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Always interested in offers/projects/new ideas. Eclectic experience in fields like: numerical computing; Python web; Java enterprise; functional languages; GPGPU; SQL databases; etc. Based in Santiago, Chile; telecommute worldwide. CV; email.

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[Review] Cuba

From: andrew cooke <andrew@...>

Date: Fri, 10 Mar 2017 20:37:00 -0300

[Not sure you can "review" a country, but also not sure what other tag
to use.]

Paulina, me, and my parents spent last week in Cuba.  We rented a
couple of rooms in Havana, very near the coast, to the West of the
city centre.  Most days we walked to the old town and did some typical
tourist thing like visiting a cigar factory.

At first sight, what made Havana unusual was that it was clearly more
wealthy before - it was not the people (generally not well off, but
not shockingly poor) that surprised, but the contrast with the

The next surprise was the money.  First, there were two currencies in
use (with an apparently fixed rate of conversion from one to the
other): CUCs and Pesos.  It seems that, as a tourist, you should use
CUCs, which is what a cash machine gave us on withdrawl.  A CUC has
the same nominal value as a US dollar (which you cannot use), but
buying CUCs costs an additional 3% in commission.  And if you actually
have US dollars (cash) then you pay an extra 10%.

I don't understand why these currencies and rules exist.  I suspect
it's somehow related to trying to control the conversion of local
value to US dollars, or to suppress the use of US dollars on the black

Once we had money it was difficult to find much to buy.  I guess we
didn't look terribly hard, but we couldn't find much in the way of
basics: bread, meat, cheese, etc.  So we ate out for every meal
(actually, we had a late, large breakfast and then an early dinner,
and lost a little weight).

The food we ate out was good.  Sometimes not everything on a menu was
available, but the lower priced places had decent, local dishes, while
more expensive places offered more variety.  One night I had very good

There was a "supermarket" near us that stocked several varieties of
beer, frozen chicken quarters, one kind of biscuit, bottled water,
baby food, and a few other items.  There were often queues, with
people buying fairly large quantities of whatever was available.
Perhaps they stock up, and over time the supplies even out (maybe
another week there is pasta, say)?

I don't know if locals have to get food through informal contacts, or
if there were extra shops hidden away that we didn't see.

With the lack of stuff to buy, and the buildings that have seen better
days, came a weird emphasis on money.  Tour guides explained how
little people earn, and we were constantly being asked if we wanted a
taxi (where a typical ride costs, apparently half a month's wage).
Things started to lose sense.  Were taxi drivers hugely wealthy?  Why
didn't they look it?  Were they massively taxed?  If so, on what
basis?  We didn't get one receipt all week (or see one taxi meter
actually running).

Several of the places we visited didn't seem worth the money.  After a
disappointing Museum of Rum and a lacklustre tour of a Cigar Factory
(after a particularly apressive walk down a street with people
insisting we discuss whatever they were offering to sell) I was less
than keen on the "Museum of Chocolate" - that turned out to have no
tour at all but redeemed itself with surprisingly good hot chocolate
at a reasonable price.

Discomfort with money (or value?) came to a head on our final night
when we went to the best restaurant we could find (Attelier).  They
seemed to have lost our booking, but found space for us outside (along
with many more people, who also seemed unexpected - they were sitting
in the dark for some time until lighting was connected up).  Service
was haphazard, but friendly.  Some items on the menu were missing, but
what we finally ordered was decent - it combined fancy main course
"plates" with generous side dishes of veg, rice, and black beans.  So
you got both the "fancy food" and the local staples, and you couldn't
complain about being hungry afterwards.  The final price, for two
starters, four main courses, one of the cheapest bottles of wine (and
an extra glass) was 100 CUC (before tip).  By American standards
that's crazy cheap and any complaint seems unfair.  By Chilean
standards it was good food, but you'd expect better service.  Anyway,
luckily, we left just before it started to rain - I wonder how they
handled that.

Per person, then, the meal was a Cuban month's wage.  Did that make us
the crazily deluded rich, obscenely splurging money?  Did it make the
owners the local equivalent of millionaires?  Why couldn't they afford
to pay better waiters?

Why was it so busy?  Was everyone a tourist?

Or are people actually richer than we were told?  Were we being lied
to about typical wages?  Or did we see the middle class, and the poor
are hidden away somewhere else?

I have no idea.

I guess you should just relax and enjoy the ride.  But when the
economic web that connects you to your fellow men seems contrived and
inconsistent it's hard to let go.  I never realised I would miss the
simplicity of capitalism.


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