Cuba 2024

By Colin McFadden

I recently returned from a quick trip to Cuba. I’ll be doing some separate trip tips about the logistics of such a trip, but for now I wanted to capture some memories of the experience. This was a “see it before our politics make it harder” trip, and I came away with a much deeper understanding of Cuba and its long and complicated relationship with the United States. It was also a stark reminder of how much the internet gets wrong, and how a vocal group can shape a conversation. 

I flew into Havana from Miami on Sunday, landing around 1pm. No subterfuge required – it was a normal flight like any other. Entering Cuba was also entirely normal – a quick passport check at immigration, collecting a local sim card, then a walk straight through customs and out into the 80-degree sunshine. I’d arranged and airport transfer with my Airbnb host (yep, just a normal booking), so I found my driver and headed for the city. The airport is about 30 minutes away from the center of Havana. We talked about the cars on the road (a mix of American and Soviet classics, plus modern French, Korean and Chinese cars) and day to day life. 

My Airbnb was right in the heart of “old Havana,” the area which at one point was within the city walls. Havana is the oldest city in the western hemisphere, and although many of the historic structures fell into disrepair during the 20th century, the city historian has been leading restoration efforts. Old Havana is also the heart of Tourist Havana – lots of Airbnbs and other accommodations, plus restaurants and souvenir shops. I won’t go too deep on the distinctions between private and government run shops in this post, and even for Cubans the lines get blurry in many cases. 

At the Airbnb, I met Yanier, the host. We chatted for a while, and he helped me exchange some money. He also pointed out his favorite local (privately run) restaurants and gave some other advice on the city. Then I set out to explore a bit. 

So, what’s Havana like? Mostly it’s like everywhere outside of the rich world. Scrappy, disadvantaged, with lots of structural problems. The people are super friendly, and not at all isolated. There are plenty of modern cars from around the world, everyone has a smartphone, etc. Walking around, you’ll notice that products are in short supply in stores – a mix of real economic issues, including but not exclusively the US embargo, along with the way goods are allocated (which is very poorly). In theory, Cubans get all their necessities at an extremely subsidized rate from the state, by shopping in state run “bodegas”. In reality, the state can rarely provide enough to survive, so Cubans turn to private stores or the black market. Private stores are generally run out of an individual’s house – just a window or a doorway, with a few products arranged for sale. 

My walk took me past the cathedral, then along the waterfront (the Malecón). Along the way, I had a nice long conversation with a guy fishing – he wanted to talk about life in Cuba. Consensus from everyone I spoke to on this trip is that things in Cuba are bad right now – not as bad as after the Soviet Union collapsed, but not far off. Inflation is running at 30% per year, even basic foods are hard to get through the government shops, and a monthly salary of around $20 barely buys a pound of pork and some fruit in the private market. Cubans who interact with the tourist economy are much better off, since they’re paid in dollars and able to buy what they need on the black market. My fishing friend said the embargo itself is mostly an excuse for the government to blame the Americans, and almost every Cuban wants to go to the US. (I’d say the reality is a bit more complicated, and the embargo obviously adds a huge defacto tax to many transactions, even if it doesn’t stop the flow of goods entirely).

I went as far as the US Embassy – closed in 1961, reopened by Obama in 2015, then nearly abandoned under Trump due to “Havana Syndrome”. From there, I turned into the city and wandered back via the Vedado neighborhood (built in the 19th and early 20th century) and the city center. Lots of life in the streets – kids playing soccer, friendly dogs, and people trying to scrape together an existence. Near the Airbnb, I got a donut and an empanada as an afternoon snack, sold out of the front room of a house. 

Then it was time for my friends to arrive! Patch and Cole got to Cuba a day before me and took a taxi to Viñales for some rock climbing with a couple Cubans. On their way back, the wheel bearing on their taxi disintegrated and left them stranded for a bit. They finally got to Havana around 6pm. After getting them settled, we went out for dinner at one of the private places Yanier recommended, Al Pirata. 

Dinner was a good introduction to the aspirations vs the reality of Cuban food. We were given a menu, but the waitress then explained that most of the items on the menu weren’t available, and the items that were available weren’t on the menu. The food itself was plenty tasty, and we enjoyed chatting with the restaurant staff. 

The next morning, we got some breakfast at El Café, another recommended local place. Then we walked to the Vedado neighborhood, about an hour away, for a food tour. This tour turned out to be a real highlight, thanks to an amazing tour guide (Ari). Hilariously, the other people on the tour consisted of a couple from a suburb of Minneapolis, and a professor who previously taught at Carleton College in Northfield. You can’t escape Minnesotans.

Obviously doing a food tour in a place with substantial food security issues raises some questions. I would say this tour was more focused on exploring daily Cuban life through the lens of food. We started at the market in Vedado, home to both a government store and a private market. The private market was closed, likely because there was nothing to sell today. The government market was open, but mostly empty. We got sugar cane juice drinks, and while we sipped, an older lady came up to us to tell us about how much she loves Obama. A common refrain around Cuba. 

After the market, we got some fried croquettes, a typical street snack. The “chicken” croquettes are more akin to a homeopathic medication – they’re made with chicken stock (or water that was once near a chicken) rather than actual chicken. The tour continued with stops for pork sandwiches (the spiritual precursor to the American Cubano sandwich), fruit juice, and a small street pizza which is a common affordable meal (dough and a farm cheese), folded in half and eaten on the go. We ended at a new private store which was by far the best stocked we saw on our whole visit. Coffee beans (rare in local markets), pasta, cookies, and more. A reminder that some Cubans are more equal than others – those making money on tourism or with wealthy relatives outside Cuba can afford to get whatever they want. 

After our tour, we walked around Vedado a bit more and then hung out in a local park to do some people watching. We had a bit of time to kill before a scheduled visit with Corazon Con Cuba. Ahead of the trip, I’d done a bunch of research to figure out what I could bring which might be useful, and got connected with Corazon Con Cuba’s founder Carolina via Reddit. Corazon Con Cuba collects medical supplies and distributes them to individuals, care facilities, and hospitals. I came to Cuba with a full suitcase of over-the-counter medication and other supplies, so we met up with some Corazon Con Cuba volunteers at their warehouse to drop things off. It was nice to chat with them and learn more about how they operate. Basically, all medical supplies are in incredibly short supply, so part of their goal is to make sure that medications aren’t sitting on shelves when they could be doing good. To that end, they do a lot of repackaging, distributing individual baggies of aspirin, heartburn medication, and anything else they’ve got which people need.

We ended our day with dinner back in Old Havana at Bar Melodrama, the kind of hipster place which would be at home anywhere. They’ve got tons of vinyl records, and guests are encouraged to help select the soundtrack. 

For our last day in Havana, we kicked things off by meeting off with a sociologist (and wearer of many other hats, like everyone in Cuba), Mare. She leads tours focused on the history of modern Cuba – what things are like now, and how they got to be that way. We especially focused on their complex currency and financial situation, and emigration. It was informative, if bleak – Mare guide doesn’t see a lot of opportunity for optimism, and getting out of Cuba still feels like the only sure path to a stable life for many people.

Sunday was rainy pretty much all day, so our tour had to deviate from the plan to keep us from getting soaked. After the tour wrapped up, we got lunch and wandered in the rain, then went on an excursion to Guanabacoa to see what the other side of the harbor was all about. We wrapped the night up at “Esto No Es Un Cafe”, a restaurant and arts space serving art-inspired food. We talked about our experience in Cuba and argued about the future, then went on a nighttime walk around old Havana before wrapping up at our apartment.

So, takeaways from a couple days in Havana? It’s a complicated place. If your frame of reference is other Caribbean or Latin American countries, it would strike you as middle of the pack – worse in some ways, better in others. A solid education system, access to health care (at least in better times), and an easy to navigate tourist destination.  If you’re a Cuban American, with family stories about a life of wealth and privilege before the revolution, things are altogether more tragic. One thing is for certain though – nobody thinks the current path is working very well. What comes next? Who knows. In a world of magical thinking, where you replace the government with a bunch of elected technocrats and lift the embargo, things could be great. In the real world, where democracy is in decline and populist authoritarians are on the rise, things don’t look so great. 

One of the strengths and weaknesses of the Cuban people is their ability to make do, no matter the situation. The failed embargo’s goal of provoking the collapse of the community government fundamentally misunderstands how Cubans deal with privation. Maybe someday our government will come to its senses (and shame on President Biden for not doing more when he could). But even normalized relations with the US wouldn’t solve a massively unproductive agricultural system and atrophied industry. And as big parts of the world increasingly learn to live without the US, Cuba would have plenty of access to Chinese cars and Russian grain – if only it had something to trade in return.  

So anyways, before I get off on a rant about the bonkers inefficiency of even a simple economic transaction in modern Cuba, I’ll wrap things up here. Stay tuned for some trip tips, to help you plan your own visit. 

3 thoughts on “Cuba 2024

  • Susan February 16, 2024 at 10:56 pm Reply

    You did a lot in just two days. I liked your multi-faceted perspective on the people and the government. The photo of people jumping into the sea is terrific. I also appreciated seeing all the shiny old cars.

  • Bob Luedtke February 17, 2024 at 1:15 am Reply

    Thanks for the wonderful insights into Cuban culture. Bob

  • Ivy March 10, 2024 at 9:50 pm Reply

    I really enjoyed reading this, Colin! It’s inspiring me to visit and hopefully donate medical supplies and climbing gear in person!

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