this fact myself but I have been able to go in some areas of Havana were the building weren't very new and I can imagine the same situation for the hospitals.

Some areas of Havana

-The unemployment rate

Although the population is mainly poor, there is almost not unemployment in Cuba. The majority of the jobs are nationalized but at least they do exist. In the other side, I don't trust so much the way the unemployment rate is calculated...

-The safety

Cuba is hugely militarized. Even if this point is subject to discusses, there is a positive point in that. Indeed, the criminality rate is very low in Cuba, especially for a latin country. This is indeed very dangerous for a gangster to try to go in this kind of activity because the risk of being caught is too high and the jail time would be too long. Also, owning a weapon is completely forbidden for a cuban citizen... We are already far from the United States!

-Hitchhiking

Already far from the United States? The best example is surely hitchhiking. I didn't have the chance to make myself the experience, as I stayed in Havana, but I made a little investigation about it. This is indeed forbidden to refuse to take a hitchhiker if you have enough room in your vehicle (which has to be a governmental vehicle)!

For this reason, there is many hitchhikers on the road. There is even some people organizing the queue of hitchhikers by writing their names on a list. After, they even take care of stopping the vehicles for you. It is possible that you will be requested to pay the same fare of the bus, but most of the time, hitchhiking in Cuba seems to be free.

-The sport

Finally, the sport seems to be important in Cuba. Base-ball is the most popular activity and is very easy to follow. Indeed, it is even often possible to go to the stadium for free.


-The limits of the system

Of course, the system is not perfect. Otherwise, I think that the rest of the planet would have the same way of doing. Indeed, I could observe some facts that doesn't seems to be enjoyable.

-The queue

I had the impression that the whole cuban population was constantly expecting for something. This is possible to see the cuban queuing all the time and for everything. The positive side of it is that the cuban are mainly very respectful of it.

The cuban queue in a street of Havana

Often, the queue is consequence of the system of ration of the socialist cuban system. Everyday, the cuban can go to some special shops to get his ration of rice, coffee, etc...

-The poverty

The average salary of the cuban is approximately 15 dollars a month. You can imagine that this is not very much. Even if this money is often enough to cover the first basic needs thanks to the rations system, this is not enough to consume other goods. It is indeed possible to avoid famine but there is no way to accumulate goods... Then this is definitely the opposite of the capitalistic system.

-Being closed on themselves

There is a quite big limit on the individual liberties in Cuba.The freedom of press doesn't exist because the newspaper are entirely controlled by the communistic cuban party. Internet is almost prohibited. After some research, I realized that the cheapest internet connexion in Havana was 6 dollars per hour... If you remember the monthly salary, you understand that you could use internet for 2 hours and a half... If you were considering to not eat for a month...

I met some cuban on the waterfront of Havana and they told me that they had a personal internet access, but that they could only use they email box and wikipedia. They were students.

I was often wandering on the waterfront to meet the cubans of Havana


We can also say that there is a limited possibility for the cuban to travel abroad. It is indeed forbidden for him to leave the country more than few months at the time without risking to lose his cuban nationality. I imagine being one of them, remembering I was already on the road for 30 months...

Isolating the cuban to protect him

The eye of the foreigner on Cuba

-Rum, cadillac and chachacha

As a foreigner and often as a tourist, what you will see of Cuba will probably be the same thing that you can see on the postcard: old american cars, the rum Havana or the musical band Buena Vista Social Club.

I can say that it gives quite an exotica taste to Cuba, the biggest island of the Caribbeans with a length of 1200 kilometers.

A good old american car

-A double economy

There is a double economy in Cuba. One is for the foreigners and the other for the cubans. There is a huge difference in between.

Indeed, the first one is called the “Peso Convertible” or “CUC”. When I was in Havana, 1 CUC was

the equivalent of 1 American Dollar. The cost of the life was quite high for the things the tourists were in need.

I will come back later on the second currency.

-The hotels or guest houses

The tourists are asked to stay in the official places provided by the government. Those are often selected to give you a better idea of the country and also to make more money by selling you a room at a high price.

The Hotel National is the hotel with the best reputation in Havana. It has been created in a historical building.

The inside of the Hotel National


Also, you will be able to be transported by the wonderful bus with AC “Habana Tour”, for the little price if 5 CUC... like at home...

The buses with AC Habana Tour


Or even by “Coco Taxi”!



The difficulty to be in touch with the local

-I won't go to sleep at your place Unfortunately, it is completely forbidden to go to sleep at the local's place in Cuba. I succeeded to do it two times but many cubans are worried, knowing that there is a lot of police checking on that. It is indeed difficult to be deeply in touch with the locals.

-The other part of the economy

I was talking above of the economy for the tourists.

The other one is called the “Peso National”. For one American Dollar, you have 24 Pesos National. It is used by the cubans and is adapted to their incomes. As a foreigner, the cost of the goods sold in Peso National can look extremely cheap.

For example, the price of the local bus (also called “wawa” in Cuba) costs 40 cents of Peso National, so 0,016 dollars.

One of the cuban bus... Probably imported from China


Of course, what you will consum will be accorded to its cost. If you decide to buy a sandwich in the street, you will have the bread and the sausage, but no salad, tomato or anything like that.

The cuban hot-dog and hamburger


Nevertheless, it is difficult to access to this economy because there is no official change to get Peso National for a foreigner. Again, this is a reason why it is difficult to get in touch with the locals if we aren't in the same places.

-A not very nice mix

From 1920 to 1959 (under the dictatorship of Batista), Cuba and especially Havana were the place where the Americans loved to come for vacationing. For this reason, it was possible to find hundreds of bars, cabarets and other places to party. Although it brings money to the country, here is the kind of interactions the locals had with the foreigners. In a way, Havana was the Cancun of today.

There is another problem in this situation. Indeed, most of the time the tourist doesn't realize that he has an enormous power of buying comparing to the cuban. To constantly show this fact to the local is certainly changing the cuban society from the inside, leading it towards a stronger desire to consume, which is not obligatory necessary.

The cubans are reacting to this desire by offering their services to the tourists, from cleaning to prostituting themselves.

-Some cubans got fed up

Some cubans didn't and still aren't sharing the idea of the cuban communist system. At a certain point, a part of the population chose to leave the country and to lose their cuban nationality. Some waves of emigrations had happened during the last five decades.

-Everything started when...

The cuban communist system isn't an example of prosperity but it hasn't always been helped in the past. In 1962, Fidel Castro decided to nationalize all the factories on the cuban territory. The United States didn't like this fact and they started an embargo... This one is still existing in 2010, so almost 50 years after. By stopping all the commercial trades with Cuba, this one had a lot of trouble.

-The dissidents or the cubans from Miami

The relations between Cuba and the United States are indeed still very complicated. However, it seems that those one aren't helped by the cubans living in Miami. Those one have lost all their goods to start a new life with a system they like more. They also kept a bad feeling against the system of Fidel and they like to let him know.

-The emigration or a hope at the end of the gulf

The american law is like an invitation for the cubans to come in. If you come from Cuba and that you succeed to put a foot on the american territory, you are starting the process to acceed to the american citizenship. For this reason, many frustrated cubans are giving a try and often, in an incredible way.

In Fort Jefferson in the United States, the authorities were showing a little boat used by the cubans few months ago. They succeeded to cross 150 kilometers across the Gulf of Mexico with that. They were 17 aboard.

-The pride of the country of its critic?

Yes, there is a frustration, especially from the youth. Yes, there is many critics, mainly from the dissidents of Miami. But the cuban from Cuba still like his country. Coming from the propaganda or from the real education, the cuban knows how to appreciate the hopeless fight that his government led to achieve his ideological dream.

We can appreciate or not, but criticizing is easy and the action isn't. Here, in Cuba, we acted.


The city of Havana

So ,what does Havana look like?

Biggest city of the Caribbeans with 3,7 millions inhabitants (with the suburbs), Havana knew how to keep its hispanic architecture.

The great theater of Havana and the Capitole


Indeed, Havana has been built after the invasion of the spanish conquistadors. In 1515, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar created the city. In fact, like almost every time, Cuba has been cleaned of its native population: the indians Siboney and Taitos. Let's say that they just did a little genocide to keep their reputation.

The panorama of Havana


Indeed, the city has been conserved. But of course, after 500 years, some of the buildings start to be a little bit dirty. I could see some houses that didn't look very safe to live in.

Some of the houses didn't look very safe to live in


The center is pretty dark but it is still attractive, surely thanks to its population that seems to give back some colors to it.

The center is pretty dark


In any case, Cuba makes the people to talk about its situation. Indeed, this is a very interesting geopolitical area. Also, its culture is so rich that it needs time to understand more of it. I only stayed two weeks in Havana, so I could only give you a little introduction of this fascinating place.

However, I really advice you to go there to have a look, because this place has been for me a totally unique experience and this, from the beginning of my world tour.

Concerning my journey, I keep going towards South America. I am today in Honduras, on my way to Panama, after having travel several times by boat-hitchhiking. This is something I will share with you in another newsletter.

I am letting you for today, saying goodbye to Fidel, who seems to still being good!


See you soon,

Jeremy



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