Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cuba and Tourism

At the end of Cuba trip, we spent some time exploring in Havana. We visited this Jesus statue,a tourist attraction that overlooked the water.

Some folks in my group spent time speaking with a young, English speaking tour guide. He shared the history of the statue; it was commissioned by Batista's wife in 1957, several years before The Revolution. Batista was the corrupt Cuban dictator eventually ousted by Castro. It arrived from Italy in 67 pieces of marble. After further conversation with this man, they found out that he used to be school teacher but left his job to make more money being a tour guide working strictly for tips.

The average Cuban makes about $25 US dollars a month. Although they have free health care, housing, electricity, and food rations, this isn't much money. A tour guide can earn more than a typical day's pay with just one tip, presuming it is one CUC, the Cuban tourism Peso, basically equivalent to one US dollar. The CUC is worth much more that the national Peso that citizens use. So this young man left his secure teaching job to make more money telling the story of the Jesus statue. He wanted more money and apparently, according to him, others in similar respectable jobs including doctors and lawyers, have left their careers to become bellhops, waiters, etc to cash in on the tourist Peso and the financial boost it can provide.

The Tourism industry is something relatively new to Cuba. The government began promoting it in an effort to assist their ailing economy which was suffering greatly from the ongoing US Embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, who until the collapse, had been their primary trade partner for almost 30 years.

When Castro took over the government in 1959, he essentially leveled the playing field with Socialized programs. He wiped out poverty by providing food rations for everyone. He closed the schools for 6 months and sent youth out to the rural areas to educate everyone to read and write. As a result, Cuba's literacy is better than the US. He provided housing, health care and jobs for everyone. Free enterprise and capitolism aren't part of the economic culture. There is seemingly no way to prosper financially. However, the tourism industry is providing some with the opportunity to advance financially. No doubt tourism has helped the Cuban economy but the two Peso system has altered the way some Cuban's view the Socialist system and what it does and doesn't provide.

We spent many hours traveling across the Island and every time we stopped to use a public restroom, whether at a gas station, restaurant or public park, there was someone attending it for tips. The attendant usually sat outside of the restroom, sometimes handing us toilet paper. Typically, the restrooms weren't clean. Most didn't have toilet seats - presumably another trade victim; it must be cost prohibitive to import, though I never asked anyone specifically. Still, we tipped, grateful to have somewhere private to do our bizness. Certainly bathroom attendant isn't the coveted tourism job, but it is a job, nonetheless.

I must say that we didn't witness any homelessness nor begging, sans the many stray, diseased dogs politely hovering round our dinner table at most open air restaurants, hoping for a scrap or two. And crime is very minimal. Coupled with the beautiful countryside and warm Cuban people, it unquestionably adds to the allure of Cuba as a desirable tourist destination.

Unless, of course, you are American, and prohibited from going there by your government.


Eric said...

Ah, Cuba. I was there in the late 90s. Did you go with Circle of Mercy?

restless said...

Yep - that's us. I had heard you went with Kim.