My Visit to Cuba — An American in Havana

Billboard at the José Martí International Airport

I had the opportunity to visit Cuba. I flew via Southwest Airlines from Tampa International Airport to the José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba on June 4th and returned on June 9th, 2017.

After my short visit to Cuba I now fully understand why I spent my entire 23 years in the U.S. Army fighting against Communism.

Cuba is the poster child for Communism (i.e. socialism). It is a country with full control of its people by their government. Arriving was like an episode of the Twilight Zone where I was transported back to the 1950s. The 26th of July Movement began in July 1953 and ended when rebels finally ousted Cuban President Fulgencio Batista on 1 January 1959. Not much has improved for the Cuban people since then.

The graffiti, in the featured image above, reads, “Cuba, socialism or death!” I saw this graffiti along with pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara throughout the country. On highway billboards, on the walls of buildings, in government museums and in the public square. It is a constant reminder to the Cuban people of where their loyalty lies – to defend Communism at all cost, and the cost is high, very high.

The greatest threat to the survival of the Cuban people is “socialismo.”

ITS THE ECONOMY STUPID!

As former Bill Clinton said, “It’s the economy stupid!” For the Cuban people it truly is the economy, stupid.

Perhaps a few of my first hand experiences in Cuba will help those who favor big government understand where “socialismo” leads.

One of the things some people, many of whom have never visited Cuba, tout is their “excellent” healthcare system. Let me explain about the Cuban single payer government healthcare system. First, every visitor to Cuba must purchase health insurance from the Cuban government. For example, the cost of my health insurance was automatically included in the price of my plane ticket. So how much does the Cuban government pay its doctors to provide universal healthcare? The salary of a doctor is $30 a month.

In 2013 Brazil hired 4,000 doctors from Cuba to “work in areas where medical services and physicians are scarce.” These Cuban doctors were to be paid approximately $30,000 a year to provide medical services to remote areas of Brazil. According to U.S. News & World Report, “Analysts say the export of medical services adds about $6 billion a year to Cuba’s economy.”

How does this work? Brazil paid the Cuban government the $30,000 annual salaries of the Cuban doctors and the Cuban government then paid the doctors $30 a month or $360 a year. This equates to an 83% profit for the Cuban government. Not surprisingly many of these Cuban doctors sought asylum in Brazil to be paid what they actually earned, $30,000.

In socialist governments the “minimum wage” inextricably becomes the prevailing wage.

It’s the economy stupid.

WORKING IN THE CUBAN TOURISM INDUSTRY

In 1991, after the fall of the former Soviet Union, the Cuban economy collapsed because economic aid provided by the Russians ended. More recently Cuba’s main international commercial partners—Venezuela, Brazil, China—have lost their appetites for subsidizing the anemic Cuban economy, lending a new urgency to grow perennially lethargic exports, and forcing the Cuban authorities to look for new sources of foreign exchange – tourism.

As U.S. News & World Report noted, “[T]ourism, the official No. 1 source of incoming cash, brought in $2.5 billion in 2011, according to the most recent statistics available.”

With the opening of tourism to U.S. citizens this incoming cash has increased. According to the Brookings Institute, “In the wake of the December 2014 rapprochement, the United States significantly relaxed restrictions on U.S. travel to the island, and prospective tourists in other nations saw Cuba in a new light. As a result, tourist arrivals jumped by over 16 percent in 2015 to 3.5 million. U.S. travelers, including those from the Cuban diaspora, now amount to roughly 14 percent of new arrivals, and are expected to nearly double in 2016.”

Our party was nine individuals, all U.S. citizens. We stayed in a large villa, owned by a Spanish citizen, located near embassy row in Havana. The villa could accommodate up to 14 people and came with a staff of five. The cost, including breakfast, for the villa was $10,000. We also hired two drivers with vans to take our party to various sites within Cuba. The cost to hire the two drivers amounted to an additional $2,000.

The manager of the villa was paid $15 a month, with individual staff members paid less. The manager went to Havana University and became a statistician. The manager for a number of years was a professor but decided to work in the tourism industry because the pay was better.

During our stay I went on a one-hour carriage ride through the heart of Havana. I paid the driver of the carriage $30 for two people to ride in his horse drawn carriage. The driver made $30 in one hour. This one carriage driver made as much in one hour as does a doctor working in a Havana hospital who earns $30 a month.

Given the price our party paid to rent the villa and the clear disparity between the wages of those in the tourism industry and the prevailing wage, in Communist Cuba it truly is the economy, stupid.

WORKING IN THE FARMING INDUSTRY

Tobacco rancho in the Vinales valley. Note the picture of Che Guevara on the water tank.

To meet the Cuban people we decided to travel outside of Havana. Our group visited a tobacco rancho (farm) about 200 kilometers west of Havana located in the Vinales Valley, the heart of tobacco growing in Cuba. It is in Vinales Valley that Cuban farmers grow what is considered the finest cigar tobacco in the world.

The farm we visited has been owned by a Cuban family for generations. We went into a tobacco curing barn and we received a talk about how the tobacco seeds were planted, how the plants were cultivated and how the tobacco was grown, harvested and then cured for a full year or more. We then went to another gazebo type structure to see how cigars are rolled.

The tobacco farmer told us that every year he must send 90% of his tobacco crop to the government where it is processed and made into Cuban cigars for sale and export.

So how does the farmer survive with just 10% of his crop as his reward for all of his and his families hard work?

He produces his own cigars and sells them to tourists. This is a limited form of capitalism in a repressive socialist society. The farmer partnered with a local tour guide to bring foreign visitors to his farm to see his work, try and buy his cigars. His cigars do not have a label like the government brand Cohiba. The government forbids him from branding his cigars and putting them into boxes. This farmer sells his cigars in packets made from palm leaves holding 14 or 20 cigars.

A Cohiba cigar sold in Cuban government stores costs from $20 to $30 per cigar. This farmer sells his cigars for $3 each. His cigars are no different than those made in government factories, except his are better. His cigars are cured longer, he removes the stem of the tobacco leaf, which contains all of the nicotine, and wraps them in paper for five days to further age them.

This one farmer selling one pack of 20 cigars makes $60 or twice the monthly salary of a doctor. While there our party alone bought 6 packs of 20 cigars or $360 worth of cigars. There were a dozen other tourists at the farm when we arrived. Many of them also bought his cigars. Capitalism works, even in a socialist society.

It’s the economy stupid.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Cuban people I spoke with were friendly toward us Americans. Those who provided us with personal services whether in local restaurants, while on tours, our drivers and those who took care of us where we stayed were professional, hard working and kind.

But Cuba’s desire to be a tourist attraction is waning. MarketWatch’s Kari Paul reports:

A flash of excitement about travel to Cuba after the country opened its borders to the U.S. in 2016 for the first time in decades may have lost some of its shine.

Americans are less interested in travel to Cuba this year than they were in 2016, a survey from insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance found. Some 76% of the 1,514 respondents said they were not likely to plan a trip to Cuba in 2017 compared to 70% in 2016. Only 2% of those surveyed planned to visit Cuba in the next six months or by the end of 2017, the same as 2016 despite a projected increase in travelers from the country’s ministry of tourism. It also found that 60% of Americans said “would not like to travel to Cuba” compared to just 58% in 2016.

[ … ]

Indeed, the initial excitement about the formerly closed off country gave way to moral dilemmas over food shortages and other problems caused by tourism, as well as disappointment over limited working internet, lower hotel standards, and lack of running water there. The Allianz study found lack of travel infrastructure was a major cause of anxiety about traveling to Cuba for 13% of Americans.

The slide in demand has led a number of airlines to reduce or completely eliminate flights to the country, including Silver Airways, a Florida-headquartered domestic airline that dropped all nine of its planned routes to Cuba. Frontier is dropping its Miami-Havana route by June 4, after costs in Havana “significantly exceeded our initial assumptions,” a spokesman told MarketWatch. Spirit Airlines will drop its last flight to Cuba by June 1: “The costs of serving Havana continue to outweigh the demand for service,” Spirit Airlines  president and chief executive officer of Bob Fornaro said in April.

Sumers suggested confusion over the approved reasons to go to Cuba is keeping the average American visitor away still. As of May 2017, visitors to the country have to select one of 12 categories for their visit, which include religious activities, humanitarian projects, “support for the Cuban people,” and journalistic activities. “You can’t go to Cuba to sit on the beach and have fun and that’s what Americans like to do on vacation,” he said. “Cuba is a bit of an outlier still — it is not easy to visit and for a lot of people it’s still a pain. You have to really want to go there.”

What I observed is that the Cuban people have great potential if they are unleashed and allowed to earn what they are truly worth. Socialismo is slowly but surely killing their lives and doing them great harm. I noticed on the ride West of Havana through the rural areas of Cuba hundreds of people waiting along the road trying to get a ride. Some were nurses in their white uniforms thumbing rides to the hospital where they are needed. I saw horse drawn carriages along the major highway carrying people because the public transportation system cannot keep up with the demand. The horses and cattle we saw were emaciated. The roads were in poor shape including the national highway system.

As one Cuban man put it, “the people have no love for their work.” They have no love for their work because Cuba needs a change in direction. Raul Castro has announced that he will step down as President of Cuba in February 2018. This is a chance for Cuba to change direction. To move to a capitalistic society where the individual benefits from what he or she produces, not the government. However, the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research reports:

The Cuban media has been emphasizing that Raul Castro is leaving power. He announced in 2016 that he would be stepping down as President in 2018. Yet, he was reelected for five years as Secretary General of Cuba’s Communist Party and will remain as head of Cuba’s Armed Forces. The position of President, which will become mostly ceremonial, will be held by Miguel Diaz Canel, a low-level Communist Party bureaucrat with little military or public support.

In Cuba, power resides in the military and the Politburo of the Communist Party, both of which will continue to be controlled by Raul and his military comrades.

We shall see what happens in February 2018. The great fear among those to whom I spoke with is the new leadership will keep the ways of the old regime.

Socialismo o Muerte (socialism or death) must be replaced with Liberar al pueblo cubano (free the Cuban people).

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Myths About Cuba

This is why American tourists don’t want to travel to Cuba

8 replies
  1. Bob Heller
    Bob Heller says:

    Perhaps Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren should move to Cuba. They should take the Mayor of NY and most of their Hollywood friends. …Thanks for the information…..

    Reply
    • Lilliam Donnell
      Lilliam Donnell says:

      Agree with you wholeheartedly!
      Hopefully tourists will stop going to Cuba on vacation – there’s nothing there other than pure misery after almost 6 decades of Communism!

      Reply
  2. Gene Sweeney
    Gene Sweeney says:

    Thank You Dr. Swier for this very informative article on Cuba and it’s current living conditions for the Cuban People.

    Sir, your article is uncanny in timing, my wife and I relocated to Costa Rica in August of 2016, we have applied for permanent residency and are awaiting that status (should be completed by September 2017). While awaiting this status, we must leave Costa Rica every 90 days, which has provided us the opportunity to visit Panama, Nicaragua and Ecuador. We briefly considered a trip to Cuba, however, for all of the points you bring out in your article we have NO interest in visiting Cuba.

    There has been NO change since 1965, the state has been governed by the Communist Party of Cuba.

    We enjoy All of the beauty, culture and the people living in Costa Rica without the severe rule of communism and poverty in Cuba and Venezuela.

    “I want to make absolutely clear, to all the (Cuban) migrants who are coming and those already in Panama, that Costa Rica cannot and will not receive them
    Manuel González Sanz, Costa Rica’s foreign minister”

    Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article71239892.html#storylink=cpy

    Communism has caused Venezuelans to flock to Costa Rica… An exodus that began under the late President Hugo Chávez has gotten a boost under Nicolás Maduro, who vowed to extend his predecessor’s socialist policies after winning elections last April. Venezuelans in Panama predict that a new wave of young, middle-class job seekers will follow them in the wake of shortages of basic goods, accelerating inflation and anti- government demonstrations that have claimed at least 41 lives since February.

    Adios For Now…Pura Vida!
    Gene Sweeney

    Reply
  3. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I would love to visit Cuba someday. Our neighbors are Cuban and they have shared a few things with us. They said life is better here than in Cuba. They have family there though so go back and visit often. I wish Capitalism would prevail there so the Cuban people can prosper and grow. Communism is a failed system and so limiting to its people. Let’s free the Cuban people from government control!

    Reply

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