Cuba: Tipping the Scales
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Photography by Caroline Bergeron
"Can you tell me if these have any value?”
I had been expecting this question all morning. Yaimarys, the maid who looked after the rooms in our building, had already asked my daughter the same question earlier.
“No, not really. I’m sorry. They only work at a chain of stores in Canada.”
Yaimarys looked at the two rumpled bills of Canadian Tire money.
“Let me buy them from you. I can use them back home.”
This simple negotiation took only a moment. I handed her a 1CUC note from my pocket. She smiled, thanked me, and wished my wife and I a good day.
Cuba received 4.7 million tourists in 2017. Approximately one third were Canadians—the single largest group. We’re sort of a big deal down there. I guess that’s why we can afford to be such assholes.
I’d like to think that the behaviour of those particular Canadians toward Yaimarys was an isolated event, but a quick Internet search tells me otherwise. Tipping in loonies and toonies is almost as bad. Cubans can’t exchange Canadian coins at any bank, so hotel staff are forced to save them up and make awkward approaches to departing tourists in the hopes that someone will purchase the collection with convertible pesos or bills of hard currency—something my wife, Caroline, did for another maid who stopped her by the pool on our last day.
I am forty-five-years-old. I have travelled to more than thirty countries on four different continents. I have returned to many of those places half-a-dozen times or more. And yet, this past New Year’s was the first time that my wife or I had ever set foot in an all-inclusive resort.
We chose Cuba because aside from beaches and sun, it possesses a complex history and a culture that runs deep. I was after the siren song of Hemingway’s crumbling old Havana, the artistry of a well-rolled cigar, and a stylish, tailored guayabera. My wife wanted handicraft markets and art. I wanted to kayak and snorkel and hike through tropical forests. And, okay, yes, we all wanted to lay on the beach, drink cheap rum and forget about the existence of ice and snow.
In Cuba, we found all of that, and we found more.
I have never been so conflicted about travelling as I was about travelling to Cuba. In some respect, our plans were in deference to our son, Sebastien. He wanted a “holiday,” the kind all of his friends have.
“Not the kind of vacation where we go see things, okay? I just want to stay in one spot.”
At fifteen, who can blame him? This was the family Christmas present. We were following in the footsteps friends who have been doing this, instead of gifts, for years. It seemed to make sense, what with Maija away at university. Family time in paradise.
But Cuba isn’t paradise for everyone. Most notably for Cubans.
There is an ocean that exists between the average Canadian and the average Cuban. It is literal and it is figurative. But both incarnations are real.
Yaimarys makes thirty dollars a month cleaning up after Canadians. Caroline and I make more than that in an hour teaching those same Canadians. Maybe not so well given the evidence.
But after much thought about our recent escapade, I am no longer conflicted about Cuba. And I am not responsible for the behaviour of my countrymen and women.
We are going back, and soon. Here’s why…
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, so did its aid payments to Cuba. The island, isolated and blockaded for decades by the US, was desperate for hard currency and imports. In a bold and deft change in policy, Castro opened the door to tourism.
It has not been a panacea. Unregulated and uneven expansion has seen the birth of unsustainable regions such as the Varadero peninsula. Originally, locals were actively discouraged from contact with tourists.
But more recent diversification has seen the growth of new tourism and more eco-friendly developments throughout the island, and since 2008, these areas have been opened to all Cubans. Investment that was originally earmarked for hotel bed expansion is now being used for increased infrastructure in the form of roads and bridges and airports.
And because all resorts in Cuba are owned in one way or another by the Cuban government, and only contracted to foreign firms for management, the better part of a dollar spent in Cuba stays in Cuba.
The industry has, of course, lifted the wages of the those directly employed in it beyond the wages of government employees—including teachers and doctors and lawyers. But indirectly, at least for now, these wages eek there way into the Cuban economy indirectly through the increased purchasing power of tourism industry employees.
New entrepreneurial laws have also allowed for the growth of small enterprises—particularly paladares (eateries) and casas particulares (bed and breakfasts), as well as licenses for artisans and vendors, who are popping up in Old Havana and other parts of the country.
There is also a concerted effort to offer up more than just beaches in order to redirect tourists to the country’s natural and cultural assets. Colonial cities like Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Sancti Spiritus beckon. National Parks and UNESCO protected Biospheres abound. The hope is that the seasonal draw of shivering Canadians can be transformed into dynamic year-round growth in what is otherwise a stagnating economy.
But none of this can happen fast enough.
Cuba is an idea. On one hand, it offers free health care and education to all its people. It thumbs its nose at the imperial corporate world. But on the other, it has stripped its people of the dignity of mobility and choice. That same thumb has held them down.
Canadians have the opportunity to contribute—through the tourism dollar—to this new economy. However, how we contribute matters.
On the one morning we managed to convince our son to leave the hotel, Pedro, from Havana 60, picked us up promptly in Varadero at 8am in a wonderful 1957 Oldsmobile. The 2-hour drive flew by with a stop at Bacunayagua Bridge for a piña colada. Pedro was friendly and knowledgeable as he whisked us through Old Havana, the Metropolitan area, the Malecon, the Plaza de la Revolución, and El Morro. We stopped for a delicious and reasonably priced mojito near the Bodeguita del Medio and a Daquiri at La Floridita.
He seemed genuinely happy to learn that we spoke Spanish and most of our day passed without the English. He was engaging and vibrant. And when we hit a snag at the market (it was closed on January 2nd), he and the driver offered options to satisfy the family. That's how we ended up back in Old Havana for our favourite part of the tour, dropping in and out of the tiny merchant shops, chatting with locals and sampling their wares.
Pedro even helped me find the perfect guayabera.
But Pedro is not a tour guide. He is a student in the last year of an economics degree. Like all Cubans, he spent a year in the military service, and although his university degree was free, he will be expected to spend two more years in a government job, in his field, before looking elsewhere.
We really liked Pedro, and I would like to think that he really liked us. We exchanged e-mails and Facebook coordinates, and we have actually been in touch since our return. But whether or not we remain “friends” isn’t the point. He was a gracious and accommodating, and he was good at his job.
However, like Yaimarys, he probably makes thirty dollars a month.
At the end of the day, when we were deposited back at our hotel—after the hugs and the goodbyes—we paid him for the tour.
Then we tipped him.
We did not give him a pen. We did not give him toothpaste. And we certainly did not give him Canadian Tire money.
We tipped him a month’s wages--a paltry 20CUC; the same amount you might tip a waitress in Canada for 45 minutes of her attention.
But we didn’t do it because we wanted him to prostrate himself in thanks—which he didn’t. And we didn’t do it because “we could.” We did it because he was worth it. We did it because he deserved it. We did it because we believe in the dignity of labour.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you travel in Cuba—whether it be in all-inclusive resorts, or casas particulares. It only matters that you go and that you appreciate what you receive and that you pay for what get.
“The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”