After arriving at the airport in Havana, you’ll drive into the city and see people hanging out pretty much everywhere you go. They’re playing baseball, talking to neighbors, and peddling around on bicycles with friends. The people are out and about, engaging with one another and the world around them. It’s the exact opposite of an isolated and cold social climate. Relationships with family and friends are prized above pretty much everything else.
As a traveler, this social dynamic offers you a unique opportunity to engage with the local people and learn about their culture. This article is aimed at helping you better understand Cubans and prepare for your trip to Cuba.
How Cubans Are
Cubans are gregarious, friendly people. They will talk to just about anyone, and seem to spend the majority of their days in the company of others. Walking down the street in Cuba, you’ll see people sitting outside their homes talking to neighbors. On promenades like the Prado in Havana, you’ll witness couples kissing, kids kicking soccer balls, and old men playing chess. The people are tightly interconnected with one another, which is especially refreshing for outsiders who come from countries where technology has largely replaced interpersonal communication. In fact, the lack of technology in Cuba – cell phones, TVs, and computers – has made socializing more of a necessity. It’s how people get their news and entertainment.
Cubans are also extremely honest—most locals aren’t out to rob, steal, or cheat you. If you leave a camera or passport in a taxi or at a restaurant, there’s a good chance that you will get it back. Cubans want visitors to have a positive experience in Cuba.
Due to their tight social network and outgoing attitude, Cubans seem happy—you often see them smiling, chatting, and hugging one another. However, beneath the surface there is also sadness and dissatisfaction. Alarmingly, the suicide rate in Cuba is nearly twice that of the United States. It’s the biggest cause of death for Cubans between age 15 and 45. Cubans may feel trapped by economic and political restrictions, and suicide often is seen as way to escape.
Despite their economic and political woes, Cubans genuinely love their country and Cubans feel a strong loyalty to their homeland. Ask a local why they love Cuba and they will tell you about the country’s friendly culture, beautiful landscapes, and inviting climate. They are proud of their history and hopeful about their future.
Demographics and Social Divisions
In 2012, the Cuban census reported that the country’s population was a little over 11 million. Of these people, 76 percent live in an urban setting, primarily Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Cuba’s population growth has slowed in recent years, and Cuba is actually one of the few places in Latin America where the population is falling rather than rising. However, Cuba also has a fairly old population—about 16 percent of the people are over the age of 60. This is likely to create economic problems as more Cubans retire and begin to receive a government pension.
About 37 percent of the Cuban population is “white”—essentially people of Spanish descent. 11 percent is black, and about 52 percent is a mixture of white and black. A tiny percentage of the population is Chinese. The Cuban population is diverse and heterogeneous, and is far less racially divided than the United States.
Cuba freed its slaves in 1888, and until the 1930s, the country’s institutions remained open to people of all color. However, in the 1940s and ‘50s, businesses sought to appeal to American visitors and adopted a form of racism that was then prevalent in the United States. Multiracial Cubans and blacks were banned from hotels and clubs. After the Revolution, institutionalized racism was banned and equality was supported. As a result, Cuban society is now fairly diverse and accepting of all people. Marriage between blacks and whites is common, and people are friendly and accepting of all races and ethnicities. Even so, Afro-Cubans do tend to be slightly poorer than whites and have fewer positions in government and universities.
The Cuban Revolution worked to erase class lines. At the outset, there were essentially two tiers of social classes: the senior members of the Communist Party/army officials and everyone else. However, over time, Cuban society has become increasingly stratified. A class of rich Cubans exists, as do very poor people, many of who are black. Many rich Cubans receive remittances from families in the United States; some also own private businesses, including restaurants and casa particulares.
Interactions With Foreigners
Cubans are warm with foreigners. They aren’t afraid to hug strangers or shake your hand vigorously. While walking down the street, people will talk to you and ask you where you’re from — if you’re up for it (and can speak Spanish), take the time to speak with them. It’s true that some Cubans seek to gain something by approaching foreigners, but many Cubans are simply interested in where you’re from and what you think of Cuba.
If you’re staying in a casa particular, you’ll have additional opportunities to interact with Cubans. In these casas, families rent out rooms in their own home. Although each casa is different, many owners are friendly and interested in the lives of their guests. When you’re sitting down to breakfast, feel free to strike up a conversation with your host. Oftentimes, they will sit down and tell you about what it’s like to live in Cuba. This is a valuable, first-hand experience for travelers.
Cubans speak Spanish; few are fluent in English. English, however, is taught in schools and many Cubans are familiar with some English words. If possible, try to speak Spanish with Cubans—they are typically very patient and understanding, and provide travelers with a good opportunity to practice speaking a new language. If they show interest in speaking English, give them the same courtesy and support as they have given you.
One other thing: it’s polite to ask Cubans for permission before taking their picture. If you’ve been talking with them, most Cubans will readily agree to a photograph and beam into the camera. However, if you haven’t been interacting with them at all, please ask before taking their photo. It’s also good to offer them a small propina (tip) in exchange for taking their photo.
Sensuality and Prostitution
Whether it’s the tropical climate or just the lack of puritan ideology, Cubans are a highly sensual people. They kiss openly and are indulgent in their attitudes about sex. Women stare down locals and foreigners alike, making catcalls and kissing noises as you pass. The country is erotic and bold in its suggestions. Sex is a pastime, and, like some Cubans say, is one of the few things that Castro can’t restrict or ration.
During Batista’s era, Cuba was awash in sex and prostitution, often catering to North American tourists. After the Revolution, brothels were closed and prostitutes were sent to trade schools. In time, Cuban women were jailed for suspected prostitution and banned from tourist hotels. These days, Cubans are allowed in tourist hotels (although some casas may not allow locals to come inside), and foreigners can legally sleep with Cubans.
The situation concerning prostitution in Cuba isn’t simple. Women will sometimes spend time with foreigners, who take them out to good restaurants and provide access to places that they would otherwise be unable to go. For many women, the ultimate hope is not cash but a relationship, especially one that would provide them with a non-Cuban passport and the possibility to leave the island. Thus, Cuban women (and men, too), attempt to court foreigners with the hope of living the high-life in or outside of Cuba.