Street Hassle in Cuba

Ken Hiebert

Ken-H-3HAVANA TIMES — I am writing from the point of view of a Canadian tourist.  Someone else will have to tell you how this is experienced by Cubans.

Keep in mind also that I am a senior from a temperate climate and May is already a hot month in Cuba.  So I went out in the morning sometimes after very little sleep and so somewhat irritable.

Our choir chose the Hotel Ingleterra.  This was a great location, right in the heart of Havana.  It also meant that an excellent Cuban band played just below our window until 2:00 in the morning.

The expression “street hassle” is taken from Lonely Planet.  According to Lonely Planet “…Havana is a relatively safe city – particularly when compared to other Latin American capitals.”  One of our choir members confirmed this, based on his travels to Mexico.

Even so, parts of Havana reminded me of some city blocks in Vancouver where you can’t stand still for 30 seconds without being approached by somebody who wants money.

Ken1So what was the hassle?  First, an awful lot of people wanted to sell us stuff.  I’d bet that I’m not the only Canadian who likes to shop in silence and anonymity, avoiding contact with sales people until it is absolutely necessary.  This may be a cultural difference.

I remember one Cuban woman who seemed quite frustrated that her approach to me simply caused me to move on.  It’s hard to shop anonymously when you are invited to step into a small private home.

In some places you would be approached by a bicycle taxi.  Four seconds after you had politely said no, another driver, who had witnessed the first exchange, would then offer a taxi.  Our politeness began to wear thin.

Next were the “jinoteros.”  Jinotero is derived from the Cuban word for jockey.  The jinoteros “jockey” or manipulate tourists.  Three of our choir members were out looking for a restaurant one evening and fell into the hands of some jinoteros.

They were ripped off for $100.00.  Not a crushing loss, but a pretty good take for the jinoteros.

$31.00 of that went to buy a bag of powdered milk, ostensibly for a baby.  My guess is that the milk was returned to the store and the money shared between the store and the jinoteros.

Ken-H.4The “milk for my baby” approach is very common.  I was told that in fact milk is heavily subsidized for children until they turn 8 years old.

“I’m a security guard” is another common approach.  Presumably you pay this person to stick with you and protect you from street hassle.

We also ran into beggars.  Not everywhere, but where there were concentrations of tourists.  Two incidents stay in my mind.  Once, as we boarded our bus, there was a woman with a boy.  She was thin and haggard and seemed agitated to be standing near to so many people with money, but at the same time afraid to make a direct approach.

Another morning, as we approached our bus, I saw an older woman not looking entirely well and moving slowly toward the bus.  After we were on the bus, she was still on the sidewalk, now crying.  One of our choir members made the effort to get off the bus, approach this woman, and give her some money.  This was a very human response and may have been the right thing to do.

If it was, then shame on me for passively watching this whole scene.  Was this woman acting?   I don’t think so.  If she was, she deserves an Oscar.

Even in downtown Havana you can avoid street hassle if you go out early in the morning.  One woman in our choir would go out running before breakfast, without any difficulty. And our trip to Ciudad Libertad was free of hassle.  All we met were friendly people who did their best to help us in spite of the language barrier between us.

18 thoughts on “Street Hassle in Cuba

  • July 20, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Culture Clash
    In McGuffy’s News, a coffee shop publication, I came across this item.
    “Things That Irritate
    You have to inform five different people in the same store that you’re just browsing.”
    I think this reinforces the point I was trying to make about how Canadians like to shop. Of course, we can tell Canadians that they have to change if they wish to visit Cuba. I don’t think that is a very productive approach.

  • July 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Okay… Next time learn to say “NO!”

    It’s easy for cubans to understand when you really mean No, they will just back off.
    I’m brazilian; I come from another poor country and since we brazilians look just like cubans I thought I wasn’t going to be “hassle” by cubans. Hey guess what? It happens to everyone, even my friends from Havana who many of them are as whiteeeee as an Icelandic (I am always surprise how many foreigners visitors think of them self as white, when Cuba has way too many white people that look like if they are from Scandinavian countries) they get asked for money even tho they are as cubans as a tabaco.

    Learn to say No, it’s an universal common sense expression. And if Cuba appeared to you as a too much hassle, do not go to any other Latin countries, or India, or anywhere in Asia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *