Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have traveled extensively, visiting countries from Poland to Panama. As any traveler would, I picked up on the cultural elements that made each society unique, but also picked up on the similarities shared among various nations. I can say without a doubt that my experience in Cuba allowed me to discover the most unique place I have ever visited. A country that challenged my expectations, pushed me to discover, and allowed me to interact with their people.
When we arrived in Cuba, I was unsure of what to expect. Cuba has long been mysterious to Americans, so I was deeply interested in what I would discover. The first discovery that our group quickly made was that the Cuban currency system is incredibly complicated. We had gone over currency during our pre-departure classes, but realized once we were in-country that it has a large impact on normal Cubans. The Cuban monetary system utilizes two currencies: the CUP and CUC. The CUC is meant for tourists, who legally are not allowed to use CUPs in transactions. As a result, the CUCs are much higher in value, which has driven thousands of Cubans to seek employment in the tourism sector. It is not uncommon in Cuba for a doorman at a hotel to make four or five times more in monthly income than a doctor! This was certainly something I had never seen before, and would be unheard of in almost any other country in the world.
My expectations for Cuba were framed from my visits to countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama, where large portions of the population struggle economically. As a result, many are undernourished, unhealthy, and live in makeshift shacks. I was shocked to see very little of this in Cuba. Every citizen is provided a ration card by the government, and citizens “own” their apartments or houses, allowing them to live their rent and debt-free. For many Cubans, up to 90% of their income is used to supplement these rations, leaving few funds for the few consumer items that can be obtained. As a result of these policies, there are surprisingly few malnourished and homeless inside of Cuba, which completely shattered my original expectations. This observation was summed up succinctly by an American I met in the former Havana Hilton, who said, “the worst here [Cuba] is better than the worst in Mexico or other Latin American countries, but the best in those countries is much better than the best here.” This is a statement I completely agree with, as I never saw the level of poverty that I had seen in other Central American nations, a fact that was true in both Havana and the surrounding countryside.
Cuba also shattered my expectations about how much investment and development is needed there. Cuba requires billions of dollars of investment in their infrastructure to rebuild roads, railway systems, modernization of telecommunications, and utilities. A banking system also needs to be created and maintained to allow the economy to realize its full potential. Due to government restrictions, very few Cubans have access to internet. When it is available, it is expensive, and their activity is monitored. In my opinion, for Cuba to truly flourish, these investments in infrastructure and information must be made to ensure the long-term welfare of the Cuban people. I was encouraged by the talks held in Havana between Presidents Obama and Castro, but Cuba must continue to reform and allow investment to improve the welfare of their people.
My final surprise was the Cuban people. Truly, they are warm-hearted, generous, and believe that the future holds great potential. They are very friendly, approachable, and go out of their way to make sure visitors feel welcome, something we witnessed not only in our Residencia, but on the streets as well.
Cuba has been and will remain a mystery to many Americans. The improvement in relations will allow many to experience something completely new, just as our group did. With the continued thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, increased investment and development, I am positive that Cuba will begin to emerge from the shadows and fulfill its true potential.