Important things for first time visitors to Cuba, by Cubans

Cuba: beaches, mulata, tobacco and rum. That’s it? Or is it just a marketing slogan? Come see for yourself.

In 2016, over six hundred thousand Americans (many of them Cuban-Americans) came to Cuba, an increase of a 33% compared to 2015. Although in 2017 & 2018 the number remained almost the same because of the changes in relationship between the US and the Cuban government, many Americans continue traveling to the island.

If you are thinking about visiting Cuba, here is some advice for new visitors: by someone that lives here.

Best season to visit Cuba

The sun is out practically the entire year. Nevertheless, dry weather and a light winter can be found between December and February. The traditional tourist season is mainly between November and March, including the end of the year, when temperatures are more moderate and prices are highest. For those who want to visit natural landscapes, it is good to decide whether or not to come in the rainy season (May to September), when rivers are high and there is everything is green.

Book a flight and get your VISA

Since 2016, there are up to 20 round-trip flights are landing in Havana daily from the US. It is not difficult to book a ticket online for one of the planes. Among the airlines that travel to Cuba are American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United and Southwest.

Before obtaining the visa (a Cuban government requirement), you need to categorize your trip according the 12 authorized travel categories set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (a US government requirement). Some of the categories are:

  • Family visit.
  • Journalistic activities.
  • Professional research and professional meetings.
  • Educational activities in Cuba for Universities, including people-to-people exchanges for group travel.
  • Religious activities.
  • Public performances, athletic/non athletic competitions, exhibitions.
  • Support for the Cuban people.
  • Humanitarian projects.
  • Activities by private foundations, or research or educational institutes.
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use.

Many people travel under the category of “Support for the Cuban People”, which is very broad. Staying at a private guesthouse and eating at private restaurants classify as supporting the Cuban people, although they are not sufficient.  An example of a trip in Support of the Cuban People by written by the US government is:

> While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropista) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Frequently asked questions related to Cuba

You can also make good use of the cultural events and festivals season in Cuba (all year in fact) for your option “public performances and exhibitions”. Make “people-to-people exchanges for group travel” when booking a tour via an agency, which can lead to activities that involves interactions between foreigners and locals.

Basics upon your arrival to Cuba

First, let’s start with the Cuban currency (of which there are confusingly two). To avoid be fooled and to save money it is essential to be familiar with the money. There are the Peso Convertible (CUC) and the Peso Cubano (CUP). This former is the one you will use more often for buying food, taxis, accommodation, but you can carry both. The exchange rate is 1 CUC x 25 Peso Cubano.

Credit cards from US banks don’t work in Cuba, so it is recommended to bring cash and exchange it for the Cuban currency. You are able to do this upon your arrival at the airport or at an exchange store or bank. A levy of 10 percent is charged when you exchange your American dollars, so depending on the exchange rate you get in the U.S. it’s often (but not always) better to change USD to another foreign currency first: Euro or Canadian dollar, and then to CUC.

For foreigners, the entry fee to some places like museums and historical sights has to be paid in CUC. Locals have to pay the same number but in pesos, for instance, to enter into the Plaza de la Revolución (Square of Revolution), it’s 8 CUC for tourists and 8 pesos for locals. In situations like this, you may feel that there is a currency for Cubans and another for foreigners, but this is no longer the case.

To getting around in Cuba, you need to know all the options you have. To rent a taxi from one of the Cuban taxi companies or travel in a fancy American vintage car are maybe the most renowned means of transportation. There is a wide range of options for moving inside the city. Private taxis called almendrones is a popular choice. Nevertheless, the taxis colectivos (shared taxis) are the proper alternative if you know exactly where you want to go. They run in specific routes where you normally could see passengers doing hitchhiking and getting in and off the colectivos in a rush. Pretend to be a local and don’t ask anything, only pay 10 or 20 pesos a trip. If you dare, please feel like canned fish in the public buses, jam-packed most of the time (don’t pay in CUC, just give them the smallest CUP coin you have).

In the case of government-run transportation for travelling around the country, the better option for tourists is the company Viazul. These buses are quite comfortable and usually on schedule.

Accommodation and food

If you are travelling via the “Support to the Cuban people” option you’re most likely to want to book a casa particular beforehand, through one of the online booking sites like AirBnB. In the casas you will experience the daily life of locals and contribute to their economy. Often breakfast and meal service are included.

Be careful though: it is common for some “friendly” person on the street to take you to his “uncle’s” or “aunt’s” place, if you look lost wandering in the streets. Keep in mind this person will get a commission from the householder bringing in clients.

Cuban food is worth a try. Some private restaurants or paladares offer nice dishes, but often the food in the casas could be very appetizing and cheaper. The authentic roast pork, the moros y cristianos and the home-made stew ajiaco criollo are delicious. What about drinks? When in Cuba you might as well sample the traditional Cuban cocktails: mojito, daiquirí and the like.

Attractions

There are many places to go for having fun. Cuba has reputation for the beautiful beaches and historical places. The beach is really a economical place to go, if you only want to spend a day in the sand, take a bath and avoid the temptation to purchase cocktails and souvenirs. The coral reefs of Cuba are beautiful, well conserved and suitable for scuba diving if you are into sea sports.

The nightclubs and bars are well-known for being very entertaining places. All of these places offer the Cuban rum and the cocktails, sometimes at a higher price than street bars or stores. There is also a cultural ambience most of the year at the festivals in Cuba. The principal venue is Havana, but you can find cultural activities all over the country. There are many museums in Cuba, ancient squares and marvellous architecture you will see for sure.

For those who like hiking, there are many landscapes to visit. Some guided excursions are booked via companies like AirBnB experiences, Viazul or Ecotur. Some places are easy to visit by yourself, without the necessity of booking a tour, but if you are a novice, please be careful.

Internet

The internet connection in Cuba is limited and still evolving. Mobile 3G internet was only recently introduced and roaming can be quite expensive. Wi-Fi hotspots are spread all over the country’s main cities. You can find it in the parks mainly, and especially in Havana are very common. To navigate you need to buy an internet card in Cuba. Spend 1 CUC for one-hour internet connection card, but you better learn where to buy it, as some private establishments tout the cards for the double. Some street traders sells the Wi-Fi cards at the very park in which the hotspot is located, but try to avoid them, as their activity is illegal.

On the other hand, mobile internet with no restrictions is a newest thing you will notice in Cuba. The people are now getting used to this, as they weren’t able to use it in the past. Although it is a good idea, it is often a requirement to have a Cuban SIM card to be capable of connecting the web by your mobile data.

Decide for yourself!

Of course, not everything you need to know has been said yet; you have read some useful beginner’s advices, though. If hesitant, find further details and decide now. Cuba is waiting for you; don’t let your friends tell you: “I told you should go”. Besides, if you are reading this, it means that you are already thinking of going soon, doesn’t it?

7 questions for María Carla, Executive Director of FIU’s CasaCuba

Before we talk about what you’ll be doing at FIU, for those who aren’t familiar with your background: You have been hailed as an example of the American Dream and an immigrant success story. Can you tell us a little bit about your first couple of years when you arrived in the United States? What were some of the challenges that you and your family faced and how did you overcome them?

Thank you for the kind words. My family settled in South Florida as I was about to start high school. Although we were very motivated by the opportunities now available to us in the United States, our period as recent arrivals also entailed significant hardships, including economic scarcity, language barriers and the separation from our family in Cuba. Eventually, with the support of our relatives, friends, and the community at large, we were able to overcome the many obstacles and accomplish our individual and collective goals. My mother and father found stable employment in their respective professional fields, and my sister and I won scholarships to attend universities that opened many doors for us. We thus harbor enormous gratitude towards our South Florida community, and a strong commitment to help others achieve their own dreams.

María Carla Chicuén, Executive Director of FIU’s CasaCuba

Within a span of four years, you went from La Habana to Miami to Harvard. That’s quite a ride!

That period of my life was both the most challenging and the most thrilling. I experienced so many difficulties, but I also underwent tremendous personal growth and saw my family reap the rewards of our sacrifice. When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to start my studies at Harvard, I realized that the snowy East Coast could not have been more different from my tropical upbringing.

I took great pride in representing and sharing my culture with others when I arrived at Harvard, where I encountered an extraordinary group of Cuban students who were always available to play dominoes, dance salsa, make the pilgrimage to a Cuban restaurant in Boston and even roast a pork in caja china at tailgates before the famous Harvard-Yale football games.

For the children of exiles, Cuba is often a collection of nostalgic stories from our parents and grandparents. What does Cuba mean to you? What will it mean to your daughter?

While growing up in Havana, I was not fully conscious of the meaning or expressions of my Cuban identity. My love for salsa dancing and very sweet café con leche; my way of speaking loudly and fast, with my mouth, hands and arms; the energy, warmth and frequency of family gatherings; my excitement and my passion for life…These were, in my mind, largely elements of my individual and family identity.

When I moved to the United States as an adolescent, I immediately befriended other Cuban students at school, and we would get together during lunch breaks and school field trips to sing Cuban songs or dance ruedas de casino. Slowly, I began to recognize all that was Cuban in me, especially as my interactions with people from other cultures became more prominent, when I left Miami to start college in Massachusetts. Soon I had become aware that my family traditions, my way of relating with others, my tastes for food and music, the way I spoke Spanish, were very much a product of my rich Cuban heritage, including my Spanish and Chinese ancestry.

After my daughter was born, almost two years ago, in the United States, I have grown even more conscious of the complexity of the Cuban identity, and the ways in which the particular identity of immigrants and their offspring is shaped. My husband and I are anxious to discover what Cuba will mean to our daughter. We speak to her in Spanish, and sing Cuban lullabies to her. We live in the same building as my parents, who shower my daughter with the affection so typical of Cuban abuelos. The first meal she ever had was puré de malanga. And whenever I teasingly ask her if she´s from Havana, she always smiles and raises her arms, thinking I’m about to break into Camila Cabello´s popular song, to which she loves dancing.

Intergenerational misconceptions happen in all communities and this is certainly the case in ours. What do you wish older exiles understood better about recien llegados and millennials in Cuba? Conversely, what do you wish recien llegados and millennials on the island understood a little better about the exilio historico?

Empathy will be essential to foster mutual understanding across Cuban generations and immigrant waves. I wish that our community, that all Cubans, fully embraced the fact that the things that unite us are so much greater than our differences. That regardless of our date of birth or departure, our place of arrival, or whether we left or stayed, we are bound by a rich national history, by strong family values, by our ingenuity and resilience, and our common love of the arts, sports and Cuban traditions. Most important, I think that our community should be united, and uplifted, by the unavoidable truth that we all want the best for the Cuban people. And to achieve this common goal, we must have greater disposition to learn from one another in the spirit of finding common ground, truly appreciating the value of our individual and collective experiences and accomplishments. These are the meaningful interactions that CasaCuba will seek to facilitate.

What are some of the ways that young Cuban Americans can support the aspirations of our peers on the island? What can we learn from one another?

CasaCuba recently hosted an Afro-Cuban dinner, part of its ORIGENES dinner series to celebrate the diverse cultural roots of Cuban cuisine.

There is special magic in connecting with someone who shares our background, our roots. When we help others with whom we can identify at a deep cultural and personal level, we are not only sharing information or tangible resources; we are also inspiring. And inspiration is what triggers a greater emotional exchange, a deeper bond between the people, and the belief that one is capable of achieving much more. I am a strong advocate for the value of genuine and proactive mentorship relations especially between people in similar academic and professional fields. Creating or sharing development opportunities, opening doors, and cultivating talent are powerful ways to yield sustainable benefits. It would be wonderful if more of these relationships flourished across young Cubans regardless of their present location.

I know you just started your new role, but let’s pretend it’s 2023 and you’ve now been at FIU for five years. Looking back, what would you like to say were your greatest achievements? Any exciting projects on the horizon?

Five years from now, CasaCuba will be a vision made reality. We will have built an iconic, 50,000-square-foot facility on FIU´s main campus, hailed as a dynamic and innovative meeting place featuring a vibrant calendar of conferences, seminars, artistic performances, workshops, networking events and celebrations anchored in popular Cuban traditions, and open to all South Florida residents and visitors.

FIU leadership, CasaCuba´s executive team and Board of Advisors at the future site of CasaCuba.

In order to fulfill this vision, the support of the community will be essential. I will be hosting regular community conversations to gather the best ideas to build CasaCuba as a common second “home” that is truly representative of our richness, diversity and collective goals. I also hope to begin forging collaborative relationships, and exciting projects, with other educational institutions, museums, historical societies, cultural centers and professional organizations dedicated to the exploration and preservation of Cuban history and culture. In order to launch operations and build the CasaCuba facility as soon as possible, we will also need to raise funds. The generosity of individuals and institutions alike who believe in the potential of CasaCuba´s mission will enable us to become the premier cultural and intellectual hub for Cubans, and everyone with an interest in Cuba.

What are your favorite Cuba spots in Miami or the places that instantly transport you to Cuba?

There are so many! More than just Cuban spots, Miami offers the greatest collection of “Cuban experiences” outside of Cuba. I can’t count the places where I can enjoy good batido de mamey, ropa vieja, cortaditos, croquetas…Or live Cuban music and performances. I love that our distinctly Cuban accent, in both Spanish and English, is omnipresent in conversations around town. But nothing feels more Cuban than my family gatherings, or parties with friends, when we all talk at the same time and break into ruedas, or when my Cuban-Chinese great aunt shares natural remedies, and I am reminded that Cuba is with me anywhere I go, as long as I am surrounded by the warmth of Cubans and all our wonderful traditions.

Finally, you’re a successful woman…who also happens to be an immigrant, a Harvard graduate, an author, a mother, a wife, a sister, and a daughter. Some people say it’s impossible to do all of those things well. What have been the keys to your success? And what message do you have for young Cuban Americans and Latinos with big dreams?

I am fortunate that my family instilled in me a strong belief in my capacity to achieve even the most ambitious dreams. My parents always made it clear that education and hard work were the right path to follow, and from a very early age I was convinced that my success, however I defined it, would be commensurate with my discipline, dedication, perseverance and focus. I always felt like everyone around me, and especially my grandmother, expected a lot from me. My grandmother would question even a 99 on an exam. She would constantly remind me that I did not have to be the best, but I had to be better. That I didn’t necessarily have to win, but I had to compete. Therefore, I learned to demand a lot of myself, and to be humble.

Crucially, I think, my family always provided an environment of love, happiness and protection at home, so that I felt safeguarded through all my endeavors. This support network was essential to achieve every goal in my life and to keep my academic and professional careers in perspective, always striving for balance with my own personal fulfillment.

As I raise my daughter, it is my hope that I will be able to convince her that every dream is within reach if she is willing to put in her best effort. That is the message I have sought to share with the many students I have mentored over the years, especially fellow Cubans. As long as we foster our knowledge and intellectual curiosity, as we realize and maximize our potential, and build strong support networks, there is nothing that we cannot achieve.

 

 

Inspire Cuba: Shoes that Grow

On July 19th, 2018, Inspire Cuba flew to Havana with 34 pairs of “shoes that grow” to donate to children in three different communities in and near Havana.  Founded by young Cubans and Cuban Americans, Inspire Cuba aims to better the lives of the Cuban people while inspiring a new dynamic between our two peoples and our two countries, one based on honest dialogue and meaningful collaboration.  One way we do this is by providing humanitarian aid to the Cuban people, in this case shoes that grow. A “shoe that grows” is essentially a very durable chaco-style shoe made out of tire rubber. The shoes get their name from straps that adjust in five different places, allowing them to “grow” with a child for up to five years. Our journey to get these shoes to needy children in Cuba began six months prior when Dana Fernandez, a second generation Cuban American from New Jersey, and the newest member of Inspire Cuba, first proposed the project at the monthly board meeting. Dana learned about The Shoe That Grows and their mission through social media. She witnessed the impact the shoes had on children in other countries throughout Africa and Latin America and she thought, “why not Cuba?”

The board got behind the proposal almost immediately. We were attracted to the low-cost and easily implementable nature of the project. The shoes cost only $16 per pair and could be brought to Cuba in luggage, which makes the entire process easier, given that we could forego having to obtain import/export visas, which are costly and difficult to procure for Cuba. Initially, we set out to raise enough money to send 50 pairs of shoes to one community in Havana. We carried out all of our fundraising efforts through social media, and after we hit our goal fairly quickly, we decided to up the ante to 100 pairs of shoes and 3 Cuban communities. This would be a significant project for our young organization, and we were hungry and excited for the challenge. By May, we hit our new fundraising goal of $1600 thanks entirely to public donations from amazing individuals who are passionate about helping to improve the lives of the Cuban people, in this case the children. The 100 pairs arrived a few weeks later, and Dana and I split them up between the two of us.

Chris Vázquez, Dana Fernandez and Sophia Heinke of Inspire Cuba with two of the recipients of Shoes that Grow

To distribute the shoes in Cuba, we partnered with La Iglesia Evangelica de Cuba (the Evangelical Church of Cuba). Although our work is not religious in nature, we have found that implementing projects in Cuba is much easier by means of religious organizations, which are still very autonomous on the island and are capable of things that many other independent organizations aren’t yet. In the past, Inspire Cuba has collaborated with La Iglesia Evangelica to send provisions to Baracoa after Hurricane Matthew caused extensive damage to the area and its residents. We were now working together again, this time to help the children of Havana. The plan was to divide the 100 pairs of shoes into three sets to be donated to children in three locations: Guanabacoa, Alamar, and Centro Habana. We would go door to door in Guanabacoa and Alamar, and we would convene with the children at a central location in Centro Habana, where the need was greatest. Dana was the first of the Inspire Cuba delegation to arrive at Jose Marti International Airport. She arrived with 50 pairs of shoes, and everything was going according to plan until she was only able to locate one bag of 25 pairs. After searching for a while, she finally found the second bag in the hands of a Cuban customs agent, who brought her in for questioning.  Afraid to implicate the Church or Inspire Cuba, Dana told the agents of la aduana that the shoes were donations for the children of Havana. The customs officials, either because they assumed the shoes were for resale, or just to make a point, did not permit Dana to take the second bag with her from the airport, though they did allow her to send them back to the states because we had documentation that verified the non-profit status of Inspire Cuba and Because International.

Afraid that the same misunderstanding would occur when I flew to Havana, I decided to take just 9 pairs, just under the legal limit of items of the same kind that can be entered through customs without needing further permissions or licenses (this was something we learned on the go). Thankfully, I had no issues at the airport and we were set to go with 34 pairs. The next day, Dana and I met Sophia, another Inspire Cuba member who had already been living in Cuba for the summer, in front of the Museo de la Revolución, where we hopped in a taxi to Guanabacoa with ten pairs of shoes. We were greeted in Guanabacoa by Yeny Perez, our friend from the Church, and so commenced the donations. We met incredible families and children that day, as we went door to door donating shoes. At one house, they played music while we put the shoes on the children. For many, it was the first new pair of shoes they ever received and, for some, it was the only pair of shoes without holes that they owned. I feel that I personally witnessed a miracle at one house we visited where a mentally disabled little girl was screaming uncontrollably. Yeny noticed that the child’s screams had sort of a rhythmic tone to them, and she knelt down and began to sing to the girl. Almost instantly, the child stopped screaming and began to hum lowly to Yeny’s voice. She became soothed and allowed us to put the shoes on her as Yeny comforted her. It was truly a beautiful and moving experience for us. My favorite family that received shoes were these adorable fraternal twins. They were so happy running around with their new pair of shoes until it came time for a picture and they became instantly very serious. Their gaze had such a unique depth to it; it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the eyes of a child that young. Their father was so happy and moved by our act of kindness that he expressed a desire to completely reform his life and to come to God. He confessed that he had made poor choices throughout his life and he desperately wanted to make a change for the good of his children. Although our work is not religious in nature, I admired his desire to better himself for his family.

The next day, we again went door to door in Alamar, and it was equally as rewarding to see the children’s faces light up when they received their “shoes that grow.”  After the Alamar donations, we took a colectivo over to Centro Habana where Yeny’s friend, pastor Lester Ly, was waiting for us at a house he had borrowed from a friend, where the donations would be made. Aside from being a pastor, Lester works with needy children from dysfunctional families where the problems range from violence in the home to drug and alcohol abuse. His programs are both developmental and educational in nature, and he helps the children build character and community in a religious setting. Lester was a very gracious and welcoming host to our group, and he explained to us how he wished he could have a central location to conduct his programs in more of a classroom setting. This would help build community among the children, which is an integral element of the programs. Oftentimes, the children don’t really have a place where they feel at home, or can really call home.  We were very moved by this, and Inspire Cuba hopes to help Lester achieve his goal of a central location in the future. At the location he borrowed for the day, Lester had managed to gather approximately 20 children who were all eager to welcome us and receive a pair of shoes. This experience was overwhelmingly the highlight of the trip. We kicked off the donations by playing games with the children. Their favorite was Simon Says, or “Simón Dice,” and I even got to be Simón. Each one of the kids introduced themselves to us, saying their names, their age, and where they were from. Spoiler alert, they were all from Havana! We talked to the children about our organization and our mission, and we sang and danced to music as we put the shoes on their feet. Everyone got shoes; even a little boy who was walking by with a carton of eggs and heard the music got a pair! They were so happy and excited, and the experience was beyond fulfilling for us.  We ended the day with the children forming a circle around us to thank us and say a prayer for us to wish us continued health and success. Many hugs were exchanged, and we said our goodbyes.

In addition to helping Lester purchase a central location from where he can host his enrichment programs, Inspire Cuba plans to deliver the remaining 66 pairs of shoes to Cuba before the end of the year.

Not your stereotypical Cuba

I arrived in the middle of Centro Habana on a hot Monday afternoon its April 23rd at 1 pm. I am greeted by one of our tour guides Moriama , and Maylena the landlord of the casa particular (a Cuban style rental home / Airbnb). They let me know that the others from the trip are in transit from Viñales.

I knew I only had 6 days in Cuba I wanted to go explore and take it all in.

So I dropped off my bags and i began to walk around Havana. I went down Calle Escobar to hit up the Malecón, as I walked up and down the picturesque streets and I was mesmerized by Cuba’s beauty but shocked by the ruin. I sat by the Malecón and contemplated and thanked the universe for this moment. I tried to make sense of what I was feeling, I knew I was about to embark on something totally new and that I have never done before.

I guess when CubaOne, reached out to me a few months back about going on a heritage trip to Cuba with 8 other Cuban Americans, I didn’t realize exactly what I was getting myself into. When I met Rebecca, Victoria, Ceci, Andrew, Danny, Andrei, Joe, and Reuben, I thought it was interesting to meet other Cuban Americans like myself. Very Cuban, but not your stereotypical Cuban. These cats had the Cuban spirit and identified with the culture, but they’re redefining what that means to them.

“La timba no es como ayer”

As I walked around Havana I immediately began my search to find the folklore. I knew that a rumba or a tambor had to be happening close by. I walked around for a few hours never a dull moment. Something’s always happening in Havana either someone dropping a rope with a basket or a plastic bag to save them a trip upstairs or seeing a mechanic fix a car in the middle of the street. Seeing a handyman with his hands full of grease buy a loaf of bread and carry it home, , Or the people shouting from their balconies to the kids playing ball, or the long lines of people waiting for their bus ride home or to take out money from a beat up ATM machine. The sounds are loud and vibrant.

After exploring for a few hours, I hear it from the distance — I can hear the deep bass frequencies of the Iya drum blocks away — I let my intuition guide me to the “Tambor” as I am walking I hear it getting closer and closer and I found the building where these bataleros were playing masterfully. I stood there for a while and listened and tried to soak it all in, but I guess my curiosity rubbed them the wrong way. They stopped playing and closed the blinds of their house and the whole block began to stare at me. The irony, they thought I was a cop? As I hear one them say “La Timba No Es Como Ayer. Tumba”. (Things ain’t like they used to be, so get lost) I began to explore back to my street Concordia. lucky for me, every block in Centro Habana looks the same block, so I totally got lost. I tried to blend in, but I stood out like I had a sign that said Make America Great Again.

I wish somebody gave me a memo that we we’re going to be in the “hood”.

It was an intense awkward feeling being around a bunch of people staring at you. Some have no intentions, some wish you well, some laugh at you, some are plotting to see how they can wrap you into something. But luckily I speak fluent street Cuban, or at least I thought I did!

“No es Facil”

I had to learn how to be still and present,I had to forget about my first world luxuries or desires or demands I had. I had to feel everything that was happening around me, as the days passed I couldn’t shake this conflicting gut-wrenching feeling.

I didn’t know if I should feel happy, sad or both. I couldn’t shake the paranoia.

The conflict within me was I couldn’t ignore how people looked at me. Their daggering sharp looks deeply pierced my soul.

I could feel the deep resentment, sorrow, angst, and frustration. The resentment wasn’t that I am American or a tourist. The resentment was that at the end of the day I would go back to America and they would still be here in Havana struggling.

When you have two heritages that are similar but totally different. You begin to see and understand things about both cultures that most people can’t comprehend. I felt conflicted.

I heard people say “No es facil” or “Es complicado“.

“Si no sabes no te metas”

Ironically The safest I felt was at “El Diablo tun tun” . A rumba club that’s infamously known for being a “hood ass spot”. I went there by myself to see osain del monte. I’m a big Osain del monte fan. I have been listening to them for years so I was particularly excited to see them in action. I was blown away by these cats.

Baddass-ery at its finest. I’ve never heard a rumba like this before. Poly rhythms and syncopation galore.
After the show, I had the opportunity to meet the leader Adonis Panter and the drummers from Osain del Monte, we talked for a while and we all hit it off. They invited me to a beach house for a late night hang. Arriving to the house I could hear the drums roaring from the distance. I was impressed that they played a gig for hours and they’re right back at it. It felt like the Jazz scene of New York, these guys are really about this life,They are messengers of this music and culture. The preservation and the tradition mattered more to them than anything else. I could see the years of study and experience each one them had. All masters of the music.

As the hours passed they ask me If I wanna play. Much like in NYC. If your going to sit in and play you better bring your best or don’t bother because you will be embarrassed. “Si no saves no te metas”.

They say “show me what you got Mister New York”. they gave me a drum and started a fast guarapachangueo. We started jamming. They definitely threw me into the blender and tested my street cred.

Luckily I held my own. We played and sang and fellowshipped together until the sun came out. I felt so free, I felt like I had finally completed my mission and my search. I finally was exposed to what I have been searching for years. I was humbled by their grace and how they preserved and honored these deep traditions. These guys are the real deal.

There is no uber or Lyft in Havana but there definitely is surging. Everybody Is Hustlin’

I say there’s a 50 cent to $5 dollar markup for every street transaction for foreigners. I was overcharged on almost every purchase until I understood the hustle (leave your wallet at home and only have small bills in your pockets).

The deprivation is so real, I lost track of the number of times I was solicited for money, food and prostitution. Even the worker at the deli tried to take me to a brothel. Maylema the landlord charged me for some drinks that I didn’t drink, sold me a box of bootleg Cohibas and stole 3 pairs of my socks.
her family totally exploited that I was and somewhat clueless about intricacies of the day to day In Havana. Much like any one else in Centro Habana would.

How could I blame them? People are desperately trying to survive. Making a mile out of an inch.

Everybody is hustlin’

Double standards

I had a double standard in Cuba.

Sometimes I had to be as Cuban as possible and try to convince people I was a local. Sometimes I would have to be as American as I could.

After days of being hustled, I went into ‘Hotel Parque Central’ but it was alarming. They have the strongest, buffest, scariest looking security guards I’ve ever seen. So I left and went across the street to Hotel Inglaterra so I could finally chill and have a drink and attempt to connect to the bootleg WiFi. After sitting there for a while I couldn’t help but notice the hotel staff lurking and watching to see if there were any locals to kick out.

There’s this weird ranking system in Cuba. There is no delegating, or any democracy whatsoever. So whatever the “MAN” says Goes. Foreigners can pretty much do whatever they please as long as they bring the money. And, the locals generally get treated like trash. It was disheartening to to see the shameless disregard most Americans and foreigners people have for the local Cubans, blinded by the the beauty and the attractions. It was atrociously disappointing.

For every 5 dudes hustling there are 15 living a honest life.

The entrepreneurial spirit boiling in Havana, Being submerged to the innovative nature of the Cuban people was humbling and inspiring.

They are masters of efficiency and innovation,the great Cuban DJ Bjoyce introduced me to a sound engineer at FAC that made a stereo 8th inch cable by cutting up a few cables wiring it together and putting back in its black casing in 15 minutes.

I got to meet the very talented DJ Jigue. His place felt like a basement in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. The walls were covered with hip hop memorabilia, Vinyls everywhere, Congas, Batas, percussion instruments, midi controllers and the delightful smell of nag champa incense.

He hipped me to the complexities of living in Havana. He exposed me to the underground internet system that has hacked into the government network and sells bootlegged credits out of homes in Havana. We walked for blocks trying to find WiFi but most places have sold out of credits.

We hung out almost everyday and listened to music and shared information. One day I asked him would you ever think of leaving and coming to the states ? He said “No. Look I know im poor, I am lucky to travel and see other places a few times a year and i am blessed for that but I am happy here. I don’t have the luxuries that you do I would love WiFi and organic foods but at least here my kids can go to school and I don’t have to worry if some one is come in with a assault rifle and kill everyone, I don’t have to worry about rent, mortgages or bills, and I’m lucky that I can make a living with my art. In my opinion that is success”.

Cuba is a country full of contradictions. There is no black or white as to how it is . Although the disparity is too wide.

This is no la la land, This is la Habana, a city where there is deep pain and suffering but you must suffer in private because “no es facil” and it’s quite complicated.

With Power Succession Underway, CubaOne Urges the U.S. and Cuba to Resume Engagement


MIAMI, FL (April 19, 2018) – CubaOne Foundation, the Miami-based nonprofit with over 7,000 members that connects young Cuban Americans with their families, peers, and heritage in Cuba, issued the following statement today:

We hope today’s succession creates an opportunity for Cuba to move beyond the ideologies of the past and chart a new course. The Cuban people, especially the youth, are hungry for change. They want to be able to start and grow their own businesses; work at jobs that allow them to provide for their families; enjoy a full spectrum of political and economic freedoms; and not have to leave their country to pursue their aspirations. There is no U.S. policy preventing Cuba from helping its people live with dignity and achieve their dreams in Cuba.

Cuba is responsible for deciding its fate, but we believe the United States can play a positive role through engagement. In the 10 months since President Trump announced his Cuba policy in Miami, we have yet to see any progress on the island. Rhetoric, without engagement, is no recipe for change; it is a failed formula for the status-quo that invites bad actors to expand their influence just 90 miles off our shores.

We echo the calls of Cuba’s civil society leaders, the Cuban people, and our community by urging the Trump Administration to begin re-staffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Its vacancy is compounding hardship for Cuban and American families, isolates the United States, and limits our country’s ability to promote its values during this critical moment.

Our policies must be forward-looking because the future of Cuba ultimately belongs to millions of people, not any one politician. As the Castro era comes to an end, a new generation–on both shores–is faced with the task of addressing the island’s multitude of challenges and writing a new chapter in our shared history. We should make this journey together.