Discovering Cuba

Born and raised in Cuba, Maylena Chaviano is an accomplished salsa teacher and performer and a PhD student at McGill University. She has been advising travelers and leading groups to Cuba for several years. She sat down with Colibri to discuss Castro, Cuba’s art and music, and what travelers should expect and search for when visiting Cuba.


Colibri: When working on this interview, we received the information that Cuba’s ‘El Comandante’, Fidel Castro, died at the age of 90. Jimmy Carter sent his condolences; President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Are Cubans mourning their national hero or celebrating the death of a dictator?

MC: Most people in Cuba, young and old, are sad and mourn the passing of Fidel, Cuba’s legendary revolutionary. But the overall approach to Fidel Castro and revolution depends on the year they were born.

For older people Fidel Castro is a hero. They remember that before Castro there was another dictator, Batista, and Cuba was a colony with a socioeconomically polarized population. Only very few people were wealthy, and many of those actually decided to live in the US. Most of the population was not only poor but also had no access to education and felt humiliation as a foreign colony. Older generations associate capitalism with embargo and the US with colonialism. To those who remember Cuba before Castro, or are at all interested in the history of the colonial era, Castro is, at least to some extent, a hero.

But young Cubans often look at Castro as a dictator, one that kept the country in poverty with sanctions and separated them from the western world, its opportunities, and often from their families living in the US.

Colibri: One of my favorite movies, ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ shows young Che Guevara and Castro as two idealists fighting colonial exploitation of their people.

MC: Yes, Che Guevara and his legend are still alive in Cuba. You will see lots of murals and places related to Che. And one of the biggest accomplishments of Castro and his revolution was his legendary literacy action, where hundreds of teachers went to the countryside to fight illiteracy. From that standpoint, Cuba has made huge progress. Even today, despite limited resources, Cuba is famous for having among the top doctors in the world. Everyone can read and write, which is taken for granted by young Cubans now, but it wasn’t just 40 years ago.

Colibri: What about Cubans living in the United States? They often belong to the older generation yet were very much against the Castro regime.

MC: You brought up a very interesting topic that not many people notice. Yes, many Cubans who are now are American citizens left Cuba either when it was still a colony or after the revolution, when their prosperity was taken by the government without compensation. Those Cubans are the biggest supporters of the embargo and often forget that it affects the average citizen much more than the government. American Cubans are often the strongest opponents of President Obama’s efforts to remove the embargo. This is really sad for those who live on the island. There is some quiet yet ongoing conflict – or at least difference – in personal interests between American Cubans that you will find on Calle Ocho in Miami (the Cuban district) and people in Cuba.

Colibri: Cuba is under US embargo but European companies have successfully entered the country. Can people still find the authentic Cuba, or is the Western world is taking over?

MC: Cuba is changing! Each time I am there I see new developments. Yes, Europeans companies are building resorts and hotels in partnership with the government, but the scale is still small. Honestly, this is the best time to visit Cuba as the real change will come when US companies – especially the big chains – enter the country. Will Cuba be able to preserve its full cultural identity? Hopefully. But its current uniqueness is the result of the insulation and communism. If [this unique identity] is what you want to experience, book your trip now.

Colibri: For the most authentic experience do you recommend a big hotel or a casa particular (a small, privately owned B&B).

MC: Choose the casa! For many reasons. Casas particulares are privately owned, small houses where you stay with locals – a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The owners will cook a breakfast for you, show you the nearest wifi spot, and answer all your questions about Havana and its history. They take personal pride on keeping their properties clean and want to offer you the best service. Casas are far from the luxury of some boutique hotels in the US or Europe, but again, it’s Cuba.

Hotels are still really rare in Cuba and unless you can pay $700 per night in the historical 5-star Hotel Nacional, they don’t really match American standards. A 4-star hotel will probably be more like the 2 or 3-star hotel in USA. Travelers often complain about cleanliness and customer service being far from the standards that they are accustomed to. And most importantly, by staying in casas you support local people. Your money goes to the tiny entrepreneur. Private casas are allowed only recently, and for Cubans it is a huge opportunity to run their own business. When you choose hotels, your money goes to government and foreign corporations.

Colibri: What other major difference should we expect?

MC: The isolation that we experienced and the difficulty to travel and exchange ideas forced us to reached to our roots. Rather than looking for inspiration in other cultures, we have had to look to our history and ethnic roots. This is what we build on. Famous Cuban salsa and rumba came from Africans brought to Cuba first as slaves. Lots of the differences between Cuba and other Caribbean islands are result of the political system and embargo.

There are also some things that may be annoying for foreigners. For example, people do not stick to a schedule. The driver that was supposed to pick you up may never show up, or your reservation in a restaurant may be no longer available. At the end it always works somehow, but be prepared for the unexpected at all times.

Colibri: Cuba is famous for being a land of artists: musicians but also painters, dancers.

MC: Cuba is definitely the land of artists. It inspired Hemingway in the past, and art and music continue to be huge part of our lives. Being an artist was always a very prestigious profession. Ironically, communism also stimulated art in a quite interesting way. Because of this ideology everyone – regardless of profession – makes similar money. And yes, people are generally poor in Cuba, but they are poor regardless of being a musician, doctor or a lawyer, so they are free to follow their passion, not the money. Choosing a major or career based on salary makes no sense. Imagine that, being completely free to follow your passion. In every bad situation you can find a bright side, and here this is one of the very few bright sides of our otherwise dysfunctional political system.

Colibri: If you were to suggest us a few things that you should absolutely not leave without seeing?

MC: The beach! (laugh) Seriously – Cuba has spectacular, undeveloped beaches. And of course, indulge yourself with music, attend the live concerts in one of the Casa de Música, take salsa lessons. You may think it is for tourists but we breath music, that is the essence of Cuba. Follow Hemingway’s steps to village of Cojimar, where he wrote his famous novel ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. It is so beautiful, maintains its local feel, and feels so authentically Cuban. Hotel Nacional – insanely expensive. I guess you can call it a tourist trap, but still, it is a must to stop there for a cup of coffee and contemplate the beautiful view. Remember that Cuba is not cheap. There are separate prices for tourist and locals, and having a local person helping you navigate the system is crucial.

Colibri: Many Western travelers will be concerned about wifi connections, cell phone companies, etc. How does it work in Cuba?

MC: Forget about that! Seriously – take this opportunity to separate yourself from being connected. Your cell phone might not work there, and internet connection is very slow. Go to a hotel and a café to send an email to your family saying you are okay, and just forget about the rest. You are here, in a Cuba that you will probably never see again this way. Shut off your cell phone and open your mind for this once in a lifetime experience. You will find yourself back in time, no reason to rush anywhere.