Waiting in Lines in Cuba Causes Conflicts

Between locals and tourists

By June Fernandez (from the blog Mari Kazetari)

Line to enter a Cadeca money exchange in Old Havana.
Line to enter a Cadeca money exchange in Old Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — For two days in a row I went to a Cadeca (a money exchange center) in Havana, and on both of those days I witnessed the same conflicts between tourists and Cubans.

Foreigners came to the plaza looking for the Cadeca, and when they see one or more people standing in a line in front of the door waiting to get in, they would get in it and form an orderly line.

Cuban’s don’t act like that. They’ll come to the same plaza and ask, “Who’s last in line?” Once they locate the person in front of them, they’ll wander off to some other pleasant spot in the square, a shaded bench for example.

The first day I went to that plaza, I got in the line that had already formed. A Cuban told me that I was actually behind a lady who was sitting next to a kind of obelisk. I told him OK, with no complaints.

But then some Australians came and got in line behind me. This was when another Cuban came up to them trying to explain that were actually behind four or five other people who had wandered off somewhere in the plaza. The Cuban didn’t speak any English and the Australians didn’t understand Spanish.

I tried to interpret, but it wasn’t just a linguistic disagreement. The English-speakers said they didn’t know what the problem was (“What’s the big deal?” is what they said). They were all queued up in the row but they said it wouldn’t be a problem if someone else was supposed to go ahead in front of them.

The Cuban responded saying that the problem was that if other foreigners arrived, they were going to assume that the line was working properly. They would go to the end, unaware of the fact that lines in Cuba are formed differently.

By doing this, they would be creating two different lines, one for Cubans and another one for tourists.

To me, all of this seemed like a lesson against the rigid mindset of those who believe themselves to be from societies that are more civilized and efficient.

After five or six attempts to get the Australians to understand, the Cuban (a tall, white, older man in his seventies…and stubborn) gave up. Instead of arguing, he walked over and began discussing the new immigration reforms with me and another Cuban who was bragging about how he was going to Ecuador whenever he wanted (but not the US, because he didn’t want to go there).

The next day something similar happened with some young women. This time, though, I didn’t try to interpret, which might have been better because the discussion didn’t drag out. A Cuban came up and asked the women, “Quien es el ultimo?” (Who’s last in line?), and they replied in English: “Well, we don’t see anyone behind us.” This Cuban, less stubborn, wrote them off as clueless and found himself a spot in the shade.

Lines are an institution in Cuba. Cubans spend all day in lines. You can spend an hour or more waiting for the bus to come by, or waiting to get eggs or meat, or standing around to pay your phone bill.

To them it’s absurd to form a straight line where people can’t move for any reason, where you would get sunburnt or your legs would fall asleep.

In Havana you have to ask not only who’s last in line, but also who’s next to the last. That way, if the person in front of you gives up and goes home, you won’t be disoriented. With all that information, one can relax and spend their long wait somewhere that’s more comfortable, or they can have a chat with whoever wants to talk.

To me, all of this seemed like a lesson against the rigid mindset of those who believe themselves to be from societies that are more civilized and efficient.

13 thoughts on “Waiting in Lines in Cuba Causes Conflicts

  • Can… be happy you are in Canada, many of the cheap visitors take the Cuba people from Canada as their servant on the cheap, not me, wake up it is a total new enviroment and I am glad that we had this discussion to show how different service is rendered!! You did not make it to the US stay in Canada!!

  • A cola is an invisible waiting line. Invisible because it’s hardly ever a straight or orderly line. People may be sitting, standing, or missing all together with someone being paid to hold their place. Proper etiquette, in Cuba, dictates that you find out who is last in line by asking aloud “Ultimo?” (Who’s last?), when you arrive to a place that obviously has people waiting. You then simply have to remember whom you’re following, and when someone new arrives, you’ll indicate that you’re the one to follow.

  • Very simple solution – all major hotels have a Change desk, and the Cubans can’t go into those hotels. Never a wait unless you’re with a travel partner you have to wait for one another.

  • I was impressed when I visited Sweden. They’re government services (like postal service, liquor dispensaries) were frequently located in shopping districts or shopping malls. Rather than waiting in line, you simply took a number and went shopping. Throughout the shopping district were digital signs telling you what number was on deck for each service. That way you could get your shopping done without wasting any time whatsoever waiting in line.

  • Different cultures have different styles for waiting in lines. A visitor has to learn what the local customs are and respect them.

    I was in a line for a bus in Germany, when stepped out for one moment and tried to get back in where I was. Wrong! The rest of the line was adamant that I had to then go to the end of the line. That’s the German style. In most Arab countries, there is no such thing as a line. When the bus comes, you shove your way to the front or you lose. At government offices, you pay a man to line up for you, which involves him shoving his way to a desk in the middle of a crowded room.

    The Cuban way to line up seems civilized to me, once one understands it. From what I have read in Cuban literature, this method of lining up has been around for a long time, pre-dating the Revolution.

  • That is why everyone so desperately want to get out of Cuba

  • A friend and I were in Havana last year and went to the bank to exchange some dollars and Euros. We tried to follow the custom, but the uniformed guard directed us to an open teller window, obviously jumping several people who had been patiently waiting. We didn’t know what to do, and rather than argue with a uniformed guard, we went ahead and completed our transaction. I was really embarrassed because I felt we were shown favoritism as tourists–either that, or the guard was trying to avoid the mix-up that happens when tourists don’t know the custom.

  • Tijuana by foot, I travel by Car and I have crossed the border with legal travel documents to Mexico and other 100 Countries, I am always respectful, please do not take paying guest lightly it is your only survival Kit you have, you will get in the future other kind of guests, they expect service as all over the world they get and pay for, now you have visitors, mostely which take care of their own needs that will change, fast, I am born and raised in a Neutral Country and see things differently!! I am not Brainwashed!!

  • This writer hasn’t seen the border at Tijuana- the wait can be up 4HRS(on a non-holiday) by foot(no bathrooms provided by US or Mexico) to cross at the border to the USA no matter who you are unless you have a Sentri card and many Mexican-Americans won’t apply for various reasons around the issues of illegal immigration of family members. Lines are symbolic and at least the Cubans know that their lives are worth more than government formalities. At the core of it, a broken socialist system is still based on the idea of humanism and a broken capitalism will only leave us the barbarism in ruins of the survival of the most fit. Wake up!

  • Friend… if you don’t like the customs in Cuba you can be a paying guest elsewhere. It makes a lot of sense in a country that is so hot, that you find the last person in line and then find shelter from the sun. The Cuban people respect the order in which people arrive and don’t need to be standing right behind to know who goes next. Wake up and try to be respectful of others.

  • But try this everyday and with little of no money! Most tourists in Cuba think the island jail is a nice tourist attraction or a zoo!

  • I have learned that lines are very common in Cuba. However I learned this summer, that you have to ask not only who is the last in line but which line it is. I was following the last person in line for awhile until i found out that it was for people who wanted to use the bank machine. There was another line for people who wanted to see a teller. The lines in the stores are worse because there could be 10 people in the store who were supposed to be working but only one was actually serving the customers. The others were chatting amongst themselves or slowly putting bars of soap in neat piles on the shelf. The paperwork that is required to buy some items is lengthy and slow also, so you can spend the whole day shopping for a very few items. But it is Cuba and I love it.

  • to stay in line means you, one you in person stay in line, try this in an other Country than the US and you will be off loaded at once, wake up you have paying guest and treat them accordingly or you will be in a fight and land at the Cubean Police Station!! Guest pay with their earned money and not some handed out money, they work for it! wake up to the new enviroment, fast!!

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