Last updated on January 17th, 2019
In the final days of December 1958 Che Guevara led his column of armed revolutionary fighters into the central Cuban town of Santa Clara, which would become the site of some of the most decisive battles of the Cuban Revolution.
Following the de-railing and capture of an armoured military train, the government forces quickly capitulated, and Santa Clara fell into the hands of the revolutionaries.
This small town was key to the revolutionary campaign, as whoever held Santa Clara controlled all communication between the capital, Havana, and the whole eastern half of the island.
Within hours the much-hated, US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled from Cuba to the Dominican Republic, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his men began their victorious journey towards the capital.
Fidel Castro, instigator and leader of the revolution, took over control of the country, much to the chagrin of the US government. Less than two years later President John F. Kennedy implemented a trade embargo against the small Caribbean nation.
A little bit of Cuban history
Before the revolution Cuba had enjoyed prosperous times, and Havana was a playground for the rich and famous, including many Hollywood movie stars. The mafia had a strong foothold too, investing enormous sums of money with the corrupt government, in order to build huge hotels and casinos.
Major exports were sugar, rum, coffee, and of course, the world-famous Cuban cigars. US President Kennedy is rumoured to have bought over a thousand Cuban cigars just hours before the the US trade blockade was implemented, ensuring his own personal supply wouldn’t be interrupted.
Once the US embargo was in place, Cuba lost its major trading partner, and turned to Russia, who bought all of Cuba’s sugar output at above-market prices, supporting the fledgling Communist state.
In the years that followed, relations between the US and the Castro governments deteriorated further. A failed invasion in the “Bay of Pigs”, purportedly led by US-trained troops, was just one of a series of violent incidents that pushed Castro further down the path of friendship with the USSR.
This ultimately resulted in Russia installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, too close for comfort to the US mainland. The Cuban Missile Crisis came very close to being all-out global nuclear war in October 1962. The Russians weren’t the only bad guys in the affair – the US had already secretly deployed missiles aimed at Russia in Turkey and Italy.
Modern day Cuba 2017
Fast-forward to modern-day Cuba, and you will find a truly unique place. A strange mixture of a 1950s time capsule, overbearing socialist leadership and propaganda, and a blossoming embrace of capitalist business practices.
Classic American Cars
In the 1940s and 50s huge numbers of American cars were imported into Cuba. All of this stopped the day the embargo was implemented. With limited access to more vehicles, these cars have continued to be used for over half a century. They’ve been repaired, re-modeled and modified to keep them running. Most are now made up from various different donor vehicles, but many pristine originals can still be seen too.
No photo of Havana, or any Cuban city, is complete without an American classic car in the foreground.
Thrown into this amazing automotive time capsule are numerous Russian vehicles from the 70s, 80s and 90s. More modern imports include vehicles from Korea and China, along with the occasional European brand too.
Fidel Castro died in November 2016 at the age of 90, almost 58 years after his armed forces took over the island nation. His revolutionary legacy lives on everywhere you look in modern Cuba.
Posters, pictures and propaganda can be seen in every town and city. The Cuban National Peso coins still bear the words “Patria o muerte” – Homeland or death – a rallying cry for the revolution.
Many businesses and government buildings display quotes from Castro, proud of his achievements and the legacy he leaves behind.
But the real poster-child for revolutionary propaganda is Che. A photo taken of him in 1960 by photographer Alberto Korda has become one of the world’s most recognizable and enduring images. In Cuba it appears everywhere – on walls, posters, t-shirts, bags, mugs, caps and much much more.
The picture is often accompanied by revolutionary phrases such as “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!” (Until victory, always!), Che’s own rallying cry, or “Hasta siempre Comandante” (Until forever, Comandante), the title of a 1965 song celebrating key moments of the revolution, and Che’s own part in it.
In Cuba, Che’s memory can never be tarnished, as he died fighting for the same ideals and principles he stood for in Cuba.
He was executed in 1967 in a small village in Bolivia, after being captured by government soldiers. Somewhat ironically, he had penned his own epitaph only months earlier, firmly re-stating his unaltered revolutionary attitude:
“Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this our battle cry may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons.”
Just hours before his execution he spoke with a school teacher from the village, pointing out the poor condition of the schoolhouse. How could it be right to be forced to teach children in such pitiful conditions, he asked, “while government officials drive Mercedes cars. That’s what we are fighting against.”
In Cuba 2017 capitalism is truly taking hold. Cruise ships now dock regularly in Havana, and each day the historic streets of the old town “Habana Vieja” fill with tourists.
Improving relationships with the USA mean US airlines are lining up to fly direct from US hubs to Havana, and the number of tourists is expected to increase significantly.
With a serious lack of suitable accommodation for tourists, the government has been adopting a new approach in recent years, allowing home owners to rent out spare rooms in their houses or apartments. These “homestay” type options are called “casas particulares” – literally “private houses”. They provide a much cheaper alternative that the state-run hotels, or newly built international hotels, which are very expensive.
Individuals are also being allowed, even encouraged, to set up other private enterprises – bars, restaurants, taxi services and tour guide companies seem to be springing up everywhere.
In Havana there is a real feeling of excitement, as many crumbling buildings undergo renovation, destined to become profitable “casas”, or perhaps a new, trendy restaurant or cafe.
In 2010 Fidel Castro was widely reported for a comment made to an American journalist: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” This could easily be interpreted as an admission that the socialist system Cuba has employed for more than five decades, no longer serves in a more modern, connected world.
It certainly appears that Cuba is making a significant change in direction, and Fidel’s successor, his brother Raul, certainly seems to be continuing down the path towards a much more capitalist model for the future.
But there is a long way to go, and there may be trouble ahead.
Cuban dual currencies
Cuba is unique, in that it has two domestic currencies. Some countries use currencies from other countries, which have dual acceptability. For example, in Guatemala the local currency is the Quetzal (GTQ), but the US dollar (USD) is also used and accepted just about everywhere. Namibia has its own Namibian dollar (NAD), but the South African Rand (ZAR) is also in widespread circulation.
Only Cuba produces and uses two currencies side-by-side.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is pegged to the US dollar 1-to-1. It is used for higher value goods and services, and is widely accepted as the “tourist currency”. When you arrive in Cuba this is what you will receive in exchange for your home country cash. It’s what you get from a cashpoint (ATM) at any Cuban bank. Convertible Pesos are colloquially called “kooks”, from the currency code CUC.
There are also Cuban National Pesos (CUP), often simply referred to as “pesos”, or “moneda nacional” (national money). These have a much lower value. One CUC is worth 24 CUP.
National pesos are a more “local currency”, and tourists are often told that they don’t need CUP, or won’t be able to use them. Getting hold of CUP involves finding a CADECA (which is short for “casa de cambio” – a money changer), where you can change your CUC to CUP. You will receive them at a rate of 24 to 1.
Save money using the local CUP currency
CUP’s can be used to pay for food, drinks, train fares and more, and using them can save you a fortune. A cup of coffee in a local coffee shop might cost 1.20 national pesos – around 5 US cents. A toasted cheese sandwich will cost 5 pesos, or about 20 US cents.
Pizzas, very popular in Cuba, can be bought for 10 to 20 pesos, depending on your choice of topping – an average cost of around 60 US cents. Ice cream is often as cheap as 5 or 10 cents per scoop. A two hour train journey will cost about 10 cents, and you could travel the whole length of the country on the local trains for less than a couple of dollars.
Discover more about the weird Cuban dual currencies system in our blog:
Cracking the Cuban currency code
The working Cuban
For many government employees, the monthly salary is as little as the equivalent of US$36, and life can be very challenging.
Tobacco farmers growing plants for the extremely lucrative cigar export trade are paid an absolute pittance, and most of their crop is handed over to the government. They can keep very little of what they grow for themselves, and have to try to supplement their income by selling their own home-made cigars to passing tourists.
The country grinds along on the hard labour of those who are barely paid a living wage. Doctors, teachers, engineers and many other “professionals” are also paid a tiny salary, and struggle to make ends meet.
With the government now opening up to the idea of capitalist opportunity, many people are seeing new possibilities.
For example, you might find that your taxi driver is a highly qualified engineer, but can earn far more offering his driving services to wealthy tourists.
If you chat to the owner of the casa you stay in, you may find you are being hosted by a doctor, or a dentist. They may well be earning the equivalent of a month’s salary for one night of renting out rooms and offering breakfast to their homestay guests.
The Cuban 2017 tourist experience
Upon arrival in Cuba you will quickly find that as a tourist you are very strongly encouraged to stay on the well-trodden tourist trail.
To get around the country you have to use the tourist buses, operated by Viazul, which connect the various tourist destinations. You are not allowed, as a foreigner, to go on a local bus, and of course are excluded from paying local prices.
In each location you can only stay in the government-approved casas, which come with a government-mandated minimum price-tag of 25 CUC. There are local accommodation options, but these places are only allowed to accept Cuban guests, obviously at much lower prices.
“Casa particulares” are often promoted as a real homestay experience, where you get to live with a local family for a night or two, experiencing the Cuban way of life. But the reality, in most cases, is that you are treated (usually very well) as a guest, and if you eat at the casa, you eat separately from the family.
Most places are more like privately run B&B businesses, and don’t give much insight into real Cuban life.
On our recent visit to the island we found that in many casas we were really only welcomed to the extent that our wallets were open. Having figured out how to get and use the national pesos (CUP) we could find an adequate breakfast for less than a dollar each in many of the local eateries.
This is a country that will cost upwards of US$ 100 per day for two and if travelling for a month it becomes important to try and reduce the budget at least a little, in the same way you are able to in countries like India or Thailand, by eating local or street food options.
Casa owners charge 5 CUC (USD $5) for a breakfast. As budget travelers, trying to make our savings last a month, breakfast for two for $1.50 while chatting to locals, was a no-brainer choice, compared to the $10 the casa charged. We also wanted some variety over our month in Cuba – breakfast is a pretty standard format throughout the country and involves far too much food for us, that we often ended up wasting.
But to tell the owner that we did not want their breakfast, even for just one of the mornings, generally resulted in very sullen treatment for the remainder of our stay in their particular property.
Dinner was often offered by the casas as well, usually between $8 and $12 each. In every town and city we visited we could go out and enjoy a great restaurant meal in busy sociable surroundings for half this price. Again, refusing the casa meal risked incurring the wrath of the host.
This happened less the further east we ventured from Havana and Trinidad, where we did have some genuinely welcoming hosts and wonderful local interactions.
Do you want the ticket or not?
After a couple of weeks we began to feel like “milk cows”, only of real interest to the hosts if we were spending large sums of money with them.
This “milk cow” treatment extended to many other parts of the Cuban tourist experience. Buses, taxis, horse-drawn carriages and bike-taxis all had a dual price system.
Locals would pay one price, fat-wallet tourists another – usually between ten to twenty-five times the local price.
We had three particularly outstanding experiences of this “fleece the tourist” approach to business:
We decided to take a train ride between two towns. The price was clearly displayed as 1.20 CUP. At the ticket office I offered my local pesos, but was told in Spanish, “For you it is 1.20 CUC.” Twenty-five times the price every other person on the train paid!
I questioned this, but was simply asked, “Do you want a ticket or not?” We were issued a hastily scribbled receipt, and I don’t imagine our fare went through the books. On the return journey we paid the conductor on the train, who happily accepted our local money without question, and gave us an official ticket, just like every other customer.
On another occasion in a very touristy town we went to buy a local sandwich. The price was clearly displayed as 8 CUP. When we placed our order we were told the sandwiches would cost 50 CUP each. I pointed out the price on the board, and received an uncaring shrug of the shoulders in response. We just walked away and found another establishment who were prepared to honour their own price list.
The final slap in the face came on our last day in Cuba, spent wandering around Havana. The guidebook suggested a walk around the huge cemetery would provide some interest, and we would be able to see several graves of prominent people from Cuban history. We were amazed to find that it was going to cost us 5 CUC each to enter the cemetery. Cubans can of course enter freely.
Why did we have to pay? Because the cemetery has been classified as a National Monument. In a couple of decades of world travel, visiting over 60 countries, I have never been asked to pay to enter a cemetery.
Why Che Guevara would be ashamed
In 2013 it was reported that Cuba planned to get rid of its dual currency system, but firm plans of how this was to be done were never put forward. In Cuba 2017 the divisive two currency system is still much alive and well.
It is clear that once again the country is rapidly being split into the “haves” and “have-nots”, as it was in the 50s, when Fulgencio Batista was in power. But this time the dividing line is between those who deal with tourists, and can charge in high value CUCs, and those who labour for the government, paid a pittance in CUPs.
For those who connect on a daily basis with tourists, the main motivation is money, as it is in any free country, but the relatively recent offering of such opportunities seems to have opened the flood-gates of greed very quickly. And this doesn’t help create a welcoming atmosphere for the visiting tourist.
In Cuba 2017 it is now the casa owners who drive Mercedes cars, while the majority of the citizens labour on in poverty.
As Che said half a century ago, just hours before he was shot, “That’s what we are fighting against.”