How Foreigners Look at Me

September 4, 2012 | Print Print |

Yusimi Rodriguez

Discussions like this take place day and night in Havana’s Central Park.

HAVANA TIMES — I started asking myself this question three years ago. I was in Central Park in Old Havana, seated a few yards from the place where many people, mostly men, gather to argue about baseball, soccer and volleyball – or about Michael Jackson’s death at that particular time.

A couple of tourists passed by and asked if I spoke English so that I could explain to them what was happening. What to us was a lively discussion about sports was — in their eyes — a raging quarrel that at any moment could explode into bloodshed.

It took me a couple of minutes to explain the situation, in English. In the end they smiled at me thankfully but the woman did something that surprised me: She pulled a bar of soap out of her purse and gave it to me as a gift.

That wasn’t the first time I had received a gift from a foreigner. Actually, now that I think about it, most of my clothes have been given to me by foreign friends or Cubans who live abroad.

But that was the first time I felt like some starving beggar. Why did this woman think that she should give me a bar of soap?

I think it started in the ‘90s, during the Special Period crisis, when everything was desperately welcomed: from a tube of toothpaste to a pair of shoes.

I heard or read an anecdote about a Cuban woman who wrote that she didn’t have any sanitary pads, and a European woman sent her an exaggerated amount of packets. The Cuban was a writer and she had written a fictional story…fiction based on harsh reality.

Outside a Havana hotel.

In the ‘90s, we Cubans used pieces of cloth during menstruation, and we washed them so that they could be reused.

With the official end of that period, we should have left behind any reliance on what some foreigner might give us. Likewise, they should have stopped looking at us like the starving poor who barely survive on their salaries and have to sacrifice to buy a bar of soap.

Four months ago, a Jamaican friend was about to come here to Cuba on a visit, so she asked me what I wanted her to bring me. Although I only asked for a USB flash drive, she insisted that I ask for anything I might need, without being shy: clothes, shoes, food, soap or whatever.

I asked if she would make the same offer to a Canadian friend, if she were traveling to Canada. She responded by saying yes, explaining that a Canadian friend might ask for some special type of tea, spices or something like that.

But would an adult Canadian university graduate have to ask for a flash drive, clothes, shoes or even deodorant? I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t know how a grown female college graduate lives in Canada.

When I finally saw my friend at the hotel where she was staying, I was introduced to a group of her friends, who to my surprise had also brought gifts for me.

How did I feel, standing before the warm and sincere faces of those women who, inadvertently, gave me a cold shower in my own underdevelopment, stripping me of the little dignity I had left that morning?

I hadn’t mentioned a small incident that had happened a half hour earlier, when I got in the hotel elevator with my friend and the security guard made me feel like a potential criminal. Perhaps that expression is exaggerated – hell, maybe the whole thing was in my mind.

When I explained to him the circumstances (my friend didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to go up to her room without paying or without a special permit, and I didn’t know that she wanted to take me up to her room), the guard was very polite. He only called his supervisor as part of the hotel regulations, because they had seen me on the camera. The manager was also very friendly.

Feeling like I’m a potential criminal is still a conditioned reflex. Just four years ago we Cubans couldn’t go into hotels without feeling we’re being watched, that we’re out of place.

Hotel Parque Central in Havana.

Now we can even stay in hotels (those who can afford it), which is to say that officially we aren’t second class citizens in our own country. Still, it’s hard to get used to the new status.

Back to the question: How did I feel standing there in front my friend and her gift-bearing friends?  I can only say that what came to mind were those times when my parents and all the adults around me would say, “Study to be someone in life, so you don’t have to depend on anybody.”

My whole generation was brought up with that idea. Now I receive my basic necessities from the hands of foreigners, including people from developing countries who aren’t rich but are able to bring me things I can’t afford.

How did I feel? Tremendously grateful. Fortunate and extremely grateful.

So, did you think that I accepted the bar of soap from that woman who was from who knows what English-speaking country? Of course I did. I smothered the incipient attack on my dignity in seconds. It was a luxury I couldn’t afford.


What's your opinion?

  • John

    I too have taken extra supplies of soap, toothpaste etc to Cuba when on vacation there; I know that many Cuban people find it hard to afford some necessities. In the past when I’ve been to other non-European countries I haven’t even considered donating such items. So why do I and other foreigners do this in Cuba? There is some strange paradox about Cuba, it has respect all over the world and people recognize that Cubans make their sacrifices on behalf of the whole of humanity, so some foreigners feel there is a debt to be repaid.

  • Paul Falardeau

    I know that cubans are proud people, when we give something it is only to help out our human brothers and sisters, nothing to be ashamed about. It makes us feel good doing it. We only want to share. Nevertheless, your problems are our problems. You are not responsable for your situation.

  • Michael N. Landis

    One might ask why such basic necessities, like soap and toothpaste, are not readily available in the regular, CUP stores, rather than in the CUC/devisa stores? All the raw materials are readily available to manufacture such items. In any event, the hearts of the foreigners offering such items are in the right place. The scarcity and expense of such necessary items once again highlights the faults of central planning. Even with the blockade, embargo, etc., after 50+ years, there is no excuse for the continuation of this situation!

  • Moses

    At the end of every visit to Cuba (I have been nearly 20 times) I have been bombarded by my Cuban friends to leave them my shirt or my shoes or even my iPod! I really do understand the reasoning behind the requests however I fear that the “normal” reluctance most people outside of Cuba have which discourages “begging” for trinkets has been lost in Cuba. Years of deprivation have elevated what should be done only out of necessity to almost a national sport. Cubans, as the writer indicated, all too quickly smother their dignity and make their requests known. It is sad really because the false pride that Cubans project to the world masks an almost institutional level of begging that permeates Cuban culture. From Soviet, then Venezuelan, and now Brazilian subsidies to the smarmy Italian middle-age tourist with the teenage mulatta, there is really something “yucky” about it all.

  • Okasis

    One reason, and possibly the biggest one is this. Any article or story about Cuba, whether in a magazine, guide book, newspaper, on TV, or on-line, mentions how terrible poor Cuban’s are. Your standard of living is below that of most 3rd World Countries, and extreme poverty is rampant.

    The Propaganda expounding on the terrible conditions in COMMUNIST Cuba in unbelievable. Communism failed! Everywhere! The victims are in terrible straights, and need anything that will fit in your luggage. Bring soap, toilet paper, anything, that might help some poor homeless beggar.

    Of course there are more homeless people in every US city that is imaginable. Beggars are common everywhere, since the 1980s. I had never seen one except in Mexico, before then.

    My children were horrified that I would risk my life by traveling to Cuba by myself, with no set travel plans beyond flying to Havana thru Mexico to avoid the US custom agents. I didn’t bother to pack any of the emergency supplies for poor Cubans either. Anyone who bothers to do some basic research realizes it unnecessary.

    What did I think of the Cubans I saw in Central Park and on the Prado? I thought they looked like my neighbors, and most of the people I see in town. There were fewer grossly over-weight folks, and the children looked happier. I didn’t see one kid grabbing stuff in the stores, and yelling at a parent about buying it. Nor did I see any obviously homeless people. I was approached by a panhandler once, but she was better dressed than I was at the time.

    I did think it must be a Holiday when I arrived in Havana on a Sunday evening and the cab drove along the Prado. All the people just hanging out, visiting, and enjoying themselves looked like a giant block party.

    And the first time I heard a couple of Cubans discussing something, it did scare me, too – I thought they were having a very loud argument. After a few minutes, I realized that, unlike people in Mexico and the US, Cubans are very passionate about their beliefs, and don’t hesitate to defend them.

    Most countries I’ve visited, are different. The average person will do almost anything to keep from attracting attention. I think it is because we are raised to keep our head down, do as we are told, and avoid being noticed. That way, a person can fade into the background and do as he pleases.

    If two or three guys started heatedly talking like that in most public places here, someone would call 911. At an Airport, they would wind up on the No-Fly list, today. In a restaurant or Mall, they’d just be arrested for ‘disturbing the peace’…

  • Lawrence W

    There is another perspective that can be offered to the previous comments, and to Yusimi’s essay, which is very well written.

    I heard and read, before leaving for Cuba, all the stories about what Cubans needed – soap, toothpaste, etc., and chose not to bring anything and had no regrets. Was I just a cold-hearted Canadian who didn’t want to help the Cuban people? I was fairly confident I wouldn’t feel this way.

    What commenters have missed or choose not to mention, most notoriously ‘Moses’, who claims to be a regular visitor to Cuba, is that soap, toothpaste, etc. is readily available in Cuba. You don’t have to bring it from overseas like things not available – a special type of tea for instance.

    I went out of my way to visit an orphanage in Colon that Lonely Planet identified as a place tourists could visit and offer donations. I asked the proprietress what the orphanage needed and she identified soap, shampoo, toothpaste and a DVD player. I told her I would be back in a hour and hopped a cab outside – horse drawn, priced in national currency. I outrageously tipped, to the point where the driver didn’t want to take what I gave him but the ride was so wonderful, I wanted to pay for the joy of it. I love horses!

    There are two CUC appliance stores in Colon where there was a plentiful supply of everything the orphanage wanted. On the store’s recommendation I chose a Sony play over the cheaper Chinese one for about $25 more. There was some paperwork to deal with as they wanted the signature of the person in charge at the orphanage for the warranty. It was sorted out and the orphanage had that they wanted within the hour.

    So why would you buy stuff in the capitalist world and bring it to Cuba? I offered to give the orphanage the money for what they needed but they wouldn’t take it, saying they were not allowed to take money as part of an anti-corruption policy.

    We know not having enough money is the problem in Cuba, as it is in the US and Canada. It’s not uncommon for institutions like orphanges to ask for donations here. So why not bring Cubans money, what they need most, more than toothpaste and soap? I couldn’t stomach the patriarchal attitude bringing this to them without checking with them about what they wanted.

    Better yet, why not work in your country to pressure the US government to eliminate its embargo against Cuba which is responsible for the shortage of money?

    I also find it difficult to stomach the likes of people like ‘Moses’ who propagandizes for the American empire, not caring what it is doing to the Cuban people.

    • Okasis

      Lawrence,
      You are right about ‘tipping’, if you want to call it tips – I tipped in restaurants and the few times I took a cab. At the paradors, I sometimes shared something special I came across. It was easy in Cienfuego. There were numerous produce stands in the neighborhood, and a panderia. We had a communal fridge, so I simply restocked what I used, and shared the extras.

      With Juan, who did most of my ‘shopping’ in Havana, I simply told him to keep the change. When I flew out, I gave him all of my left over CUCs [not many]. He stayed till I had to check in and go thru security, making sure I had everything. His help certainly smoothed the way.

      When I got home, we corresponded via email, and I shared some photos, etc. I also wrote Juan’s daughter and told her how much he misses her and cares about her. In other words, I treated them like the friends they are…

      Cubans are a friendly, generous people. Why would anyone ignore their dignity?

    • J Condotti

      Lawrence, congratulations on doing the right thing by the orphanage. However, the reason there is a shortage of money in Cuba, as you say, has nothing to do with the embargo. After all, you were able to go into a Government-owned store in Cuba and buy a Sony product. I suspect you could have also purchased bottles of Coke. Embargo? The problem is not the US or American foreign policy (plenty to criticise there on other fronts). The problem is a 50-years-plus system that just doesn’t work.

      • Lawrence W

        ‘J Condotti’ asserts the usual American claptrap, that Cuba’s problems have nothing to do with the 50-year embargo. Of course he/she would – no one wants to feel responsible for creating hardships for millions of people so blame them or their government for it – an example of blaming the victims of course

        In response, I will point out my usual, that you can assert what you will, but it’s quite easy to prove it one way or another – stop the insane embargo and see what happens. I also point out that if the embargo is not having an effect on Cubans’ lives, then why has the US maintained it for 50 years???

        Is the US just stupid, or is ‘J Condotti’ stupid or does he/she think we are stupid? Take your pick.

        Being able to buy a Sony DVD in Cuba is not an example of the embargo not affecting Cubans lives. Not having enough money due to not being able to trade with its nearest neighbour, a huge market, is an example of what the embargo is responsible for. And having the US fine international companies for doing business with Cuba, on an almost daily basis, largely unreported unless you read a Cuban news source – is another example.

        The companies pay it, uncontested, in order to be able to keep doing business in the US. ING Bank was one of the latest targets. It just paid a record penalty of $619 million, has closed its branch in Havana and has had to sell off resources, just last week, all its branches in Canada.

  • Rob Yoo

    I travel to Cuba frequently and always bring shampoo and toothpaste. If you are going to bring, things, bring decent brands. Colgate, Crest, Pantene, Ivory Soap, Listerene Mouth wash are expensive and greatly appreciated. We call can afford perfume but if a friend from another country brought you a $70 bottle of Dior it is appreciated. Same sort of concept. A Cuban can buy generic acetimenophen at their local pharmacy for pennies but a bottle of Tylenol would be appreciated. Another example condoms. They cost 1 peso (4 cents) for a pack of 3 in Cuba. A box of Trojan Magnums would be greatly appreciated.

    • Lawrence W

      Your list of products are mostly made in the US, the country that has embargo’ed Cuba for 50 years. Cubans are quite happy with local products, they just don’lt have the money to afford them. Quality items can all be purchased in Cuba. Why not buy them there rather that rewarding the oppressor? It also saves you baggage space! Seems logical doesn’t it?

  • http://www.wakenphotography.com Linda

    I’m truly TRULY grateful for this article. So many people on the Travel Advisory board say we shouldn’t bring gifts to Cubans…they believe it makes Cubans feel ashamed. But I ALWAYS bring gifts. We have a “Cuba” suitecase at the house and the whole family gets involved. Often, I buy clothes and shoes for my kids when they are not with me. Many time, the articles do not fit…so it goes into the Cuba suitecase! I know they’re big on brand names, so we also keep our ‘mildly used’ brand name clothing to bring. Again, thank you for this article. I will be sharing it with everyone! …countdown… 9 days till I enjoy Cuban sand and smiles again!!!

  • http://www.mycubanblog.com Charles Boesen

    I’m from the US, and I when I visit your island, I always return home filled with riches. To the people of Cuba, your gentleness is not lost on me, your generosity will not be forgotten, and your industrious spirit will eternally inspire me.

  • john sparre

    don’t bring things like soap. they can be bought in cuba. there are shortages of interesting books and magazines but it is probably a good thing not to bring right wing stuff. also, DVDs. the cuban government has a huge debt and that is partly caused by embargoes. soap is not expensive but it has to be paid for in CUCs and anything else imported. those not in the CUC economy have problems getting necessities. at least cubans ask for stuff and i find their gratitude for small things excessive and embarrassing. it’s just basura to me. i have been in countries where stealing stuff by everyone is the norm. i read in an asian newspaper about respectable, well dressed women in the lobby asked to leave because they might be looking for trade. the article complained that the badly dressed australian guests were not asked to leave. it is true. australians will not dispute that they are not into smart clothing. soon after, immigration imposed dress standards as a sort of national revenge on poorly dressed but rich foreign tourists. i prefer to dress badly in places with high crime. there are lots of guys like me. as for cubans like the writer of this article. don’t worry about what others think of you. the stuff that you need is just peanuts and basura to the tourists. in rich countries, about a third of food rots in the fridge. the average person must throw out $20 worth of food every week. the streets are littered with trash that cubans would thanking tourists for excessively. food, clothing, shoes, furniture, pots and pans, radio-CD players, DVDs, televisions, fridges etc. i have found $30 bottles of vodka and other spirits on my way home. in australia, the streets are littered with small change. the streets are not paved with gold but they are littered with copper-nickel coins. 20 cents or under is just basura. no one will pick it up.

  • Gail

    I always feel so welcomed in Cuba by the wonderful people of this beautiful country. Every time I go to a friends home I take a gift as a thank you for welcoming me into your home.
    If I could afford it, I would give so much more to the Cubans because they give me so much by allowing me into their home land and giving me a sanctuary, a home away from home.
    I am humbled by their generosity and kindness.