Cubans Seen by Foreigners

Regina Cano

Photo: Caridad

“When Cubans try to get close to a foreigner, it’s not to make friends. It’s always with the intention of getting something in return.” These were more or less the words of a Latin American who lived in Cuba for several years. She was speaking with someone from the US.

I can assure you that I found this very painful to hear, because while this might be the general opinion about us, it’s unfair. It doesn’t reflect the feelings of everyone here.

It seemed to me that this person wasn’t being completely honest with herself, or that the depth of her analysis was shallower than I had hoped. I’m sorry that this person’s experience hasn’t been happy here on this island.

I must admit that, unfortunately, the occurrences in the past several years led to a behavior of “everyone for themself” among some Cubans, and the consequences of this can still be seen.

It’s true that economic instability began to arise starting in the 90’s, which made us appear to the world as people in need, which in turn made us look at the approach of a foreigner like a lifeline.

However, many Cubans also suffer manipulation by visitors, those who find a country with a black-market economy offering low prices – compared to the official prices. This allows them a bargain holiday with everything at arm’s reach: inexpensive food (including lobster and shrimp), cigars, rum, and women.

Here, they found cheap prostitutes (very cheap ones), especially when their ranks swelled after a wave of mange arose from the lack of food and the shortage of hygienic supplies. Thanks to this, we’ve had situations where prostitutes have been drugged so they could be abused. They’ve filmed them having group sex, with animals and who knows what else, possibly viewed over the Internet or in videos for sell, people say. These are prostitutes by necessity, without rights or protection.

Novelists, actors, screenplay writers and musicians have seen their art stolen when seeking to market their work. Others have been able to migrate based on contracts that turned out to be pure fraud, though others fared better.

I’m not here defending those people for whom the technology of the First World, or whatever world, make them want to sell their soul to leave the country. What I’m saying is that there are those here who don’t want to swap their lives for any of that, just as there are those who left the country through good friends or who got married for the best reasons.

I don’t deny or try to justify those Cubans who mimic the behavior of visitors, or those who snatch a purse or a camera out of the hands of their owners, or those who feign a pathetic “but I love you…”

There are also foreigners who come to Cuba to look at it as if going to the zoo. They want to see a country that still claims to be socialist: “What a rarity,” they say. Or look – “people are starving,” according to how we exaggerate here, though these same people declare to the world that they will resist, because that’s the official version assumed in one way or another.

It’s true! We’ve really suffered a tremendous attack, but we haven’t gone starving. We didn’t end up starving to death, though some people were permanently affected (by neuropathies or impaired growth).

Cubans were doubly mistreated: by our own domestic problems and by what was entailed in receiving visitors under such circumstances.

By not being able to “escape,” as they say, we don’t escape the various forms of trafficking. We supply the market for human organs (in a few instances) and the market for “slaves” (there was a huge business involving Cubans who got married and were then stripped of their rights while having to wait five years or more to become residents in the host country). Thus, I assure you, that not everyone is tricked or cheated by us.

But there are also many people who come to the island looking for kindness and warmth, as well as honest and frank communication; and despite the reputation that precedes us, good friends have come out of these encounters.

Among Cubans today, many still work hard to make a living. Many retain enough of a sense of decency as to not to view a foreigner as an ace in the deck, a horn of plenty or the El Dorado through which everything can be solved.

There’s no shame in a Cuban seeking or finding a foreigner who can offer them work or the possibility of employing them in some pursuit through which they can support themself honorably. This is what immigration represents: allowing them to leave a situation that doesn’t meet their needs.

Perhaps I’m falling short in communicating the whole story. Maybe there are others who can add to it with their own experiences or with those of others. But make no mistake: Cubans are not always looking to get close is to a foreigner to take advantage of them – okay!

Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

9 thoughts on “Cubans Seen by Foreigners

  • You talk about prostitution so flippantly, as though it is a business. It is not a business. It is sexual abuse, no matter how you cut it.

  • I’ve been living in Cuba for a few years now, working in the tourism industry. Unfortunately, for the ordinary camera-waging tourist who walks in touristy Old Havana, in central Cienfuegos, in old Trinidad or downtown Santiago, that’s the truth: you are mainly approached by hustlers. It’s not uncommon on this planet, but it IS the kind of experience the first timer comes across. In some cases, hustling is so persistent, people leave the country relieved.

    Naturally, hustlers are less than 1% of Cuban population (same goes for prostitutes). But it’s the 1% you’ll get in touch with, the ones that will approach you. Now someone who speaks spanish, has friends here, works here etc has a totally different approach and gets to meet the 99% of decent, honest, generous Cubans we all love.

    One more thing: most prostitutes in Cuba are not cheap and they are not poor at all. I know women who make 3000CUC/month, most girls in nightclubs charge 60CUC upwards for half an hour. Not that I am a specialist on prostitute prices worldwide, but what I do know is that in my EUropean Union homecountry sex is cheaper… Yes, there are desperate girls but there are also professional hookers who make a small fortune out of their body. In any case, the percentage of women for hire in Cuba is very low and highly overblown by the media.

  • I agree also. And I think that the reason the stereotype exists, of Cubans only looking to use foreigners, is because often negativity (ideas, stories, stereotypes) spreads much much faster than positivity. Look, just in one day 5 people responded by telling stories of their positive experiences and friendships in Cuba. That’s not to say that there aren’t those who have used people on all sides, but I think that often we need to express our positive experiences more. Maybe then people will see that, obviously, the reality is much more complex.

    I’ve been to Cuba 6 times in 3 years (twice for 2 months at a time), am in a relationship with someone in Havana and have many close friends (both his friends and my own). I have had a few negative experiences with some people, but living in a large city in the US I have had plenty of negative experiences here also. And at the end of the day I love my friends and my boyfriend’s family in Cuba and I never felt like anything but friendship was expected from the relationship.

  • I also agree with you Regina, I visited Cuba for the first time in 2000 and since then i go 3 to 4 times a year. I have made good friends, I consider them my family and I never felt like they were using me. They need many things and I can provide them with those things…..why not? In return what I get is far greater for me and I learned a lot from them. They are warm and sensitive people with a great sense of hospitality and humor too. My husband and I feel so blessed to be a part of their families….

    Thank you Regina for sharing with us.

  • Regina Cano, thank you for your considerate, positive and heartfelt contribution to this page and the dialog about Cuba today. As you suggest, people are all too often stereotypical and negative in their descriptions of others, and in the writings on this site, that happens too often. I read your comments as a positive effort toward realistic and better understanding of the complexities that are Cubans and outsiders who visit.

    I am old, but I still learn every day how respect and compassion are things we must study and practice, otherwise the destructive thoughts and emotions take over.

    Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • I am old enough to remember that this “taking advantage of tourist” was the same before Castro’s taking power.
    I have also travel enough to see the same behaviour from citizen in their own country and visiting tourist.

    Any tourist wanted to witness the generosity, honesty and good will of Cubans, need to visit cities other than the Havana cesspool.

  • I agree with you Regina. I have a few friends on the island and I never felt abused by them. They have never asked me for anything and I never fels like if I had to give them something in return. Most of Cubans are honest and true. That’s why I love your island so much.

  • “When Cubans try to get close to a foreigner, it’s not to make friends. It’s always with the intention of getting something in return.” This statement reveals much about the person who made. And it would behoove the self-protective to stay away from this type of tourist.

    I don’t believe that it is true that Cubans get close to foreigners in order to take advantage of them. I arrived in Cuba as a tourist in, if I remember correctly, 1998, after my landlord in Mexico convinced me to travel with her to Cuba. Upon arrival, I felt immediate compassion for Cubans, seeing clearly that there was a tremendous amount of deprivation, due to the “embargo”, or should I use more appropriate terms, extreme hostility and vicious behavior, of the United States and other countries.

    A beautiful, charming and sweet Cuban befriended me and I offered to give him the help he needed. It is sad that Cubans even have to ask for the help. It should simply be offered by the tourist. But the typical narcissistic tourist has no feeling at all about the Cuban condition and will often demand something in return for any help they give, such as “sex”, and they have no guilt about it.

    My feeling about prostitution is that the person paying for the “service” should be arrested and imprisoned. To take advantage of poverty is repulsive and should never be condoned, as it often is by the selfish and arrogant. Prostitution is criminal. But it is not the prostitute who is the criminal. It is the predator.

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