Cuba Travel Expert: Casas Particulares
The following transcript is from an interview with Alfredo De Lara of CubaRoadTrip.com
Shoulders of Giants Magazine. March 29, 2017
Q: I poked around your website and see that you're Cuban-American. What prompted you to start leading road trips in Cuba? What's your goal when introducing visitors -- whether first-timers or folks coming back -- to your version of the island?
A: I was born in the states, my parents are Cuban - so technically I'm not Cuban-American - just American. But I do have a deep understanding of the Cuban culture and psyche that goes beyond simply speaking the language. You could say it is unique to the children of Cuban "exiles" for our capacity to understand both sides dispassionately. Combined with my 25 years of experience covering Cuba as a photojournalist has by default formed me into somewhat of an expert on planning logistics in Cuba during news deployments on big stories; Hurricanes, Papal visits, the Elian Gonzales Saga, the Cuban Rafter exodus, the Brothers to the Rescue Shoot-Down, the Fidel to Raul transition etc.... Its a long history of bouncing from one diplomatic crisis to another and having to deal with the realities of finding flights, visas, rooms, drivers, hot food and translators on last minute notice for dozens of English-only speaking US journalists... all of this while fighting against tight deadlines and cranking out stories in a county with little to no internet. So, without blowing too much smoke out of my arse; its the kind of hard-won experience that even the most seasoned travel agents do not have when it comes to dealing with the many challenges of traveling to Cuba.
I first experienced Cuba for myself as a 24-year-old photojournalist, after convincing the boss at CNN Espanol that my bilingual skills would be helpful in covering the Pan American Games in October of 1991. It was just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Cuba was in the midst of severe austerity measures - known on the island as the "Special Period." The games ushered in a charm campaign with the world outside of the Soviet orbit, and a rare opportunity for an American to get a journalist visa along with a glimpse of what life on the island was really like for ordinary Cubans.
Since then, I have visited the island on a couple of dozen assignments over the last 25 years or so. Some just a few weeks, others several months long. During this time I saw first hand how the Cuban government was strategically shifting it's economy away from sugar exports that had been the mainstay of Cuban cashflow since the start Spanish colonial rule in 1515.
When Obama & Castro announced the normalization of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014, they also opened the door for ordinary Americans to visit legally. I was immediately swamped with calls and emails from friends and acquaintances rushing to visit the island with friends and family "before Cuba was ruined forever". After a few months of this and and an endless stream of free advice, I eventually tired of seeing these newly arrived multi-national corporations like AirBnB & Carnival Cruises getting all the action. So I finally decided in early 2016 that there were enough crumbs left over on the table for me to make a small business as a sideshow to my normal gigs as a photojournalist. My tours are very small, only 5 persons or less with very low profit margins and affordable prices compared to the big tour operators. It's not the primary way I make a living, but it helps supplement the modest bank account of a freelancer shooter. It also had the added reward of helping my fellow Americans see the real Cuba - like the one I had experienced back in 1991 on my first visit. I take them beyond the guidebooks and well rehearsed Old Havana walking tours surrounded by people that would look less awkward on a cruise ship arriving in Cancun.
I was quite literally sickened by having to cover the visits of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. Just like them, most Americans that travel to Cuba get what I call "The Epcot Havana Experience". I set out to break the stereotype of American tourists that I have seen repeated time and again all over the Caribbean. I strongly feel that visiting Cuba at a time of such historical importance has the potential for a greater impact than just a Facebook post of you sipping a Mojito with a Cohiba cigar or taking selfie with a 1950s convertible car. Arguably, Americans at this key moment have more saying power on how Cuba develops than Cuba's central planning office. They vote with their dollars and it is heard at the highest levels. If as Americans we decide to stay at state run hotels and drive around in 52 passenger tour busses; then it wont be long before Havana more closely resembles Montego Bay or Cozumel - but with better architecture.
Q: Can you talk a bit about the background of casas particulares and how they fit into Cuban culture and/or the economy?
A: The fall of the USSR in 1991 signaled the end to it's decades old "Oil for Sugar" program that since 1972 had subsidized the Cuban economy to the the tune of billions of dollars. Cuba was paid 11 times above the world market price for sugar as credits for food imports and infrastructure improvement loans, along with hefty military assistance packages. In this new era of of what Fidel called "the zero option" without Soviet assistance, reformers including, Raul Castro, were now hailing tourism and pharmaceuticals as the fastest and most efficient way of delivering much needed foreign trade and capital to a nation in deep economic crisis.
I witnessed how some hardliners within the Party reluctantly went along with the controversial plan. You see, tourism in particular was seen by many in Cuba, including Fidel Castro, as a "necessary evil" and a "double edged sword". Some within the Party feared that tourists would corrupt revolutionary morale and reintroduce some of the ills that the 1959 overthrow had gotten rid of, along with Fulgencio Batista and US capitalist hegemony. They also feared the effect it would have on ordinary Cubans seeing "rich" tourists enjoying the best Cuba had to offer - luxury hotels and private beaches - while Cubans were barred from entering the same places. The majority of Cubans were born after 1959 - more than 80% - and they had never experienced the stratification of economic classes. For the most part, Cubans were all equally poor and in the same boat as it were. The whole notion of international travel for the purposes of entertainment was for most, unimaginable.
Just the same and for the "greater good", Cuba went ahead with the plan and joined forces with foreign investment schemes linked to Spain's socialist government, led by Felipe Gonzalez, who came to the rescue with millions of dollars in "aid packages". Gonzalez also encouraged Spanish businessmen to invest. One of the early arrivals was hotel magnate Carlos Pereda, who opened Cuba's first tourist hotel in what used to be the sleepy coastal village of Varadero. Just a two hour ride from Havana. But just far enough to keep the the bitter-sweet fruits of tourism out of site from most Cubans.
Since then, Cuba together with foreign investment partners from Canada and France, has newly built or refurbished 63,000 state-run hotel rooms for international tourists. Not nearly enough for the 3 million tourists that now visit the island each year. In 1997, just before the first visit of Pope John Paul, the Cuban government had to urgently deal with the big problem of "under capacity".
Technocrat Reformers like Vice President Carlos Lage cleverly exploited an already standardized system of informal spare room rentals for Cubans only (known as Casas Particulares or Private Homes) established to deal with the severe housing shortages in Havana. The new rules allowed Cubans for the first time to rent these rooms to tourists. Simultaneously they legalized another well established Cuban invention born of the Special Period - the "Paladar" or "Tasting Kitchen". Just like the Casas Particulares, they were initially intended for Cubans only at a time when food was hard to find and the state was willing to delegate some of it's basic functions to the general public . Both types of establishments pay about 50% of their profits to the state by way of special permits and licensing. They are also limited to the size they can grow as to not compete with wholly run state enterprises. It started out as a temporary fix, then over time became the standard way. The Cuban government learned that they could still bring in cash, but without any of the risk. It's a sort of uniquely Cuban "Uberization" of the economy before it became a trend in Silicon Valley. The only difference was there was no app or internet service required. It all ran on word of mouth.
Q: How do casas fit into the country's current and possibly changing tourism structure?
A: It is unclear how long the Casa Particulares phenomenon will last. Some speculate that once Cuba has enough hotel capacity to deal with the number of tourists arriving, they will do away with the 20 year old model born out of crisis. Others think that it works well for for both the government and the people of Cuba. It reduces the burden on the state at time when it has little money of it's own to hire workers and build infrastructure; while at the same time it creates a sort of pressure relief valve for a Cuban population struggling to make ends meet on state salaries that average about $20US per month.
For the first time since the revolution, normal everyday Cubans have disposable income... at least in Havana anyway. You can feel it in the streets when compared to my first visits to the island 25 years ago. It used to be that when a new hotel or business opened up you would see huge fanfare and ribbon cutting ceremonies with Fidel himself in the audience. Now a days, if I am gone for more than a month or two, I always come back to discover a new Paladar or Casa opening up. It's just a normal everyday occurrence just like in any city in America. Just the same, it still poses a challenge for a government used to controlling every aspect of Cuban life.
What do you say to a newly empowered middle class that starts demanding faster and more broad changes that may possibly go beyond economics ? Economic reforms have certainly put more power in the hands of everyday Cubans to make decisions for themselves, but it is a select few. How will the government deal with the complexities awakened by a "have and have not" society that is allowing some to thrive earning $1500US a month when others working for the state are earning $20US a month ? It really has come full-circle and goes against some of the basic principals at the core of a communist system.
It remains a huge question, just like the dual currency system that Cuban reformers developed in 1994 to deal with the large influx of visitors. Twice now the government has announced they were doing away with the "convertible peso" (pegged to the US Dollar), but the deadline came and went with no change or official announcement. They know they have a huge problem that threatens to fracture a society built on economic equality but it seems no body wants to deal with it head-on just as the country is emerging out of the "Special Period".
One thing is for sure, 2017 will be a big year for Cuba. Raul has announced he is stepping down on Feb 24, 2018. The new leader will inherit the good and the bad of these economic reforms initiated by his predecessor. There have been rumors circulating for years about Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel being the groomed for the job. But like most Cubans, he was born after the Cuban revolution and has only ever been exposed to the secretive Castro way of running day to day affairs. We know very little about his deeply held personal views and style of leadership. It's a huge question mark that has many Cubans and Cuba watchers on the outside speculating about what comes next. Add to that the uncertainty over how the Trump administration will deal with Cuba and Obamas executive order for diplomatic normalization. It's a very exciting time to be doing what I am doing. My family all think I am crazy, but honestly I am thankful and count myself as privileged to have a front row seat. My goal as a guide is to transmit some of that excitement to my guests and hopefully impress on them the huge role they have to play as visiting Americans in that decision making process - both in Washington and in Havana.
Q: What else do you think is important for visitors to know if they're thinking about booking a stay independently?
1) Book early. I cant stress this enough. The best places are booked out several months in advance. I suggest a one month minimum for finding a decent place to stay.
2) Speak to people who have just returned from Cuba. There are some awesome forums online where travellers share advice and tips. I'm not talking TripAdvisor, though thats a good start. Look deeper and ask all of the stupid questions. With changes happening so fast its nearly impossible to keep up, even for guys like me that have been on top of all things Cuba for the last 25 years. Lonely Planet has a very good online community of helpful fellow travelers.
3) It contradicts the two points above but, let the magic happen. In a place like Cuba you just can't plan ahead for everything. I can guarantee you that nothing will go exactly as planned. If you want to see the real Cuba, be flexible and once you arrive go with the flow. Internet is hard to come by so don't count on your phone to save you. Speak to other travelers you meet in passing. Ask where they just came from and where they are going next. The best advice is the freshest advice. By the time most information gets into a blog or written up in a guidebook it's likely outdated or the place is being overrun with cargo pants and selfie-sticks.
4) lower your expectations. Cuba is not a luxury destination. Accommodation is clean but basic. Cuban ideas of interior decorating ascetic come straight out of your local Salvation Army store. The real value is in the people you meet and the genuine hospitality. Keep in mind that the hosts in the casa you are staying at have likely never seen the inside of a hotel room unless they were working at one in a past job. Be kind and thankful. They are giving you the best that they can get their hands on. There are no department stores in Cuba. No online shopping. You get what you get. Constructive criticism and helpful advice is appreciated. Impassioned complaints and rude attitude will get you nowhere.
5) Look into booking a private tour with a highly specialized tour operator that deals with very small groups. Paying more does not necessarily mean you will get a better place. Some of the best tour operators are small Mom and Pop shops.
6)Stay away from state run hotels and tours that pack you in a bus with dozens of other tourists. The biggest scam artists in Cuba are not the casa owners, it's the middlemen jacking the prices online to stupid tourists like you. If you have a friend that speaks Spanish put them on the phone directly with the casa. It may cost you a few bucks in long-distance calls but well worth it. Try and avoid re-sellers and booking agencies unless they have a stellar reputation and excellent customer feedback.
7) Bring Cash. Cuba is a cash based society. Your US credit cards and bank cards are useless. Cash is king. If you bring Euros you will get a better exchange rate than in US dollars.