In February, I spent 5 days in Havana, Cuba. It was a beautiful, educational, eye-opening experience.
Nick and I went with a group of lawyers through a CLE put on by the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association. Everything was handled through a travel agency, including lodging, flights, visas, etc. so we didn’t have to worry about logistics. Normally, I wouldn’t choose to travel like that, but for the opportunity to go to Cuba I was all in.
It was an incredible trip. Read below for more:
A Few Facts About Cuba
- Population: 11 million
- Square miles: 42,426 (about the size of Tennessee)
- Annual tourists: 2 million
- Government: Totalitarian communist state headed by Raul Castro (for the next year)
Takeaways from Cuba:
- The Cuban people can complain, but they can’t organize.
- Our American tour guide, Chris, joked that people think baseball is Cuban’s favorite pastime, but in reality it’s complaining.
- People complain widely and loudly about the government (it’s allowed!), but they are not allowed to organize in any way.
- Cuba is bureaucratic and confusing.
- But it’s also delightful. Our Cuban tour guide, Andres, often told us, “don’t try to understand Cuba, simply disfruta (enjoy)." He joked that even Cubans don’t understand Cuba.
- Life is not easy, but people take care of each other.
- A history of oppression and takeovers have led Cuban people to rely heavily on each other. Which means the first question any Cuban will ask you is, “how is your family?”
- Havana is beautiful.
- Yes, it is rundown and in severe need of repairs, but the architecture, the flora and fauna, the people, and the old, well-taken care of cars are every bit as charming as you would imagine.
- It’s hard to get rich.
- While Cuba does a good job of providing a basic safety net for people (education, housing, education, work), there isn’t enough of anything to go around, so if you’re a go-getter, you’ll get frustrated. It’s hard to get ahead.
- Cuba is well-educated.
- Cuban children are required to go to school until they are 15. As a result, Cuba has a 99.8% literacy rate, one of the highest in the world.
- Cuban people are healthy.
- Free education means a lot of doctors, in fact Cuba has the highest doctor to patient ratio in the world. And universal healthcare means the gente are well taken care of.
- Cuba is safe.
- People often ask if I felt safe in Havana and I did. Crime rates are very low, as are drug and gang activity. Strict policies and the nature of an island with secure borders keep those things at bay.
- It’s time to lift the Cuban Embargo.
- While it won’t be easy, and it’s highly politicized, lifting the Cuban embargo will help the Cuban people and mean more business opportunities for the United States.
Travel Tips if You’re Going to Cuba
- Bring gifts for the people.
- It can be awkward to hand them out, but I brought basic toiletries (like bandaids, toothbrushes, soap, etc.) and a handful of books in Spanish that were well received. More on that here.
- Don’t forget anything.
- Nothing is available or easy. Don’t forget anything because you probably can’t buy it there. Most Cubans have to go to Panama to shop. (This means bring enough cash and plenty of snacks).
- Eat at the Soviet-inspired restaurant, Nazdarovie, in Havana.
- Bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
- Anywhere that isn’t privately owned won’t have t.p. or soap.
Recommended Reading Material
- Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause by Tom Gjelten
- Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana by Ann Louise Bardach
- Cuba Handbook by Christopher Baker
- Cuba and the Night by Pico Iyer
- Waiting for Fidel by Chris Hunt