By Jasminee Sahoye
Immediately after Barack Obama announced he wants to lift the embargo placed on Cuba more than 50 years ago, I took a trip to the communist country to witness Cuba and ordinary Cubans before the inevitable impact a more open relationship with the United States will have on their lives and country.
At the tourist city of Varadero I stayed at the Riu Hotel, rated as one of the best, but I knew as a journalist I had to explore life outside the resort to get a truer picture.
There were organised trips to Havana and other tourist sites in Varadero but to interact with the locals for a firsthand experience of how they live, I took a double-decker bus that comes to the hotel every half hour. The cost is five Cuban convertible pesos for as many rides for the day.
Few locals live in Varadero as most of the city is hotels with vast land space. However, I found a family who invited me into their modest home, a small well-kept concrete structure with a shrine they showed to me, saying I had to put some money there, which I did. They were watching an American television show.
There were many little souvenir markets with handicrafts ranging from leather bags, slippers and wrist bands to knitted clothing and paintings.
Varadero is known for its Plaza America, a modern space with a bank, souvenir shops, food court and a supermarket with mainly imported items, which attract mostly tourists.
The streets are paved and well-maintained. A tour guide pointed to a construction site where two new state-of-the- art hotels are being constructed to cater to the growing number of tourists.
A popular mode of transportation in the city is horse-drawn carts that carry up to four persons. The Cubans refer to them as taxis. There’s also the coco taxi, which are negotiable, and many old American-made cars.
In contrast, in Havana, especially Old Havana, most buildings are old but there is evidence of renovations. The streets are narrow, making it difficult for cars. Havana was bustling and in Jose Marti Square, popular with visitors, a number of vendors were plying their wares, from floral arrangements to fruits, vegetables and souvenirs. There were also a number of musicians.
On the way from Varadero to Havana via a modern cab equipped with air-conditioning, a walkie talkie and a meter, I noticed locals along the road trying to sell bananas by hailing passing taxis. There were also a number of commuters lining the roadway. Public transportation is not easily accessible, according to my cabbie, Tony, a Colombian national who moved to Cuba many years ago.
While booking my flight to Cuba, the travel agent said it’s mandatory for visitors to Cuba to purchase health insurance, since in the past some visitors were abusing the island’s free health care, which in many respects is excellent.
“Airport officials randomly check for health insurance and if caught, the cost for buying it there may be triple the amount required in Canada,” the travel agent told me.
I witnessed a number of Canadians, including a family of five, who were stopped by airport officials and sent to a desk at Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport, Varadero, to purchase health insurance.
The Cuban government has strict security measures. Every incoming and outgoing traveller is photographed and must complete a Cuban tourist card also known as a Cuban visitor’s visa. On board the flight, the air hostess made it clear that if an error is made on the form, there would be Cdn$20 charge for another form. Additionally, each traveller is required to pay a $25 departure tax.
Tourism is a major source of income for Cuba. Every year millions of Canadians, Europeans, Central and South Americans visit the island, the largest in the Caribbean. Under the current embargo, Americans are forbidden from visiting Cuba.
When it comes to foreign currency, a tour guide informed us that the Canadian dollar always outweighs the U.S. dollar in terms of exchange value. But that did not hold true at the hotel as the rate for the U.S. dollar to the Cuban convertible peso was better than the Canadian exchange rate.
On the trip, I met Canadians who have visited Cuba several times and say it’s cheaper than many other Caribbean destinations. They expressed their love for the sea, sand, sun, cigars, rum, coffee, the simplicity of the people, the unique sites and the fact that Cubans love Canadians and they don’t have to compete with Americans.
But how long will Canadians be Cuba’s number one visitors? That’s the question many Canadians are asking.