Casa de Africa, Habana Vieja
African influence in Cuban culture is enormous. This little museum illuminates the Afro-Cuban heritage with exhibits on slavery in Cuba, Santeria (the Cuban religion based on African, Catholic and indigenous traditions), art, music, dance and everyday life. There’s also a nice collection of modern African art from all over the continent.
In our last post, Tania was telling us about her work as a tour guide in Cuba in the 1990s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba had to adjust to the loss of significant economic aid. The development of leisure tourism was one plan to make up for the loss and the country invested in tourist infrastructure and services and allowed foreign hotels to come in.
Tania: After ten years getting to know the tour operators, the ministers etc., Melia decided to create this office in Havana. They were in the beach resort, in Varadero before, but when they moved to Havana because they had so many hotels that they needed to be in the city and they needed a corporate office to do the sales and marketing, rather than the contractors. They needed a team, a bigger team and they decided to hire guides. Why tour guides? Because it’s easy for a tour guide to sell a country because you know your country and its history and everything and you know the industry and the tour operators. You sell first the destination, then the product. So, they called different guides and 2 out of 50 were approved.
Kyna: And you were one.
Tania: I was qualified for the British and English-speaking market and my colleague, Frank, he speaks German and English, so we could share different markets. So, out of 50, 2 were approved. I was lucky. They were so in need of marketing, I started to work in September and in October I was already in Glasgow and all over the UK traveling.
Kyna: Was this the first time you had been out of Cuba?
Tania: No, the first time was in the Bahamas, but it was like being in Cuba, it’s very close. That was 1993, when I was a tour guide.
Kyna: You started traveling to Europe in 2000…
Kyna: How was that?
Tania: It was an adventure. Traveling is an adventure every time you go out. But for me it was okay because I developed the skill of traveling when I was a tour guide. Even in traveling your own country, you know, you get a plane, you check into a hotel, you have to find your way, you have to ask and be social, so you get all those skills once you’re a tour guide.
Kyna: Plus you had been working with people from these countries.
Tania: Exactly, it was the best experience. I have no issue, anywhere I go. Even if I don’t speak the language, I always find my way. You cannot imagine how many times I got lost in London, sometimes with the telephone battery dead and people helping me, giving me their phones to call. Everywhere I go, I always get lost and I ask people. People help you. It’s fun. As long as you respect people and they respect you back. In 2003, when I started to travel I realized I always had the dream of being a tourist instead of a tour guide, and now I am a tourist.
Kyna: How does the Cuban government chose people who will be traveling outside of the country. They want to pick people who are a low risk for defection. You had small children at home…
Tania: You go through a background check but there is always a risk. I have friends and colleagues who decided to defect. Most of them did not have kids. I had several opportunities but I didn’t. Not because of my kids because in the end you can file a claim and get them out. I didn’t do it because the company put trust in me. Morally I couldn’t do it. Some people understand that, some do not. I had a good life. Not all the Cubans that live here or abroad defected. Some, like me, they married or came to live with their family. Sometimes, when I speak with Cubans who defected, they are very negative about Cuba and assume I agree. I understand maybe they had bad experiences but my experience was not bad. It’s not black and white. You have to be pragmatic. I know there are bad things about Cuba but there are good things too. I have met a lot of Cubans abroad, some are doing well, some not so well, but most of them would like to be back in Cuba. I’m sure when it changes, many will be back.
This concludes my first interview with Tania. We plan to sit down again over coffee and treats, probably after the holidays, so stay tuned. I have a list of things I want to talk about, including religion and the black-market in Cuba. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to ask Tania, please let me know.
When we left off, we were discussing how Tania got her start in the tourism industry in Cuba. After studying English at university, she had hoped to work in a hotel but was told she was over qualified. Then she got a call from the Cuban tourism company Cubanacan to work as a tour guide.
Kyna: When was this, what year?
Tania: That was in 1991.
Kyna: So, that was right after Russia was out of there, really hard times.
Tania: Exactly and that was the beginning of real Western tourism. What we had before were political groups, students that came for political or social reasons.
Kyna: You mean from Communist countries?
Tania: And from America too, kind of like People to People.
Kyna: But not vacation tourism?
Tania: No. Socio-politic, they used to call it, socio-politic groups.
They used to meet Communist Party members and stuff like that. That was the type of tourism that we had.The real tourism really broke out after 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I worked with the first FITs and groups coming from the UK with Thompson Holidays, the first tour operator to do flights directly to Varadero, to the beach resorts.
Kyna: Were they building beach resorts?
Tania: Oh yes. Melia came into the picture in 1990. In 1990 they built Sol Palmeras, in 1991 Melia Las Americas and several other hotels, they were building infrastructure very strategically to develop tourism. Then came Super Clubs, Iberostar and different hotel chains.
Kyna: What about existing hotels, from before the Revolution?
Tania: They were owned and managed by the government. Later they were commercialized. There was a lot of competition.
So, my work as a tour guide gave me the opportunity to get experience in the industry, to deal with the tour operators, to get to know the resorts, the different sites.
I didn’t know I would be having a love affair with Cuba, back in 2003, when I first visited. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect. I had been to most of the Caribbean islands, but until Ya’lla Tours became a Travel Service Provider to Cuba, I had not given the island much thought. To me, it was just another rock in the sea, though a big one: Cuba is the seventh largest inhabited island in the world. Continue reading
We’re ready for the US trade embargo against Cuba to be over. The policy has had more than 50 years to achieve its goal of democratization in Cuba and it has failed. With the advent of normalized trade relations with China in 2000, the moral argument for the Cuban embargo lost all credibility. (Not that there aren’t many other examples of moral inconsistency in US trade policy, but China and Cuba are easily compared.) Continue reading