Travelling in Cuba: a review of what government-organised extortion feels like

Hint: it’s not really pleasant. The only advantage the Cuban extortion system has, versus the traditional tourist rip-offs we can encounter in some countries, is that it is predictable, and the amount of the rip-off is officially announced.

It does not depend on your knowledge of the local language and culture, nor on your ability to bargain, nor on how smart and experienced a traveller you are. The extortion system is fair, democratic, treats all travellers equally.

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This propaganda poster at the side of the road says: “The US Blockade, the larges genocide of history”

And for a good reason: that’s how Cuba survives. Tourist extortion is a national resource, carefully planned, managed and monitored. It all started in the 1990s, after the USSR collapsed: the USSR used to be the only stream of cash that made up for the US blockade on Cuba. Once that stream drained, Cuba suffered terrible shortages of all kinds; a solution had to be found.

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A Cuban cliché, mojitos are indeed widely available for 2 to 3 dollars each.

And that solution would be to monetise the white sand beaches, the trending salsa dancing, the appetising mojitos, the inspirational Caribbean joie de vivre, the emerging interest for Cuban music, and all other clichés with a potential conversion in dollars.

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A Cuban cliché: tourists pay a lot of money to be allowed to be driven around Havana in a vintage Chevrolet.

I am a consultant in brand strategy, and I could not have designed a better strategy for the brand Cuba to win-win with mass tourism. On a personal level, I abhor mass tourism; but from the Cuban government’s perspective, what a genial move!

Whilst Cubans on the roads pile up in suffocating dark metal trucks with no windows, called “camiones”, international tourists would compulsorily take modern AC-equipped buses reserved for them, that must be booked in advance in big hostel hosted agencies.

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Most Cubans don’t have cars. For their mobility, they usually rely on outdated public transportation, or horse carriage. Here in the streets of Holguín.

Would they want more freedom to come and go as please? That would be monetised, too, with car rental prices about three times superior to those you would pay in Europe.

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Most rental cars are from this exact model of Chinese brand Geely. Registration numbers always start with a T so everyone knows you’re a tourist and locals are not allowed to get aboard.

Then there would be Western-style big hotels, that lack the minimum but charge the maximum. And for those who want a more authentic experience, there would be government-organised homestays, called “Casa particular” and effectively a Bed & Breakfast & Dinner concept, with a typical fare of about 30 dollars a night.

(How much of these dollars are actually paid back to the State by the “particular” is a mystery to me as none dared to tell me. All I know is that the “particular” has to report any foreign tourist staying at their house to the authorities within 24 hours, even if those authorities are located a 2-hour drive in above-mentioned “camión”).

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Outside of the tourist beaten track, restaurants were always empty, as locals could not afford a 10-dollar meal. Here in a small town at the seaside north of Holguín.

Then there would be a few Western-style restaurants, of course. Whilst all what locals can find is the same frozen pizza (which for locals costs about 6 pesos, equivalent of 25 dollar cents, which proves that it cannot be made of real, healthy ingredients), the everlasting rice & beans, or the occasional rancid tasting biscuit, tourists would access a wider range of culinary experiences (in the capital) or at least enough fruit & veg to enjoy a reasonable diet (in the “casas” elsewhere) for 10 to 15 dollars a meal.

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Entry prices to the Havana Castle. I’ve seen many cases where foreign entry price is higher than for locals, but this is the first time I see that it is the same price for both, just in a different currency with a different value!

And to make all of this work, of course we would need a dual currency system, with a peso for foreigners, aligned on the US dollar but named differently (CUC); whilst locals get their wages and pay their expenses in local peso (CUP, which is worth 24 times less than the CUC).

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The sticker on the back window of this vintage car says a lot about how I feel the Cuban authorities treated me during my stay.

Oh, and do you know what the final extortion was? A peak in the foreign tourist’s customer journey, the highlight of your stay: trapping all CUC-owning travellers on departure at the airport. What a bad luck! Not a single of the airport’s several exchange bureaus had any foreign currency left that day. Everyone would have to go home with their CUCs, or spend them all at the airport to buy propaganda-approved cigars, coffee and music.

¡Viva el socialismo hipócrito!

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