A week in Cuba was one of the most educational trips of my life
For only being 90 miles away, it feels like a completely different world- almost like stepping into a time capsule.
The things I thought I knew about the island nation were mostly wrong: what we were taught by social studies and hear on the news doesn’t even begin to capture this vibrant, extraordinarily friendly culture.
I was struck over and over how thrilled the people were to know we were American and the sheer excitement that more of us are coming. Contrast that with other nations that I’ve visited — from either simple acceptance to outright hostility towards us, I was awed each and every time by how nice the people are; you would think they should hate us.
Cuba has a major stray dog problem all over the country — yet almost all have a friendly temperament, are well fed and healthy.
This is a reflection of how they’re treated; contrast this with the US where most live (short lives) in fear. Cubans treat everyone like this.
I’m fortunate enough to work for a pragmatic company that sees the importance of helping a market like Cuba. While we held most of our standard Netflix executive offsite in the old American Club (the pre revolution social gathering spot for US troops), we spent significant time out and about with the Cuban people — both in Havana and afterwards in Viñales.
I had never felt safer in any city around the world, including my own. While many buildings were falling down and their inhabitants living in near poverty, their spirit seemed unbreakable. Anytime of the day or night I felt safe roaming the streets of Havana. Even veering away from the well-traveled touristy places into downtrodden, beat up neighborhoods, I never felt uneasy in either town.
We may not agree with their economic or social policy, but the people here seem genuinely happy.
Cuba is not known for its food, however we did manage to have some great meals. I learned that much of what we think of as Cuban food in the US is a romanticized version of reality — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Many of the accomplished chefs left the island during the revolution, taking much of their cooking skill with them. For an island nation they do have a great amount of agriculture and fishing — most of the pork and seafood is from the island, as well as many of the fruits and vegetables.
The rest, surprisingly enough, mostly comes from the US — that embargo was lifted years ago. The rum is, of course, local and I enjoyed many mojitos and Cuba Libres made with local cola and Santiago Rum (Santiago is the brand of what was left behind from Bacardi when they were nationalized and moved off the island).
For our last two nights we were lucky enough to stay in a Casa Particular in Viñales with a great family.
Think of a Casa Particular as their version of a cross between a traditional Bed and Breakfast and an AirBnB. The family, with a son and two daughters, rents out a room in their home and provides a home cooked breakfast and dinner. While my Spanish is nearly non existent aside from food (mas cerdo, por favor),
We got to stretch the foreign language parts of his brain that haven’t been used in a long time and managed to make a meaningful connection with the mother and grandmother of the family. We barely saw the father, as he kept himself busy all day and night — as both the town locksmith and (orchid!) gardener. It was a great way to immerse into real, authentic Cuban culture in a way that is unmatched.
While you may consider a town like Viñales to be touristy or inauthentic, it’s anything but your regular Caribbean cruise-port. There are lots of bars and restaurants, and while you’re unlikely to find the locals eating out, you are highly likely to find them at the Salsa clubs dancing and drinking late into the night. The people who live and work in these towns are locals, most of whom have been there their whole life while the town grew up and evolved around them and the ones we talked to seemed excited by these changes.
It’s clear that the Cuban people know the Internet exists and want access to it. Mobile data access is poor to non-existent; people are only allowed to use email on cellular due to capacity constraints and in many areas, data is GPRS- not even Edge/2G. Roaming data is barely useful for iMessage — don’t expect to use any social media or business apps (not to mention the extremely high cost- it’s not covered by roaming packages). There are a few dozen hotspots around the country that you can use for approximately $2/hour, or approximately 10% of a Cuban’s monthly salary.
El Paquete has filled in as their transport mechanism — a 1TB hard drive duplicated and passed around that has the latest movies, TV shows, and music — all of dubious legality. There is modern technology on the island — I saw MacBooks, iPhones, iPads, and numerous Android devices — they just aren’t connected to much, if anything at all. The entire country is covered by a single /17 of IP address space. Google is still covered by the embargo, so if you have a commercial account and use an IP known to be from Cuba you will get de-authenticated.
Cuba needs help, and I will be very interested to see what the LACNIC attendees in a few weeks think. I urge them to spend less time arguing over silly address policy and more time discovering and thinking of ways to truly improve the internet. Internet has become a basic human need and right, and when less than 1% of the population have meaningful access to it, the economy cannot grow or flourish. The Cuban government has promised broadband availability to 50% of its citizens by the end of 2020 — four long years away. That broadband will likely be DSL technology that’s very old. This is a perfect test case for a mostly-mobile society, and it will be interesting to see if they skip 4G and go straight to 5G.
I do look forward to going back to Cuba some day, and hope that Americans, as they discover more about this society, are respectful of their history and culture and contribute to the next phase of this awesome island without turning it into a tourist trap. I also consider myself very lucky to have an awesome company that sent us there as a team — learning about something so outside of the box with a group of people you know and respect has formed bonds that can’t be built at a conference or in a hotel meeting room. It was an exhaustive, but extremely productive week and I and my employer are better for it.
Appendix: other good photos
And of course, the cars:
And some adorable dogs: