The Limitations of Being Cuban

Irina Echarry

When I walk through Old Havana, I don’t feel as free as I’d like to be. It’s my city and my country; however there are simple things I can’t do.

Though I’m a writer, I can’t enter the Cuban Book Institute, located in the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, without leaving my ID at the door and picking up a pass.  However, if I were a foreigner, I’d have free access to not only walk around without anyone wondering where I was going.  Moreover, I’d also be able take pictures of the beautiful home which the Institute serves as.

Since I’m Cuban, I’m not allowed to snap pictures of my compatriots who choose to make their living offering themselves in the street (by telling fortunes, demonstrating the abilities of their pets or simply posing with a cigar in their mouth and a red flower in their hair).

Some cover their faces with fans while others argue with me telling me I can’t take their pictures if I don’t pay them.  That was the case of the gentleman who makes his three dachshunds —dressed as people— sit or stand (according to his whim).

On Saturday I experienced another similar episode. I was going through a House Museum along with a French delegation.  I had arrived before them and at once the attendant alerted me that I couldn’t take pictures there. Conforming to the rule, I put my camera away.

When I was going to leave I saw that the foreigners, cameras in hand, had taken photos of everything that had happened to them – yet but no one called their attention.  I then asked myself whether it could have been that in the other room, where they told me not to take pictures, there may have been objects that shouldn’t be photographed.  It seemed to me that here in this room there weren’t any of those problems, so I took out the camera.

Barely giving me time to switch it on, a custodian approached me quickly to inform me (nicely) that I couldn’t.  I replied, “But everybody else is taking pictures, why can’t I?”  However, the comrade kindly said, “Yes, but they paid a baro…, which is to say, they paid money.

The House Museum promotes the culture of my country, those asking to take pictures of others in the streets are Cubans like me, and the Book Institute should be a home for all Cuban writers.  So what’s happening?  Why don’t I get it?  Does being Cuban restrict me?  Who can explain this to me?

Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.

5 thoughts on “The Limitations of Being Cuban

  • This is another example where the dual currencies are failing the Cuban people. The government can say that everyone is allowed to use the internet, visit hotels and use the same services as tourists…never mentioning that most of these activities are so expensive that it essentially remains prohibited except for the elite few. This is the face of new class divisions and classism within Cuban society. Its even affecting the mindset all the way down to the street performers in Habana Vieja. All Cubans are created equal but some with CUCs are more equal than others.

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  • I am not familiar with the Cuban Book Institute but I visited Cuba last year and went to many museums where I was not permitted to take photos without paying a small fee. Also if we wanted to take photos of people in the streets and parks, they usually asked for some money, pens, pencils or soap. I don’t know what regulations apply to Cuban citizens that don’t apply to foreigners but I am aware that the Cuban government relies heavily on revenue generated by tourists to fund such things as building restorations etc. However I do understand your sentiments since you are a Cuban citizen.

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  • Irina, were you out of inspiration the day you wrote this piece ? The staff needs those under-the-table tips. The fact that you don’t want or care to tip these people has nothing to do with being a second-class Habanera.

    Go to La Vigia : there, you cannot take ANY picture without tipping a lady who discreetly comes to the window from inside (no one is allowed in Hemingway’s main building).

    Every lady there will act as if she is the only one accepting tips. There are hundreds of visitors daily who gladly pay 1cuc per photo : imagine the take at the end of the day. The official rate for a video is 25cuc so 3 or 5 cuc will do for a quick sequence. Hey, I would pay to have that job any day.

    Another example : Sitio Historico de Biran (Fidel’s home) where foreigners entering with a camera pay 20cuc while Cubans entering with a camera pay 20cup (75centavos cuc). We could go there together, I pay you 5cuc to enter with my camera, I save dinero and you get in for free.

    Is it a…

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  • The point of the article is not that there are laws prohibiting Cubans from visiting these museums. Many if not most museums have fees in Cuban Pesos for Cuban Citizens and Convertibles (CUC) for tourists. The problem is that often there are hidden fees (such as the one for photographs) in CUC. Much of Habana Vieja (and increasingly other areas as well) is financially out of reach for most Cubans. I know someone who worked as a construction worker in many of the finest hotels and restaurants in Habana Vieja, making about 300-400 cuban pesos per job (about 16 dollars). It is impossible for him to afford to eat or enjoy himself in the very structures he helped create. I went with him to a restaurant there one night and spent over double his monthly salary on one meal, but on the way out were stopped and released by the police for daring to walk though his own city together. The government can say that all Cubans are allowed access, but often the devil is in the details.

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  • Marcos

    You can either accept that it is “normal” for Cuban workers to survive by taking under the table tips or straight up stealing or scamming from their job…the same system that leads street performers and others to ignore regular Cubans over tourists with hard currency. Or you can question the whole system that puts them into this position in the first place. The dual currency and low pay is creating rifts (and class divisions) in Cuban society and needs to be addressed.

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