Knowing we would be in Cuba for only one day on this cruise, Bruce and I weighed the advantages and disadvantages of taking a ship-sponsored excursion versus going it alone as a self-guided people-to-people experience.
Fathom’s website states: “Self-Directed People-to-People activities include educational activities that are intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba and/or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities. Travelers who elect to forego the Fathom sponsored Immersion Activities will be responsible for adhering to a full-time schedule of activities from an authorized category (e.g. educational, religious activities, humanitarian projects, family visits) and maintaining their own records demonstrating compliance with OFAC requirements.
Travelers opting to engage in a self-directed P2P program or relying on one of the other travel authorizations will not be monitored by Fathom and are required to maintain records related to the authorized travel activities for a period of five years (a copy of your travel affidavit and documentation evidencing the activities that you participated in while in Cuba).”
Really? We must keep these records for five years? Is a U.S. government official going to come pounding on my front door in a few years demanding to see these documents? If I don’t produce them, will I get thrown in jail?
Of course, I wouldn’t trust anything our current president and administration does over the next four years, but I think this and the following blog post and my photos will suffice as evidence of my activities. I even have a “people-to-people” video as proof! More on that in my next post…
In the end, neither of us could fathom (no pun intended) the idea of being herded onto a bus with 40 other passengers and spending half the time just trying to get on and off the darn thing. Besides, how much contact would we really have with the locals if we are being shepherded from place to place? Sure, we would see more, but what Bruce and I really wanted to do was just meet and converse with Cubans. The seeing would have to wait until a return trip to Cuba—that is, if our current regime will permit it in the future…
Before the cruise, I had done research on all the places to visit in Santiago de Cuba. I even printed off a map and highlighted San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (castle), Cepspedes Park, and Santa Ifigenia Cemetary where Fidel Castro was laid to rest. We were going to hire a taxi and see them all! Not.
Instead, I showed the map to one of the Impact Travel staff aboard ship and asked her to highlight where we should head out on foot. Both streets she recommended were located directly across from the port, and one of them was strictly for pedestrians. Perfect!
After passing four armed guards stationed throughout the customs terminal with Springer Spaniel sniffing dogs in tow, we insisted on having our passports stamped (The dedicated passport stamper was lazy and would only stamp it if you asked), and cleared the gauntlet.
As poor as Cuba is, and as poor of a city Santiago de Cuba appeared to be, we did not see any poverty in the streets. The poverty rate in Cuba is only 5% (compared to about 14.5% in the U.S.A.), so nobody appeared to be starving or in bad condition.
During the day, we stopped into a few stores to see what was being sold and for what price. These sodas were .60 CUC each (about US $0.60). They were delicious!
A gallon of milk costs about 7.00 CUC, and a can of sardines was 1.75. A bottle of shampoo averaged 5.00. Toothbrushes cost about .75-1.00, and a small sofa would set you back 250 CUC.
On the surface, the prices in many respects were similar to ours; HOWEVER, when you think about their average monthly pay (about $1/day), it takes a full day of work to pay for one toothbrush! Two days of work will pay for one hour of internet access from a desktop computer at an internet café.
The supermercado (super market) wasn’t all that super, either. Entire six-foot long shelf units displayed just one item, such as identical large plastic bottle of cooking oil. Would you like to buy some crackers? You have perhaps three varieties from which to choose. Chocolate? I was shown either chocolate spread or chocolate drink as my choices to purchase. I would never survive…
Cubans receive food subsidies, so at least they don’t have to spend all of their hard-earned money on what little variety they find for groceries. In addition, Cubans receive free telephone service, free health care, and medicine is priced the lowest in the world. Housing and extremely low-priced utilities are highly subsidized, and there are no taxes on public jobs (which account for 75-90% of the jobs, since there are very few self-employed people). Education is a high priority in Cuba, so it is free.
If it sounds like I am pro-Communist, I assure you, I am NOT.
This is the sad economic fact in Cuba: According to Encyclopedia.com, Cuba’s economic freedom score was 28.7 (in 2014), making its economy one of the world’s least free. As an entrepreneur who created and ran a successful computer-related services business for twelve years, has also enjoyed a small hobby business creating and selling photo notecards for over thirty years, and is currently (and happily!) running my husband’s successful art glass jewelry hobby business; I am definitely all about economic freedom!
I also all believe strongly in the first amendment and being able to speak out against our current government without fear of being thrown in jail, beaten, or worse (at least for now). That wasn’t the case for Cubans in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. It remains to be seen what the future brings…
Coming up next: MAKING FRIENDS IN CUBA
Meanwhile, here are a few scenes around Santiago de Cuba. There are MANY more photos to come in my next post!