by Keith D. Foote
Venezuela has been the primary source of Cuba’s imports for several years. However, Venezuela is having political, commercial, and economic problems, causing production and delivery issues. Russia, China, Iran, etc. simply are not in a position to replace Venezuela as benefactors/suppliers. Cuba is a small island, with a small economy. Unless you’re in the Americas, it is expensive to reach, and supporting it for questionable political gains is not cost-effective.
Cuba’s government seems to be entering a period of cautious observation before accepting a full re-engagement of trade with the United States. If the government of Cuba permits the changes supported by the U.S., they risk massive cultural changes and less economic independence. But in terms of efficiency, trade with the U.S. is remarkably convenient. In spite of this, Cuba’s government may (intelligently) decide the tactics of stalling and dragging out trade negotiations will work to their advantage. Their economic priorities and philosophies are not the same as those commonly used in the United States. They have no reason to hurry.
At present, there are a large number of items legally exported from the United States to the Republic of Cuba that remain unreported/undocumented. The methods used for these exports include direct charter flights from the United States to Cuba, and the use of third-country regularly scheduled airlines. Products include such things as welding equipment, electronic equipment, printers, power tools, cooking supplies, medical supplies, etc. The goods “exported” are taken on as baggage (checked and carry-on) by passengers hired by the exporter, or by the exporter as he/she travels to Cuba. This type of trade system requires personal contacts in Cuba. There are already established trade businesses within Cuba performing this service, and competing with these established organizations may prove difficult.
Currently, these are the problems you can expect in exporting goods to Cuba:
- A culture where money “is not” the highest priority.
- Currently, there is no American Chamber of Commerce.
- A lack of foreign exchange due to commercial and economic decisions by the government of the Republic of Cuba have reduced its ability to earn foreign exchange.
- Cuba’s trade relationship with Venezuela has lowerered their interest in purchasing products from the United States, but this is changing.
- Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Mexico, Spain, Mexico, Canada, Russia, Iran, New Zealand, and France are countries who have had steady trade with Cuba, and are well-established as competition.
- You will have to compete with, or work with, government-controlled businesses who provide very favorable payment terms. The Government acts like a bank for these, and several other businesses.
- Oddly enough, the Cuban government demands a high degree of transparency. Something American businesses are not used to. Their demands for transparency have slowed a number of U.S. corporations efforts to “invade” Cuba. The Cuban government has even requested members of the U.S. Congress to be more visible in their lobbying efforts regarding Cuba.
Exports from the United States to the Republic of Cuba fall under provisions of TSREEA (also referred to as TSRA), or the more archaic CDA.
Currently, goods are shipped from the U.S. to the Republic of Cuba by air or by water from one of 47 districts in the United States. These are a few:
The reporting district of Mobile, Alabama, has shipping ports at:
The reporting district of Miami, Florida has shipping ports at:
Port Manatee, Florida
Can include airline charter/airline cargo from Miami International Airport.
The New York reporting district includes ports in:
New Jersey and can include John F. Kennedy International Airport (charter flights).
The Buffalo, New York, reporting district transports products by ground and then to the Republic of Cuba.
The Los Angeles, California, moves products through Los Angeles International Airport (charter flights).
Tips while staying in Cuba
Most businesses and banks follow U.S. norms from the 1950s, and are open Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. There are, however, individual variations on the theme, and some businesses and banks may close for an hour for lunch. Shops and department stores, especially those focused on tourists, often have slightly more extended hours, and many are open on Saturday and Sunday.
There are no firm laws about drinking and liquor. Beer, wine, and liquor are available at most restaurants and gift shops.
A 110 voltage is the standard in Cuba, with traditional U.S. style outlets. Some outlets, however, are rated at 220 volts, particularly in hotels catering to Europeans. These outlets are usually marked and often only accept two-prong round plugs. As a general rule, Americans should have no problems with personal appliances, though you might want to bring a three-to-two-prong adapter for outlets lacking a ground.
Embassies & Consulates
All major consulates and embassies, including the new U.S. embassy, are in Havana. The U.S. embassy may be known to locals as the Chancery Building and is quite close to the beach. It is on Calzada, a main travelway, between L & M Streets. The primary phone number is: (53)(7) 839-4100. Their work hours are: Monday through Thursday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Fridays from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (They are closed on U.S. and Cuban Holidays.) For emergencies and after hours communications:(+53)(7)-831-4100 and dial 1 to speak with the emergency operator. The email address is: ACSHavana@state.gov
The embassy of Canada is located at Calle 30 no. 518, at the corner of Avenida 7, Miramar (tel. 7/204-2516; fax 7/204-2044; http://havana.gc.ca). The “Consulate of Canada” is located at Hotel Atlántico, Suite 1, Guardalavaca (tel. 24/430-320; fax 24/430-321; firstname.lastname@example.org); and at Calle 13, corner of Avenida 1 and Camino del Mar, Varadero (tel. 45/61-2078; fax 45/66-7395; email@example.com).
The embassy of the United Kingdom is located at Calle 34 no. 702, between Avenida 7 and 17, Miramar (tel. 7/214-2200; fax 7/214-2268; http://ukincuba.fco.gov.uk).
In most emergency situations, you will dial 106 on the telephone. This is the number for the police. You can also dial 104 for an ambulance, or 105 for the fire department. You cannot assume you will find an English-speaking person at any of these emergency numbers. For legal emergencies, contact your diplomatic representation. All U.S. citizens can find assistance at the U.S. Interests Section, with no questions asked about licenses.
Behavior & Customs
Cubans are generally friendly, open, and physically expressive. They are comfortable talking to strangers and use the formal terms of address in Spanish. However, you should be aware, many Cubans starting a conversation with you in the street are hoping to find some form of economic gain out of the relationship. “Jineterismo” is a way of life for some in Cuba. They may offer to take you to a specific restaurant or hotel (for a commission) or they may simply make a direct appeal for money.
Dress is generally very informal, in part as a result of the tough economic times faced by the general population. Suits are sometimes worn in business and governmental meetings, although a simple, light, short-sleeved cotton shirt with a tie is completely acceptable.
Your greatest etiquette concern should be is about what you say. Openly criticizing the government, or the Castros, is a significant taboo. Do not do this, especially in public places where you can be heard by the general population.
Cuba requires all visitors and non-Cuban residents have a medical insurance policy. This is an absolute. Failure to carry the correct documents could result in having to purchase mandatory insurance coverage at the airport through Asistur. An unnecessary surprise expense. Visitors from the U.S. should take out their insurance policy from Cuban insurance companies that are affiliated with Havantur-Celimar Company. (American insurance companies do not provide coverage in Cuba.) For more information, contact the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.cubaminrex.cu/english/LookCuba/Articles /Others/2010/06-04.html). That said, it seems that visitors are not always asked to present proof of insurance documentation on entry. Still, to be safe, you should take out an insurance policy before you arrive in Cuba. If you do need to purchase insurance at the airport, contact Asistur (tel. 7/866-4499; http://www.asistur.cu).
Spanish is the official language of Cuba. English is spoken at most tourist hotels and at some restaurants and attractions. Outside of the tourist areas, English is not commonly spoken, and some understanding of basic Spanish will go a long way.
Indigenous and African languages have had a significant influence on the Cuban language. Such words as cigar, barbacoa, and conga, can trace their origins to African languages. African dialects are still used in songs and ceremonies, though very few speak them conversationally. Because of the leftover Soviet influence, some Cubans know how to speak Russian.
If you get into legal trouble, immediately request to be put in touch with your embassy. All embassies have emergency numbers available 24 hours a day.
Mail A post office is called a “correo” in Spanish. You can purchase stamps at post offices, or gift shops, and the front desk in most hotels. The Cuban postal service is extremely slow and inefficient. You can expect every piece of mail to be opened and inspected. The cost of a letter to the U.S. or Canada is CUC$.75, and will take about 3 weeks for delivery. A letter to Europe costs CUC$.70. A package of up to 1 kilogram (2.2 lb.) will cost CUC$10 to CUC$20 to ship, depending upon the destination, and can only be dealt with at principal post offices.
However, it is best to send anything of any value by using an established international courier service. DHL, Calle 26 and Avenida 1, Miramar, Havana (tel. 7/204-1876; http://www.dhl.com), provides coverage for most of Cuba. Note: In spite of what you may have been told, packages sent overnight to U.S. addresses tend to take 3 to 4 days to reach their destination.
Most hotels, and car rental offices, will have very basic road maps of Cuba and Havana. Most tourist gift shops and Infotur kiosks will have more deatiled maps available. If you’re purchasing a map “before” your trip, try to get the International Travel Map of Cuba (www.itmb.com). You can also find good maps online at http://www.cubaroutes.com.
Nationwide, dialing 106 will connect you with the police, though you should not expect to find an English-speaking person on the other end of the phone. In general, the police are quite helpful and trustworthy. Bribery is not a concern. In case of theft, the police are your best bet for helping to recover your valuables, but for physical emergencies or threats of serious danger, you should contact your embassy for help and advice.
There are no specific taxes on products or services in Cuba. However, some tourist restaurants have begun adding a 10% service charge onto their bills. This fee goes directly to the state restaurant and not the waiter, so you will need to leave a tip separately. There is also a CUC$25 departure tax that must be paid in cash when leaving the country.
Most Cuban workers earn incredibly low salaries, around CUC$10 to CUC$15 a month, so tips are very important. With the rise of tourism, many workers now expect and work for tips, including taxi drivers, waiters, guides, porters, and restaurant musicians. Taxi driver are loath to give any small change on a fare, preferring to keep it. If the meter reads CUC$4.30, you are expected to pay CUC$4.50, though you are within your rights to ask for your CUC$.20 of chnge . Taxi drivers, especially in Havana, will often overcharge tourists. Porters should be tipped between CUC$.50 and CUC$1 for each bag. If you stay in a hotel or resort, you should tip the maid about CUC$1 a day. Also tip the waiters who serve you every day in the all-inclusive resorts.
Public restrooms are not readily available. Hotels, restaurants, or museums may let you use their restrooms. While it is unusual for a tourist would be denied use of the restrooms, you should always ask permission. Generally speaking, public restrooms in Cuba are much more sanitary than those in other developing countries, although toilet seats are sometimes missing and you should always bring toilet paper with you.
Many restrooms will have an attendant, who is sometimes responsible for dispensing toilet paper. Upon exiting, you are expected to either leave a tip, or pay a specified fee. If the restrooms are not clean and you do not take the toilet paper, do not feel obliged to tip. Otherwise, leave up to CUC$.25
Water is generally safe to drink throughout the country. However, bottled water is available and sold as agua mineral sin or con gas and made by Ciego Montero. Bottled water can be expensive, so if you don’t have “very” a sensitive stomach, you can ask for agua hervida (boiled water).
Photo of Streets of Santiago de Cuba by Christopher L.