Brief History:  Cuba is a communist country. The government owns the majority of land, buildings, businesses, banks, transportation, natural resources, and assets in the country. When Castro took power in 1959, he was successful in gaining the confidence of those Cubans who remained over the long haul, in part because previous regimes were dictatorial, enslaving the Cuban people over hundreds of years.

Travel Permission: US Citizens (except those with family living in Cuba) must obtain a license thru the US Treasury Department. Many documents are required, both for entry into Cuba and for re-entry and compliance with US policy. Most US citizens enter Cuba by going to Cancun and then into Havana. In recent years, limited charter flights depart some US cities, but information is scarce about those options.

Embargo: President Kennedy attempted in 1961 with the Bay of Pigs to overthrow Castro, unsuccessfully.  Prior to Castro’s overthrow in 1959, large US corporations had owned about 75 percent of the agricultural land in Cuba; and about 40% of the sugar industry. Approximately 200,000 Cubans fled the country to the US, in that period, mostly wealthy and professionals with money.   Since Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs, an embargo has existed.  US citizens can (and have been) be fined for doing business with Cuba, even on a small scale.  A small trade exists with some essential farm products, but little more.

Ry Coorder, a US musician, went to the Havana community of Buena Vista in 1996, and upon hearing an elderly group of musicians at the Buena Vista Social Club, persuaded them to collaborate with him in making an album of their popular music.  It was an international hit. Cooder was fined $25,000 for violating the US-Cuba embargo.   (#1)

Guantanamo Bay:   When a US battle ship exploded in Havana’s harbor, the US blamed Spain, and US troops invaded Cuba. The Spanish-American War began, and is known to Cubans as their battle for independence.

Jose Marti was killed in the first battle. Spain soon surrendered; and after 400 years of Spain’s domination, Cuba was free of Spanish control. For four years, the US maintained control over Cuba before granting Cuban independence. As part of the agreement, Guantanamo has been under US control since then, first as a Naval base, and since 1962 as a US prison.

Guantanamera: A song most popular in Spanish speaking countries, originally a poem composed by Jose Marti, with later music added by Joseito Fernandez, Guantanamera is Cuba’s best-known song. Marti, who along with Fidel Castro and Cienfuegos, has his face on public buildings, books, statues and printed material all over Cuba, is best known as the father of independence. Marti was 42 when killed in the first freedom battle against the Spanish in 1898.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.

Accommodations: A wide range of hotels exists. Extreme caution is urged for any one traveling to Cuba, as the practice is to overbook the best hotels where the highest prices are charged. Overbooked guests are placed at low-end facilities. Our group of 18 US and Canadian researchers and librarians was accommodated three of seven nights at low-end and/or substitute hotels because of overbooking. Although many have complained to the tour agency (Cuban nationals doing business in Canada), no refunds have been made so far. Our last night in Havana, our (substitute) hotel would make a low-end Motel 6 look great – beds old and smelly, no mattress pads or blankets, sheets and spreads ripped, bathrooms in extremely bad repair, telephones that didn’t work even to the front desk, etc. Tourists from Poland and Ireland experienced similar or worse circumstances because of “overbooking”.

Food: Cuba has a distinct national cuisine, different from Mexico and other Latin countries. Rarely does one find a spicy dish. Chicken is the most common animal protein, with rice (white, not mixed), beans (black or navy but not refried) and some vegetables part of most restaurant meals.

Currency: Cuba has two forms of money: the CUC which tourists use (those bills mostly have revolution battle scenes in lieu of people); the local peso which the Cubans use. The CUC is said to be valued at $1 CUC for $1 US or Canadian dollar.  However, the government owns all the exchanges. The US dollar is most often traded around 87 cents for one CUC and the Canadian dollar about 90 cents for one CUC. One wonders why locals have a completely separate form of money from visitors.  In part, it could be because they purchase food and goods at “local” stores owned by the government with prices set to accommodate their relatively low pay (also from the federal government). The government relies on the visitor industry as one of its major sources of national income since the Iron Curtain fell. Tourist restaurants, buses, hotels and retail shops are all priced about like a high quality US or Canadian city for similar goods. Thus, the two sets of money in part help Cuba charge very high-profit prices for tourist items, without putting their own citizens into extreme poverty – they can purchase their basic goods at stores the tourists rarely see.

One won’t find a mainstream opportunity to exchange US dollars for Cuban currency in the US – do it while in Cuba or you’ll find yourself holding relatively useless CUCs upon your return to the US.

Population: Havana has about 2.5 million residents; and Cuba about 11 million. These numbers vary depending upon the source. Asking several locals if other nationalities live in Cuba, the answer was always “no”. We saw no sign of foreigners living in Cuba. All the locals we spoke with said they and their ancestor were born in Cuba. A few said they have family living in Canada, the US or abroad.

Medical Services: All Cubans have free health care, cradle to grave, since Castro took over. It is said that Cuba has one of the highest number of medical doctors and nurses per capita, in the world. Cuba trains its own at six different university medical schools on the island. Cuba also has an international medical school where hundreds of prospective med students get their education. A young med student from North Dakota quoted in a 2012 Cuban newspaper, said he would be able to return to the US to practice medicine in a low-income clinic and not worry about re-paying his med school debt – he will have none. One medical doctor I spoke with said that Cuba is exporting its medical expertise, by ‘loaning’ other countries medical doctors and nurses for a period of a few years each. The receiving country, in exchange, this doctor said, pays Cuba a sizeable fee for each individual they ‘hire’; as well as all the expenses of the professional while in their country. The ‘exported’ medical professionals are able to say whether they wish to be considered for this overseas assignment or not, with their wishes respected. It is said that Cuba may earn more by exporting such medical services than from any other source of income.

Venezuela is one country receiving medical talent from Cuba. In a newspaper article, President Hugo Chavez is quoted as saying that the oil his country sends to Cuba each day is very small, in fact inconsequential, compared to the great service Cuba is providing his people with the 11,000 Cuban professionals working in Venezuela.

Cuba emphasizes preventive medicine, because the country doesn’t have the elaborate facilities, equipment and pharmaceutical products the US, Canada and Norway have.

$1 Trillion owed to Cuba by the US: Cuba publications quote top officials estimating that the US has cost Cuba $1 trillion dollars by the embargo. One article suggested many trillions of dollars have been lost by Cuba. If this is a preview of what Cuba may negotiate should the embargo be lifted, let’s leave the embargo in place. Many countries over the centuries have precluded trade of all kinds with other countries. No compensation to Cuba by the US and no compensation to US corporations or residents by Cuba should be exchanged if the embargo is lifted. Some think that rich US corporations want to lobby to recapture their losses from the communist take-over in 1959 when they were thrown out of Cuba, and that by supporting the US payment to Cuba for embargo offsets, the rich Cubans in the US and the large US corporations who were operating in Cuba prior to 1959, could get some of their assets back. If the US opens relations with Cuba and lifts the embargo, it should be with the stipulation that the US owes Cuba nothing.

References and reading:

#1.  Cuba:  Land of Enchantment.  Time Books.  New York.

#2.  Kirk, John & Erisman, H.M.   Cuban Medical Internationalism.   Palgrave MacMillan.  2009.