6 Misconceptions Americans Have About Cuba

As many of you know, I spent a month living and studying Havana, Cuba this summer. Of course, this doesn’t make me an expert on Cuba or Cubans, but I have noticed several misconceptions that many Americans seem to have about Cuba (some of which I had before I went there as well) which I’d like to clear up! If you’re planning a trip to Cuba soon, you can avoid some typical blunders, and even if you aren’t planning to go anytime soon, it helps to understand better this country which has long been misunderstood or misrepresented by the US.

Billboard reading "The embargo: the longest genocide in history"
Billboard reading “The embargo: the longest genocide in history”

1. THE EMBARGO BASICALLY JUST MEANS AMERICANS CAN’T BUY CUBAN CIGARS

This one is probably the most irksome to me after getting back, but I’ll admit that I didn’t know how much the embargo actually affects the daily lives of Cubans until after I’d been there.

To be honest, the embargo barely affects Americans. Sure, it makes traveling to Cuba difficult, Cuban cigars hard (or illegal) to obtain, and gives the country a sort of mysterious air, but it doesn’t even compare to how it affects the average Cuban.

The embargo doesn’t just mean that American goods are hard to come by in Cuba (in fact, it’s pretty easy to buy Coca Cola there–I think it comes from Mexico though), but it means that many other countries/companies won’t trade with Cuba either. One rare exception is Melia Hotels International. The Spanish hotel chain was faced with the same threat as many other companies–either get out of Cuba or give up your business and properties in the US–and it made the less-common choice, deciding its Cuban hotels were worth more than the ones in the US. Most companies can’t afford to make this choice, between the smaller country, in both land mass and population (11 million people) and its more-powerful neighbor.

Basically, not only does the US not trade with Cuba, but it punishes other countries for trading with Cuba. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the catty fights that girls get into in junior high.

Essentially this means that there are lots of goods that are hard for regular people to obtain in Cuba. Over the counter medicine is especially rare, without the trade in the US. My host-brother (or nephew, depending on how you define it) got a fever during my time there and my host family was extremely happy to have my bottle of ibuprofen because it’s so hard to find. Another man told me how hard it is to get something like an apple, when they have to be shipped in from somewhere in Eastern Europe that will still trade with Cuba, and pointed out the challenges this presents in maintaining healthy diets. On the flights into Cuba, they charge a ridiculous amount of money per pound for luggage because so many people bring goods back to their families there. I saw all kinds of things on the luggage carousel–from wheelchairs and strollers to toys for kids. On the way out of Cuba, they didn’t even weigh my carry-on.

There will be challenges when the embargo ends, but overall most Cubans were excited about the new possibilities that it presents for their children and the future. It’s time we stop assuming that the embargo just makes Cuban cigars hard for Americans to buy.

Cuban money

2. MOST CUBANS ARE POOR

When Americans hear statistics like “the average Cuban salary is $30 USD a month” we rush to assume that Cuba is a third-world country steeped in poverty.

The problem is, comparing this number to the average monthly salary in America is comparing apples to oranges. Because Cuba’s government and economy are socialist, everything is completely different. Under this system, most Cubans are employed and paid by the government, they don’t pay taxes or rent, and their bills each month are very low. Everyone also gets a libreta, or ration booklet, from the government, so hunger and homelessness are less common than in many places.

Education and health care are also completely free for all Cuban citizens. This is something that Cubans are very proud of, and one of the first things they like to tell tourists about. When you consider that the average cost of family health insurance for a year in the US costs the employer almost $15,000 per year (and the employee over $4000/year) and that the average student loan debt a graduate has is nearly $30,000 in the US, the apples-to-oranges comparison is even more clear.

The medical care isn’t third-world either. Cuba has some of the best-trained doctors in the world, and also the most doctors-per-capita of any country in the world. They have one of the more successful sexual education programs in the world, too. Several diseases (polio, diphtheria, measles, tetanus, whooping cough, and more) have been eradicated in Cuba due to their immunization program, and as of 2012 the infant mortality rate in Cuba was 4.83 deaths per 1000 live births, as opposed to the US’s 6.0 deaths/1000 live births.

Additionally, those $30 USD go a lot further in Cuba than they would in the US. To give one example, going to the movies only costs the equivalent of 0.10 cents USD in Cuba! A maquina ride across the city costs about 0.50 cents USD, and the maquina system is used by many Cubans daily.

Overall, when adjusted for how far Cuban moneda nacional goes and the differences between socialism and capitalism, many Cubans have close to the same amount of extra spending money at the end of the month and can do as many leisure activities as your average American!

Caribbean internet lines
Map of internet cables through the Caribbean

3. CUBANS AREN’T ALLOWED TO USE THE INTERNET

This is one that I definitely wondered about before I went to Cuba. Censorship in countries like China and the general portrayal of Communism and Cuba in the US definitely wouldn’t make one assume that Cubans have ready access to the internet.

And the reality is, they don’t–but not for the reasons you think.

When I was in Cuba, I used the WiFi at the Hotel Habana Libre in the Vedado neighborhood. It cost $10 for one hour’s access, which could be used over the course of 3 days. I only bought four of those tickets during my month there, meaning I paid $40 for 4 total hours of internet–which is more than I pay for a constant month of access in the US! There are cheaper internet options too, but they are generally much slower and more of a hassle to access, so we didn’t use them. There’s nothing that prevents a Cuban from buying one of these internet cards though, besides the prohibitive cost.

You may be thinking, “well sure, that’s how the government prevents people getting on the internet–they just make it so expensive that most people can’t access it”. Nope. If anyone is at fault for the high cost of internet in Cuba, it’s the US and our embargo. Check out the map above. Look how many internet cables run through the Caribbean. Do you see how many of them are coming from the US? You know who can’t use those lines?

You guessed it: Cuba.

The fact is that many Cubans do use the internet, for their jobs or for entertainment. In fact, I’ve been regularly corresponding with one of my friends from there through facebook since I left! I was even told that the Cuban government is considering making internet access a basic human right, like education or healthcare, which would give free access to all citizens. It would likely be too expensive now, but perhaps once the embargo ends that will change.

So while it’s true it’s difficult for Cubans to use the internet, it’s definitely allowed, and the fault for the prohibitive cost is not with the Cuban government, but with the US’s.

Cuba

4. MOST CUBANS WOULD ESCAPE TO AMERICA IF THEY HAD THE CHANCE

On this side of the 90 miles of the Florida Straits that separate the US from Cuba, a lot of the stories we hear are about those who escape Cuba on rafts called balsas to start a new life in the US. Because of this, we have a tendency to assume that living in Cuba is horrible and that everyone would escape to the US if given the chance. It’s somewhat related to the notion that “Communism is the worst fate imaginable”, which is also a poor assumption.

I don’t want to diminish the struggles of anyone who did find a reason to leave Cuba, or who bravely made their way here on a raft. I’m just saying that not all Cubans are chomping at the bit to do so. The majority of Cubans we talked to were happy with and often proud of their country. I did have one cab driver who told me that his cousin had made his way to the US on a balsa and now lives in Naples, Florida; the same guy told me that many of his peers dream of marrying an America in order to move to the US.

The problem is, sometimes this is just a typical grass-is-greener outlook that people all over the world have about where they live. My host mom told us about her son who got married and moved to the US. It was difficult for him there; even with his education he could only find jobs in manual labor or as a janitor. Now, he and his wife are getting divorced, and he can either stay and struggle in the US or return to his family in Cuba, but never see his children again. The custody battle is a nightmare.

In general people were very proud of Cuba and happy with their lives. Many Cubans we met were quick to point out the free education and healthcare, as well as other amazing things Cuba has, like great music and dancing, rum, beaches, and more!

Sure, not everyone is happy with Cuba (as many people are not happy in the US either), but that doesn’t mean that everyone there has a desire to come to the US, or that those who do find easier lives on the other side of the Florida Straits.

Bust of Jose Marti
Madison and I with a bust of José Martí

 

5. CHE AND FIDEL ARE CUBA’S NATIONAL HEROES

I’m not exactly saying that Che and Fidel aren’t national heroes… just that there is someone who much more embodies the Cuban revolution, and whose busts you can find sprinkled all over the country. In fact, every school or university is required to have a bust of him.

His name is José Martí. He was a poet and writer, and a very important thinker and leader of the Cuban Revolution. Unfortunately he was more of a writer than a fighter, and he basically died when the Revolution had barely started. That doesn’t make him any less important to the Cuban national identity though.

I often told Cubans, when they asked how I was liking Cuba, that I had expected to see images of Che but that I was surprised by how much José Martí I had seen. They usually replied solemnly with “Oh yes, he was a great writer/thinker” or “Ah, el Padre de la Patria“. Basically, he’s a BIG deal. You can even visit the house where he was born in Havana and see a spork he used! (Yes, seriously.)

You know how many images I saw of Fidel while in Cuba? Zero. I saw a few of Che–there’s the iconic one in Plaza de la Revolucion, and a few more on murals and such throughout the city. You know how many busts of José Martí I saw? So many that Madison and I made a game out of it. We were going to make it like slug bug, where we’d loudly yell “José Martí!” and punch each other’s shoulders, but we were too sunburned for that. So instead we put our thumbs on our noses and wiggled our fingers when we yelled “José Martí!”. If you go there, I encourage you to try it. It’s pretty fun, and you’ll be extra aware of the hundreds of busts and murals of the nation’s hero that you’ll see!

Display about the Santeria religion at the Regla Museum
Display about the Santeria religion at the Regla Museum

6. WHEN THE EMBARGO ENDS CUBA WILL BECOME “AMERICANIZED” AND RUINED

This misconception is commonly spouted and has been the source of many magazine articles since it was announced that President Obama had opened communications with Cuba again, and I find it incredibly arrogant.

Of all the misconceptions in this post, this one is probably the most based on my own opinion and not on facts, figures, or conversations I had with Cubans. I’m not saying that things won’t change if the embargo ends; some things definitely will. Hopefully some of the situations discussed in misconceptions #1 and #3 will be improved with the end of the embargo. There may be fewer classic American cars on the streets, over-the-counter medicines may become more available to Cubans, and I’m sure American tourism to Cuba will increase; but Cuba will always be Cuba, the unique, fascinating country that it is.

Some of these concerns have to do with whether Cuba can handle the influx of American tourism that is expected and has already started. I think many Americans assume that just because they haven’t been taking vacations in Cuba, no one else in the world has. The fact is, it’s a top travel destination for many people around the world, especially from Canada, Mexico and Spain. Just in my classes at the Universidad de Habana, I met students from Sweden, Germany, Angola, South Korea, China, the US, and elsewhere in the world. Sure, the influx of American tourists will provide extra strain on the tourism infrastructure, but it’s nothing that’s going to tear apart the very fabric of the country. Additionally, more and more casas particulares (rooms Cubans allow tourists to rent out in their houses–and where we stayed while in Havana) are springing up in Cuba, a rare example of private enterprise, and they can help meet the needs of increased tourism.

Another thing that is always mentioned is how different Cuba will be “when McDonald’s comes in”. Well, I’ve got news for you. When we were in Trinidad, Cuba, I saw a knock-off McDonald’s, complete with painted golden arches. Gasp! McDonald’s has already invaded Cuba and ruined it! Seriously though, if real McDonald’s comes to Cuba, it’s not going to ruin everything. McDonald’s around the world are different anyway. The McDonald’s we stopped in in Paris had fancy pastries; in Asia you can find buns made of rice rather than the traditional hamburger buns; in India, they don’t serve beef Big Mac’s because of the local culture. If McDonald’s enters Cuba too, it will adapt to the local environment.

American enterprise isn’t going to change the Socialismo o Muerte attitude of many Cubans. The music and dancing will still be amazing and distinctly Caribbean, the rum will still be cheap and delicious, the beaches will still be gorgeous… It will still have a separate religion from most of the rest of the world, its own form of socialism, a pretty crazy history, and a distinct culture and national identity. To think that American enterprise has the power to change any of that or “ruin the authentic Cuba” is a gross underestimate of Cuban culture, and an overestimate of American influence.

6 Misconceptions Americans Have About Cuba

Thanks for reading this article!

I hope you were able to learn a little more about Cuban culture and US-Cuba relations. If you have any questions, be sure to ask in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them.

One of the things that I loved most about Cubans is that they don’t judge Americans for the actions of our government (unlike people in a lot of places around the world). A lot of the struggles that they face daily are caused by the embargo, but every Cuban we met was very friendly to us when they found out we were from the US, and very happy to talk to us about their lives and their country and find out more about ours too.

If you get the chance, I highly recommend visiting! To learn even more, you can read about my whole month in Cuba here.

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