Uncovering the Real Havana

At first glance, Havana, the capital of Cuba, seems to tick all the boxes you’d expect of this paradise island. Classic cars? Check. Giant cigars? Check. More daiquiris than water? Check.

But there is one thing which isn’t quite as immediately obvious, and that is the difficulties hiding behind the cheerful smiles of the locals. Sampling the archetypal Cuban culture of tasty food and salsa music may be top of your agenda, but experiencing this place for the first time also means getting to grips with the truth of the Cuban people and their way of life.

Quick history of Cuba

A retro land throwing visitors back to the eighties, everything about Cuba to us travellers is new and exciting in its nostalgia, but for Cubans, they’ve been stuck in a time warp and their country has stayed the same for decades, whether the people here have moved with the times or not. Go on any tour or read any guide and they’ll tell you that Cuba used to be at the forefront of development, with money too, but of course that all stopped when trade ceased with the US in 1962 thanks to President Kennedy. He wanted to stop ‘the threat posed by its alignment with the communist powers’.

Havana, Cuba

The never-changed signs, old cars, crumbling architecture and timeworn hotels are great fodder for a traveller’s Instagram account but when you have to live in the city with no opportunity to update and change your situation, the apparent nostalgia isn’t quite so enjoyable.

Cubans on the streets

From the Malecon harbour to Havana centre, Cubans of all ages want to talk to travellers. They all have a story to tell and a service to offer, and this can be a little intimidating. While a simple ‘no thank you’ does suffice, on certain streets at night, it’s easy to see how strangers to the city might feel a little wary.

Groups huddle together, as groups tend to do, and the intense and passionate conversations, usually accompanied by Cuban tunes, can seem menacing. While these groups usually don’t mean any harm, walking past means you quickly learn that Cubans can be hustlers – albeit friendly ones.

They want you to go home with the traditional tourist photo, they want you to have seen a pretty dance and heard an authentic tune, but they want you to pay for it. This is how travellers come back with the photos of happy Cuban dancers, of old ladies decorated with cats and cigars in the street,and of the oh-so-happy bands playing Buena Vista Social Club on every street corner. The demand from tourists to get these key photos, and the willing supply from the Cubans, means the tales of the ‘happy Cubans who want for nothing’ are perpetuated.

Capital building of Cuba

Money and tourism

Tourism is the main industry of Cuba and there’s no doubt the locals are grateful for it. However, it does mean there are two economies – one for the locals and one for the tourists.

According to The Havana Times, Cubans earn the equivalent of around $22 a month and operate on a rationing system with heavily subsidised (or free) healthcare, housing, education, electricity and water. They use the Cuban pesos (CUP). Tourists come in on the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) where a simple taxi ride could cost the monthly wage. So it’s not hard to see why so many want to be in the tourist industry where the earnings aren’t capped at all.

It’s this desperation that triggers the ‘taxi’, ‘taxi’, as soon as you emerge from your hotel, it’s also the same reason you will be asked the time, or where you’re from, or whether you want to go to a party, wherever you go. While this can be a little annoying, the tourist CUC is the easiest and best way to make any sort of money here, remember that.

Redevelopment in Cuba  

The much-needed redevelopment of Cuba is focused on the areas where tourists dwell. When Centro Havana is done, it will be stunning. It’s full of pretty plazas, balconies, well-made roads and boutique-style shops where those stereotypically Cuban photos can be snapped. Visit anywhere just out of this old town and you’ll see the concentrated injection of cash is to the detriment of those living in the poorer residential areas, where the streets are literally falling apart. Any city planner would tell you this makes sense, as the money from the tourists can be used to develop the rest of the city, once the bit they’ll be in is done.

The difference in development and the tough lives many of the Cubans can take the sheen off this glittering island. Like the cars that are buzzing around, on the surface Cuba looks beautiful, but the most beautiful things rarely are underneath. Actually get in one of the classic cars and you’ll see the ripped upholstery, the carpet missing from the floor and the dashboard cracked and broken. Cuba is the same. It seems so vibrant and full of life and while it is to an extent, there’s always a story there of struggle and survival.

Despite this, Cuba is a beautiful and charming country with a real buzz about it. It may not meet that expectation of a twee Havana full of smiling faces, spontaneous salsaand gay old times, but that’s okay. A trip to Cuba is really about the people, and there is much to discover and learn about the Cubans and their way of life.