Tourists and the People They Attract

Most tourists to Cuba are Europeans and Canadians. Two or three times a week luxury cruise liners dock three blocks from our hotel, flooding the streets with camera toting gapers.


I doubted they got much further from the ship than a few blocks. Their presence drew the Habaneras who thrived off their tips:  the parade of stilted dancers who pranced down the streets accompanied by a tooting horn, banging drum and a huge waving cloth bird strung on three long poles; the cigar smoking ladies who lounged in doorways waiting for eager, and wealthy, photographers; the horse drawn carriages ready for a ride along the Malecon; restaurant musicians who played “Guantanamera” over and over for each wave of tourists; and at night, the prostitutes and hustlers pervasive in that area of town, illegal and denied by the officials.

According to one of our group who traveled in the interior on another program, rural people are open and friendly with no motive other than curiosity and hospitality. We were told that most Habaneras would not approach strangers on the street, so anyone who did was suspicious. There were the Cubans looking for a friend, always pleasant, curious, conversational but who invariably asked for something before parting, usually money, to buy his mother some oil, or a little for a special present for her child. Never very much by our standards. An American dollar was magic for someone limited to the non-convertible Cuban peso.


One enterprising young man pretended to be an interviewer. He carried a cardboard box with some coloring to make it look like a tape recorder. His microphone and headset were made from straws, tape and more cardboard. From a distance, his face was very serious and the tourists he interviewed joined in the shame after some puzzlement. He left them without any exchange of money or other items, so perhaps he was living out his own dreams.

At the University of Havana where we were taking our Spanish classes, some of the younger students I met had found a special Cuban friend and seemed surprised by their own popularity. The Americans would be expected to pay for meals since the Cubans certainly could not. Several people were taken to the homes of a friend and met their families. Always, they were shocked by the lack of amenities, like enough plates or cutlery to serve a meal to an extra person, but they were charmed by the openness and welcome they felt from the people they met. One woman paid for her friend to accompany her to one of the Cuban islands for a holiday, something he would never have been able to afford.

The inclusion of sex in the special friendship is not unusual. The Cuban people are very sensual. The girls are taught to flirt while very young, and they expect to be noticed. Our maestra told us that in one office where the manager tried to curb his impulse to give flattering comments after a training session on harassment, the women complained that he was ignoring them. However, in the pre-Castro days, the sexuality was restrained by the Catholic Church except where the gambling casinos flaunted their prostitutes, so most interplay between men and women was innocent. Now, however, the church has much less influence due the Castro’s suppression of the church’s influence. Younger Cubans never knew the degradation and corruption before the revolution and are unaware of Castro’s fury at the degradation of his people.

Carriage for Hire

I wondered how eager those Cubans would have been to seek out foreigners had they not been motivated by wanting a better life with a little more food and a few more things hard to buy without some access to the American dollar. What kind of friendship develops with such power differences from money and privilege?  Certainly, the official line prohibits prostitution, since one of the underlying reasons for the revolution was to stop the exploitation of Cubans by foreigners. I talked with some of the others about mutual manipulation, since both people got something out of the relationship. The Americans got a closer look at the “real” Cuba, and the Cubans had a willing listener and some relief from their woes. Maybe I’m too suspicious to feel comfortable in such a situation, or it may just be my normal reserve, but I did not find a Cuban friend and only shared those moments of discovery vicariously.