Grub First, Then Ethics – Brace Yourself for Cuba

Yes, Cuba is a wonderful place with days on endless beaches and nights at hot bars. Nevertheless, brace yourself for Cuba.

A lady and a little boy at the doorstep of a deteriorating building in Santiago de Cuba
Cuba’s life-threatening beauty.

Obviously, the difficult monetary situation and the unimaginable economic difference between locals and visitors might lead to misperceptions.
Grub first, then ethics – as a matter of fact, in Cuba, you are often reminded of this sober truth.

Protected by a Cloak of Boredom

I’m the world’s most boring traveller. Because I’m interested in so many things that are happening by day, I hardly get to know places by night.

I enjoy watching everyday people shopping at everyday supermarkets and drug stores, walking down streets in average cities. But I’m also spending hours and hours at exhibitions.

Renata Green having a drink at La Floridita in Havana, Cuba
Buy one, get one free? No way – there is another person taking the picture of me at my one and only night out in Havana.

Plus, as I already explained in an earlier post, there is also the indisputable disadvantage when travelling alone especially as a woman.
A woman alone at a bar at night deems rather very needy than very thirsty.

So the flock of proverbial sheep is trampling me into a sort of coma at around 9 p. m. Actually, that saves me from many displeasing situations that occur rather after dark.

Drinks Are On Me. Always.

People in Cuba are friendly, open, and fun. They come to you on the street, all chatty, ask you where you’re from, how long you’ve been to Cuba, what you’re up to.

Then they invite you to come with them to a restaurant or bar. And of course, you answer all their questions, you’re openminded and openhearted. And yes, what a great idea to go to this local bar, how nice of their third-grade cousin and their brother-in-law to join your lot.

Mojito and a salsa band at the Yacht Club in Cienfuegos.
Having a mojito at the nicest bar ever, namely the Yacht Club in Cienfuegos.

Then, at the end of the evening, mysteriously everybody is gone or has no money. But hey, that’s no problem, people here have so little and you had such a great time. Of course, you pick up the tab.

If you’re sharp, you realize that this is a business in Cuba as soon as it happens to you for the first time.

Some people need to pay a couple of expensive rounds before they realize that this is a popular scam.

Others find it doesn’t matter if they pay. What’s a couple of beers after all?

Yes, obviously, I could afford to pay someone a beer. However, that’s not the point.
I don’t like to be tricked into a situation where I have no choice but to pay. It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of respect.

Friendship with a Pricetag

In Cuba, no favor let alone service is free. For nobody, nor for you neither for Cubans.

When someone recommends or arranges something, a commission fee is due, and that goes without saying. Remember: Most people in Cuba have next to nothing and there is no improvement on the horizon. So they grab whatever they can get.

On my flight from Baracoa, I saw a lady on the plane taking this little seat cover that’s under your head. The little piece of cheap fabric they put on the headrest.
She’ll probably never use that thing, but that’s not the point. When you have nothing, everything seems to be valuable. You or your neighbor or your third-grade cousin might need it one day.

I Who Have Nothing

Obviously, Cubans are Latinos, consequently, they stare, whistle, and holler in this very seldom flattering, mostly rather unnerving fashion.

Plus, there is the phenomenon of the jineteras and jineteros.

Jineteros can supply you with all sorts of services. Often, they are touts who take you to bars and restaurants. Or they arrange a stay at a casa particular for you. They do it for a tip that you don’t even realize paying. It’s discretely added to your bill.

Cuban Lady smoking a cigar
Cigars are still one of the biggest Cuban myths.
(Photo: Image by D Mz from Pixabay )

They can provide you with more or less real Cohibas at a more or less good price.

They can hook you up with a lady or a man – or even function as your special lady or man.

So the trade of a jinetero is very diverse and often not very decent.
Jineteros and jineteras break rules.
And, sadly, they also break hearts.

Blurred Lines

Often, lines between prostitution, jineterism, and genuine affection are blurred. People meet, people get involved, people are happy, people fall in love.

Eventually, one of them leaves, the other can’t – and doesn’t know whether they will ever meet again.

Then, there are old parents and siblings with very low income.
There are kids to provide for.
Hence, why not take a little something from your special someone who allegedly has so much?

Most of the time it’s not plain cheating, determined exploitation, ruthless lies.
There can be genuine feelings, and still, there is the desire or need for material things.
What makes these situations so complex is the irreconcilable economic imbalance.

The Casa de la Música in Trinidad
The Casa de la Música in Trinidad becomes especially at night a Club of the Lonely Hearts.

Hence, it’s evident why this phenomenon is so distinctive in Cuba: Tourists have money and locals don’t.
Tourists want a good time and possibly a romantic illusion and locals have that in abundance.

It’s the law of the market, the balance of supply and demand.
A very capitalist thing in a very socialist country.
Only that there are feelings and dignity involved.
That makes the deal more complex than other trades.

Grub first, then ethics (Bertolt Brecht)

Interestingly I’ve met mostly guys travelling by themselves who were disappointed and hurt by Cuban women.

After months or even years, they have found out that their girlfriends were involved with other men – foreign or local. That they haven’t told the truth regarding their job, marital status, or the number of children.

These guys never showed a minimum of understanding of the situation as such.
I don’t even expect them to understand let alone excuse the particular women’s behavior.
I believe if they had acknowledged the circumstances and the different standards, they wouldn’t feel so betrayed by those women on a personal level but understand that it’s the life conditions that hardly leave choices.
Right choices.

Man fishing from the Malecon in Havana.
Not everyone has the chance to catch a big fish.

This behavior is not nice and not honest and not fair. But it derives from the fact that life is not nice and not fair. Especially not for Cubans.

Even here in the industrialized countries, there is this saying that it’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is with a poor. What do you expect from someone who sees her or his only chance for improvement by getting involved with some passing foreigner?

And this attitude, forwarded from generation to generation, leaves traces and determines relationships from the beginning on.

I dislike it as much as you do.
However, I particularly don’t like the fact that it makes me distrustful and cynical.

It’s…their social being that determines their consciousness (Karl Marx)

I’ve heard from people who were coming to Cuba time and time again and had built up friendships over the years. Eventually, they were extremely disappointed and frustrated by their friends who supposedly let them down. For instance, when it came to negotiations with vendors or drivers.

Cuban oldtimer
Cubans are not driving these oldtimers to do you a favor. They drive them because often it’s their only chance to own a vehicle.

Those friends took the vendor’s side or accepted the driver’s overpriced fare.

Yes, this is frustrating, yes, friendship is a nice and important thing.

Nonetheless, imagine you live in Cuba and you see no way to ever leave. You are living around these vendors and drivers. As a matter of fact, you might depend on them next week. Because scarcity makes people extremely dependable on one another.
Would you really stand up for this – in your eyes – super-rich gringo coming to your country for a certain time?
Maybe you would, and there are many Cubans who do and who dislike any form of cheating.
Because they are honest.
Or because they don’t want a bad rap in the world. Or maybe both.
But I certainly can’t blame those who pick their neighbor’s side.

People should not blame Cubans in the first place for acting like this.
They should blame the circumstances, the unfairness, the enormous imbalance of economic power, the struggle that’s going on for decades.
The offenders have actually been the true victims.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness

(Karl Marx)

Crossing the Line

While I show indulgence regarding the stories of defeated love or desired friendship, I also heard stories that made me sick to my stomach.

I met this guy Andy from Germany. He is a dedicated Salsa dancer and came for the first time to the motherland of his passion. For the sole purpose of dancing his vacation away.

My very last evening in Havana, I went out with him. First, we had drinks at the inevitable Floridita, eventually, he wanted to dance at the famous Hotel Inglaterra.

There, we were sitting on the verandah fenced by box trees, overlooking the Parque Central. The hotel’s policy seems to be that they do promote only female prostitution, since there were very uncomplicated ladies sitting around or shaking their proverbial money maker. On the other hand, the two young men who entered the premises to dance with female tourists were immediately kicked out.

What was shocking, though, were the extremely young girls. Some of them were in the company of their mothers. They were standing behind the fence peeping between the box trees at the people on the verandah.

Pointing this out to Andy, he laughed bitterly. “That’s nothing. Yesterday I was dancing with a girl that claimed to be 18 although she looked much younger. She was at the casa de la musica with her father who immediately started to interrogate me if I had a girlfriend. Whether I didn’t want another, a Cuban one. The girl was just sitting there saying nothing, waiting to be paired off.”

The Last Dance

Andy was fed up with Cuba. He was completely disenchanted. And when I tell you the story that happened to him on one of his first days in Havana, you won’t blame him.

Some guy approached him in the street, inviting him to his daughter’s birthday. Of course, Andy denied it. Why should he join some kid’s birthday bash?

Since the guy insisted having a foreigner at her party would make the daughter’s day. So finally, Andy though, what the heck and gave in.

As they reached the guy’s house which must have been a total dump, there was no party whatsoever. However, the guy called a girl that according to Andy must have been about 15 years old and told him he could get it on with her for a good price.

Ok, neither Brecht’s nor Marx’s quote can be an explanation for that!

Sadly, state mottos become empty platitudes.

Don’t Get Me Wrong

At the end of this post, I’d like to stress the fact that although almost every Cuban is facing economic hardship, there are many, many people who do not cheat, who do not take advantage, who do not sleep with tourists for their gain.
I just didn’t write a post about them.

So go to Cuba, meet the people, have a good time.
But don’t expect the place to be perfect for you when it’s far from that for its own inhabitants.

Because something has gone very wrong that in 2020, I can cite two communist visionaries to describe the mischief in Cuba.

However, before packing your bags, you might want to get as much information as possible. Therefore, I’ve put together this post.
There you can learn all the ground rules and hints that will make your stay a smoother and much more pleasant one.

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