“Three Days in Cuba and I Already Want to Leave”

Many Cubans bring food and cleaning products and medecines for friends or family.

By Irina Pino

HAVANA TIMES – When Cubans living abroad arrive in the country, they’re like Santa Claus, showing up weighed down with gifts for their friends and family.

But these “gifts” are to make up for basic necessities, shortages, that include medicine, food, general store products and electrical appliances.

My friend Carla arrived from Miami last week. This time, she came with the exact number of pounds she could carry, so she wouldn’t have the same experience she did in 2019 when an employee asked her who all the chocolate was for, and she told her that it was for her 83-year-old grandmother.

The woman didn’t leave her alone, sticking her hands in all of the bags, with the intention of getting something out of her. So, she gave her a package of coffee. After that, the woman didn’t even weigh her suitcase.

Customs officials have their tactics. They know when a new-arrival is coming in with excess baggage and they begin to take things out of their suitcases, to annoy them, and then if you give them something or a bit of cash, they let you go through with your suitcases without any hassle.

She can’t get that run-down and dirty picture of Terminal 3 out of her head. The officials are like parasites, ready to suck the blood of any traveler.

My list wasn’t very long, it had medicine, food, clothes for my son, an iron fitting for the bathroom sink, and personal hygiene products, on it. If I start asking for what we really need, she would need to bring an entire shopping mall from the US.

Every time we went out, she was taken aback by the deteriorated state of the city. It looks worse and worse, she tells me, the dirt, the leaks, the potholes, the enormous lines, with people piled up on top of each other.

We went to the store on 70th Street to buy food, and we took a taxi back. There isn’t a great distance between the shopping center and my house, but when the taxi driver asked her for 500 pesos for the trip (it was 7 PM), she was left stunned. Then, she asked him if he’d accept 5 USD. The guy told her that it was just as good.

It makes sense because the USD exchange rate on the street is 100-110 pesos. In hand, or via a transfer to an MLC (dollar store) card. It’s expected this value will continue to go up.

Carla’s trip wasn’t tourism, she spent most of the time handing out medicines to her friends who had asked for them.

A day before leaving, Carla went out with another friend who has a car. They were walking in El Vedado and decided to have a soda at a cafe. On their way back, they discovered that somebody had forced the car door open. The package of medicines that she had brought for her friend’s children, which was sitting on the backseat, had been taken. The rear-view mirror had been taken too, as well as some candy that she had in the glove box.

The woman began to cry, she was most upset about the medicine. It was a despicable act because the medicine was for children.

Today, medicines on the illiict market are through the roof. Just imagine, an Azithromycin pill can cost 1000 pesos, the complete treatment costs 3000 pesos (more than a monthly minimum wage).

All these problems stressed out Carla, who madly longed to leave. Her head was filled with stories of robberies of electric motorbikes, in broad daylight, with beatings for their owners too; cellphones getting snatched on the street; as well as seeing people quarrelling in the lines to buy chicken, inflated prices, videos made by relatives of prisoners. In short, material, and spiritual poverty.

When we said goodbye, she hugged me, there was a sadness in her voice: three days in Cuba and I already want to leave. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Look after yourself, I’ll see you on WhatsApp.

Read more from Irina Pino’s diary here.

2 thoughts on ““Three Days in Cuba and I Already Want to Leave”

  • When I arrive at Jose Marti International, I am always looked at suspiciously. I have been told countless times that I look “Cuban”, whatever that means. At the inspection tables just before the large double doors exiting the secured area of the airport, my luggage is always rifled through and I am always asked ridiculous questions like “Te gusta Cuba?”. Despite these inconveniences, I have never been asked directly or indirectly to pay a bribe. Dumb luck, I guess?

  • I suspect the Cuban Americans get hassled more at customs, as I don’t seem to have this problem when i go through but i am traveling always in the more remote areas of Cuba. In fact when i do offer gifts to staff they say they cannot take them, (cameras on them?) and refuse politely. I am not bribing them, i just feel they see all this coming in for other Cubans and they do not get to partake . I see lighters, duty free stuff, cheese sandwiches , clippers, etc get confiscated from peoples carry ons and wonder who gets it all. Back in the 90s, when i stayed in Vedado area of Havana, the crime was petty pickpocketing .. I am not sure from the sounds of it if I would go back to Havana, it would be heart breaking to see all that this author mentioned is happening.

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