A Cuban Reality Tour

When traveling in Central America, I like to have the help of guides from Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE), which offers what I call “Reality Tours.” These tours connect travelers with locals in government and non-governmental organizations to sort out confusing issues of the day by hearing both narratives of difficult issues. I’ve been on four CGEE tours — and hired CGEE guides for private tours on two other trips — and it always enriches the experience hugely. On this trip, we had visits set up by CGEE’s Havana partner, the Martin Luther King Center, and we enjoyed the services of guide Reinier Menéndez. Reinier took us to Afro-Cuban Santeria priests, to communal organic farms, and to a local medical clinic to talk to — and learn directly from — the locals.

Rick Steves and Reinier Menendez

Simply traveling through a country like Cuba for a week comes with a constant barrage of thought-provoking experiences. The American capitalist notices lots of people just sitting around staring at traffic (but perhaps it’s no greater than the percentage of Americans just sitting around staring at daytime TV). While religion is entirely legal in Cuba, locals in this secular state are thankful that the Church doesn’t have the political clout it enjoys in other Latin American societies. To the average Cuban, the Church means the Roman Catholic Church. They view the Church as being a barrier standing in the way of gay rights and the pro-choice movement. And they think of it as an institution historically friendly to the oppressive government, providing that notorious-in-communist-ideology “opiate of the masses” encouragement not to feel the pain of structural poverty.

Group on farm

As a confirmed believer in capitalism (if not the “savage capitalism” that Pope Francis warned against during his recent visit to Cuba), I am struck by the Cuban “work ethic.”  Pay is low…and so is productivity. As locals like to say, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Any foreman knows that if a tree needs trimming on the farm, an incentive of 200 pesos will get no reaction. But a promise that workers can go home early when the job is done works powerfully, as people just want to get back to their families and enjoy a nap. We were told that, for Cubans, the priorities are: #1 party; #2 rest; and then, only if you have energy, #3 work. But things are changing. Older Cubans I met seemed to strive for social goals over personal goals, while younger ones are gaining an appetite for Western materialism and consumption. Everyone sees the siren of capitalism fast approaching — and threatening the laid-back Cuban soul.

Cuban doctor

Meeting with a community doctor, we learned of the passion to have good health care available to all and the trend toward teaching wellness and prevention to the general populace. Chatting with this doctor, who happily took home a paycheck of $50 a month, we learned that Cuba is proud of its ability to export doctors and help other poor countries. Today there are 50,000 Cuban doctors working outside of Cuba.


4 Replies to “A Cuban Reality Tour”

  1. Thanks for your blog Rick!
    Just wanted to share my experience with my husband’s extended family when they came to the US from rural China in the early 80’s – they were definitely back-woods (ok, peasants). Having been supported by Communism for decades, they were not used to working unlike the earlier Chinese immigrants. My sister-in-law gave the rough translation of “walk, walk, eat, eat” for them.
    But after many years and sharing resources, all of these kids that came over are now gainfully employed and own their own homes – just takes awhile…

  2. Thanks for visiting places beyond Europe and sharing your insights. I have enjoyed and learned from your Cuba postings.

  3. Thank you Rick for the info on the guide. Next time I travel I will check on this. The cruise we used offered tours of an organic farm using guides who lived in Cuba. We met a Swedish tour guide with a group while we were on the boat and she offered more info on the local culture as she had lived just outside Havana for many years. She said her preference was to get out of the tourist areas and take her clients to people’s homes for home stays where visitors could meet people and the money went right into the local economy. Some of the staff on the cruise ship were also from Cuba. They were very helpful in suggesting places off the usual tourist traps.
    I totally agree with take more money than you think you need, my husband needed to see a doctor for an ear infection and not sure if they charge more at the hotels but we had to carefully plan our money for the last couple of days after paying for the doctor visit (~$100) but the treatment and antibiotics were very effective,

  4. Thanks so much for visiting Cuba and sharing your experiences. My comment is really a question: to what extent are you able to just take off across Cuba and go where you please? I don’t mean military and government facilities. Just seeing the country. Are you/we allowed to roam without a “guide”? And keep on posting!

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