“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley
For an American preparing for a trip to Cuba, there were no shortage of scenarios that ran through my head.
How would traveling through a communist, “off-limits” country be?
How would Cubans react when they found out that I was from the USA?
Would the entire country be one giant, militarized island guided under the iron fist of one of the 20th century’s most infamous dictators?
I spent 6 weeks traveling Cuba from end to end, but not even 6 days to disprove most of the stereotypes I had of the country. In place of big, scary communist soldiers I found some of the happiest & friendliest people I’ve ever met. Instead of trade embargo-induced poverty, I found a resilient, although humble equality across the board. In place of anti-American sentiment, I found welcoming hugs, exciting stories, and optimistic world views.
That being said, there were definitely some stereotypes that I had about Cuba that turned out to be true, but that’s for a different article. Here is my list of stereotypes of Cuba that were totally shattered:
Stereotype: Cuba is Dangerous
I almost can´t believe it when I say it, but it´s true – Cuba is one of the safest countries I´ve ever been to. At least I felt that way the entire time I was there.
But I’m not the only one. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Cuba is one of the safest countries in the western hemisphere, with only Canada & Chile having a lower homicide rate.
This is, no doubt, a result of the Cuba being a communist police state. Not only are Cubans scared of ruthless imprisonment for committing crimes, but also it’s just not in their blood to violently rob & steal with their socialist values. Also, Castro basically seized all of the guns from the general public when La Revolución took over, which effectively squashed crimes committed with firearms.
On a less official note, there are just so many people, of all ages & backgrounds in the street at all times, that I always felt “safe in numbers” & never alone & vulnerable. It’s hard to be scared walking down a street at 11pm when you are dodging groups of giggling little kids, and saludando a old ladies sitting in their rocking chairs in the middle of the sidewalk.
Stereotype: Cubans Don’t Like Americans
This one is obvious, right?
I mean, our two countries haven’t had any formal relations for over 50 years. The USA is the country that has kept Cuba in the dark & isolated from the rest of the world. We have cut off Cuba from outside help & denied them access to basic products – OF COURSE Cubans hate Americans!
Cubans understand better than anyone that a government’s actions do no necessarily represent the ideas of a populace. I never once hid that I was from the United States, and every time I told someone where I was from, the conversation instantly shifted up a gear with a hug, handshake, or smile. Cubans have wanted our countries to be friends for years, are pleased to make your acquaintance, & are excited for the future. Not to mention, most of the Cubans you’ll meet have family in the US, and they always want to tell you about it.
Stereotype: Cuba is a dull, communist country
Communism. The big, bad word of Cold War’s yesterday. It instantly stirs up negative connotations, & brings up images of a bleak society that stifles creativity & fun.
Cuban life is anything but dull.
Did you forget that Cuba is in the Caribbean? The architecture is vibrant & colorful. The people are loud & sensual. The days are steamy & tropical & the nights never ending.
Actually, music can be heard everywhere, at all hours. Don’t be surprised if you turn a corner and see a group of people dancing in the street like it was paved to be a dance floor. From the beaches, to the alley baseball, to the Malecón and the countless curbside dominoes games – Cubans are the masters of self entertainment.
Yes the Cuban government is communist, therefore controls the media, owns telecommunications companies, & other businesses such as restaurants, hotels, & resorts, but the island is far from the totalitarian, militarized state that many believe Cuba to be. People respect the law of the land, and I never once saw government/military officials ordering people around & stepping in to dictate normal, every-day life like I did in Vietnam.
Stereotype: Fidel Castro is evil
Take your time to research Señor Castro and you may come to the same conclusion that I did – he’s not a bad guy. Sure the humans rights records under his dictatorship have been iffy at best, and there’s no denying the man is as stubborn as a mule, but you can’t really blame what he stood/stands for.
Before Fidel Castro, Cuba was run by US-backed & corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. The country was basically one-half American-controlled tobacco/sugarcane/coffee farm, one-half gambling, bootlegging, prostitution, money-laundering playground for the Mafia with no rules nor accountability.
Castro wanted true independence for his country, and after ousting Batista (who fled the country with $300 million), he nationalized all US banks & companies, and redistributed all the land & resources back to the Cuban people. He has survived army invasions, countless CIA assassination plots, and over 50 years of trade embargo. Cuba to this day remains a “David vs Goliath” example of defiance to US imperialism in Latin America.
Does that sound evil to you? Sounds pretty badass to me.
VERDICT: OPINION (But I say false)
Stereotype: Cubans are uneducated
First off, Cuba has a 99.8% literacy rate.
Secondly, one of the greatest things about Cuba’s socialist system, is that higher education is totally free. A Cuban can get their college degree, their master’s degree, and even become a doctor for completely free in Cuba.
It isn’t just the availability of education, which most Cubans do take advantage of, but the vivacity & eagerness to consumer information & learn about the rest of the world that characterize most Cubans.
At first, I was amazed by the random lady at the coffee shop’s knowledge of politics & history. Then I started to realize that it’s just normal for Cubans to be very educated, well-spoken & informed.
Stereotype: Cubans live in poverty
There is little to no extreme poverty in Cuba. This is something else that I realized actually works about Cuba’s socialismo. The redistribution by the government, the strong sense of community & family, and Cubans’ resilience & ingenuity to make things work, result in most everyone having enough. They certainly don’t have a lot, but enough to get by.
The filthy squalor & desolate poverty that I have seen in many countries, including the United States, I never saw in Cuba. I never once saw a homeless person. There are plenty of people asking for money, and people wearing tattered clothes & shoes, but they always seemed to have a place to lay their head at night. One Cuban guy told me, “Si ves alguna persona durmiendo en la calle, es porque escoje dormir alli” (If you see a person sleeping in the streets it’s because they choose to sleep there).
Extended Cuban families usually live in the same house, expand the house as the family grows, and have minimal utility expenses. Furthermore, the government provides a stipend to each household to help buy basic food products such as rice, eggs, & oil.
Stereotype: Most Cubans sell drugs
Ever since Al Pacino played Tony Montana in the infamous Scarface, people have associated Cubans with drug dealers. I actually could´t tell you about Cubans selling drugs in Miami, but in Cuba there are hardly any drug dealers. Why not? Well, I´m no expert, but I´d be willing to bet it has something to do with the fact that there are virtually no drugs in Cuba.
Castro cracked down on all drugs when he took over in 1959. Extremely harsh penalties for drug trafficking continue today where you can serve some serious time for trying to slang. Also, drug traffickers from Latin America try to avoid Cuba as U.S. drug patrol ships & aircraft comb the waters south of Florida.
Not What You Expected, Right?
So you can see, my time in Cuba was truly an eye-opener. It’s impossible to not have expectations & certain ideas built up in your mind about a particular country before you go there. Nearly every country has stereotypes, images, or a reputation that precedes it. But it only takes actually traveling to that country to realize that most of the negative preconceptions are partially or completely wrong.
Do yourself a favor and travel to Cuba! Cuban culture & life have so much to offer, and it is one of the most unique countries I’ve ever been to. But for now, please tell me about some of your stereotypes of Cuba in the comment section below. Did this article surprise you? How do you imagine the country of Cuba to be?
Check out my 1-3 week itineraries & 4-6 week itineraries for more information on what to do in Cuba!