Cuba Milks the Tourists / Ivan Garcia

Cruise ship entering Havana. From El Nuevo Diario.

Iván García, 29 March 2018 — As the cruise ship sits docked at port, two ragged old men lie drunk on top of the seawall. An almost motionless gray-haired man tries to catch fish in the fetid waters of the bay. Around him, several stray dogs fight for the leftovers of a fried chicken that a passerby has thrown on the sidewalk.

Curious onlookers take snapshots of the imposing ship with their phones. A squadron of police is there to keep the peace and to prevent the populace and the local rabble from harassing the ship’s passengers as they disembark in Havana.

After an expedited passport check, a bland complimentary mojito and a brief performance by some mulatto women with make-up running down their faces and visibly tired from dancing to Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” in the cheesy reception that the official tourist agencies often put on, the travelers exit the terminal.

A young man speaking in a low voice and in rudimentary English offers “girls, boys, cigars, Cuban music DVDs” to a somewhat startled British tourist walking along the cobbled street of the Lonja del Comercio.

The official guides — they are dressed in green, yellow or white shirts, the colors corresponding to the hotel group to which they belong — welcome them and describe a wonderful night under the stars at the Tropicana nightclub.

Freelance guides, who speak German, Russian and fluent English, also have tourist attractions to offer: “Señor, a tour of Havana in an old convertible, a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, dinner at the private restaurant where the Obama’s ate and, to cap off the evening, salsa at Casa de la Música in Miramar, all for a hundred dollars.”

Outside the terminal swarm all manner of people, including hookers, male prostitutes and professional con artists. They have interesting cultural attractions to offer the newcomers.

From a distance girls in skimpy shorts — some overweight, with visible cellulitis — watch for tourists travelling alone, then approach them and offer them sex. Retirees selling peanuts or the dreary national newspaper Granma take advantage of the new crop of tourists, shouting, “Roasted peanuts for twenty-five American cents; Granma for thirty cents.”

The police try to scare off and intimidate the hustlers. But since these people know how the police operate, they wait for the phalanx of tourists to filter out through the old city streets before making their proposals, far from police radar.

A few noisy Europeans arrive at the Two Brothers bar and within a few minutes the placed is packed with others like them. In the area’s guesthouses, cafes and restaurants, half a liter of mineral water goes for three dollars and a beer for five.

Joel, a bartender at a guesthouse on the Alameda de Paula says, “Every time a cruise ship comes in, sales triple and prices take off. That’s why I stock extra bottles of rum, mineral water and beer. On a busy day, I can go home with 150 to 200 bucks.”

Private restaurants use assistants, with menus in hand, to invite strangers wandering nearby to come in. “For every American I bring in, the owner pays me a commission of three CUC. There have been days when I have brought in an entire busload of tourists,” says a gentleman who describes himself as a “private tourism manager.”

Most government-employed guides and drivers in the tourism industry have an under-the-table verbal agreement with the owners of private bars and restaurants. They charge fees of 5 CUC for single tourists and 100 CUC or more for a group of twenty or thirty. “Additionally, anything they eat or drink is on the house,” says the bartender of a private restaurant a stone’s throw from the former presidential palace.

Of course, the choices offered by the self-employed are more novel and attractive. Armando, the owner of a fully restored Chevrolet convertible, charges 70 CUC for a two-hour tour of picture-postcard Havana, including the restored colonial area, El Vedado and Miramar.

“If tourists are going to spend a bit more time in the capital, I suggest they visit Viñales, in Pinar del Rio province, which is the best example of a town with a range of high-quality private businesses. There are some foreigners with less money than others and then there are those who are quite stingy. The Japanese, Russians and Americans are the most generous. They give good tips and will invite you to lunch or to have a beer. Spaniards are despicable and foul-mouthed. I will only accept them as customers if there are no tourists from other countries available,” confesses Armando.

A recent development in the private tourism sector are those options described as “an experience in Cuba.” Usually, these are tours led by professionals with broad technical knowlege who introduce visitors to Havana’s rich architectural heritage. Others give casino dance lessons or teach people how to play the tumbadora. Former athletes offer physical training courses or provide instruction in the rudiments of boxing. But perhaps one of the most original options is offered by Olga Lidia, a former English teacher who invites tourists to live like Cubans for a week.

According to a smiling Lidia Olga, “Europeans — especially the Swiss and Scandinavians — and Americans love the idea. They sleep in a bedroom with an electric fan but no air conditioning. I give them a ration book to buy bread and chicken at the butcher shop. In the morning I put them on a city bus and take them to visit San Miguel or Arroyo Naranjo, where I have relatives. They can go online once, at a wifi hotspot in a public park. And they may have only a single meal on two out of seven days, like many Cubans. Some of them can’t take it and complain.”

While state-run establishments try to milk tourists, with prices comparable to those of New York but at much lower levels of service, private entrepreneurs are more creative and even offer discounts to visiting foreigners.