Street Hassle in Cuba

July 14, 2013 | Print Print |

Ken Hiebert

Ken-H-3HAVANA TIMES — I am writing from the point of view of a Canadian tourist.  Someone else will have to tell you how this is experienced by Cubans.

Keep in mind also that I am a senior from a temperate climate and May is already a hot month in Cuba.  So I went out in the morning sometimes after very little sleep and so somewhat irritable.

Our choir chose the Hotel Ingleterra.  This was a great location, right in the heart of Havana.  It also meant that an excellent Cuban band played just below our window until 2:00 in the morning.

The expression “street hassle” is taken from Lonely Planet.  According to Lonely Planet “…Havana is a relatively safe city – particularly when compared to other Latin American capitals.”  One of our choir members confirmed this, based on his travels to Mexico.

Even so, parts of Havana reminded me of some city blocks in Vancouver where you can’t stand still for 30 seconds without being approached by somebody who wants money.

Ken1So what was the hassle?  First, an awful lot of people wanted to sell us stuff.  I’d bet that I’m not the only Canadian who likes to shop in silence and anonymity, avoiding contact with sales people until it is absolutely necessary.  This may be a cultural difference.

I remember one Cuban woman who seemed quite frustrated that her approach to me simply caused me to move on.  It’s hard to shop anonymously when you are invited to step into a small private home.

In some places you would be approached by a bicycle taxi.  Four seconds after you had politely said no, another driver, who had witnessed the first exchange, would then offer a taxi.  Our politeness began to wear thin.

Next were the “jinoteros.”  Jinotero is derived from the Cuban word for jockey.  The jinoteros “jockey” or manipulate tourists.  Three of our choir members were out looking for a restaurant one evening and fell into the hands of some jinoteros.

They were ripped off for $100.00.  Not a crushing loss, but a pretty good take for the jinoteros.

$31.00 of that went to buy a bag of powdered milk, ostensibly for a baby.  My guess is that the milk was returned to the store and the money shared between the store and the jinoteros.

Ken-H.4The “milk for my baby” approach is very common.  I was told that in fact milk is heavily subsidized for children until they turn 8 years old.

“I’m a security guard” is another common approach.  Presumably you pay this person to stick with you and protect you from street hassle.

We also ran into beggars.  Not everywhere, but where there were concentrations of tourists.  Two incidents stay in my mind.  Once, as we boarded our bus, there was a woman with a boy.  She was thin and haggard and seemed agitated to be standing near to so many people with money, but at the same time afraid to make a direct approach.

Another morning, as we approached our bus, I saw an older woman not looking entirely well and moving slowly toward the bus.  After we were on the bus, she was still on the sidewalk, now crying.  One of our choir members made the effort to get off the bus, approach this woman, and give her some money.  This was a very human response and may have been the right thing to do.

If it was, then shame on me for passively watching this whole scene.  Was this woman acting?   I don’t think so.  If she was, she deserves an Oscar.

Even in downtown Havana you can avoid street hassle if you go out early in the morning.  One woman in our choir would go out running before breakfast, without any difficulty. And our trip to Ciudad Libertad was free of hassle.  All we met were friendly people who did their best to help us in spite of the language barrier between us.


What's your opinion?

  • Leo Romain

    That Cuba is “relatively ” safe is relative. Maybe it was true a few years ago but no more. It is only natural. The more they are exposed to our easy affluence, the more they want it. And the poorer they get, the more desperate they get.
    And the police are relatively useless for Cuban on tourist crime.
    I was scammed by a couple of real professionals; a mother daughter team with impeccable credentials. The mother is a plastic surgeon and the daughter a lawyer with the university of Havana.
    They even went so far as to take over the care of a rescued street dog for me in order to gain my confidence. True con artists. A very sophisticated 3 month long con.
    And I was not the first some poor German guy had bought a 75k house in their name.
    After an hour with the bank manager, it was clear to us both that the “joint” bank account I had opened with the lawyer daughter was not joint but in her name only.The papers I signed were as beneficiary not joint holder. The bank card she said was coming in the mail did not exist.
    They invited me to stay in their home for two weeks and robbed me on the second night while I was sleeping. Amongst articles blatantly stolen was my bathing suit, womens clothes, scarves AND MY SHOES!! And they had the sociopathic nerve to blame it on an intruder!
    But worst of all, the dog was being abused.
    Beware! Casa Particulars and Cuban homes are not safe.
    Foreigners cannot have bank accounts nor buy houses without a Cuban front, so scams are inevitable.
    I mean if you cant trust a doctor and a lawyer, who could you trust?

    • Griffin

      The mother-daughter con-artist are a prime examples of the “New Man” created by the Cuban Revolution. The oppressive social environment ruthlessly constructed by the architects of Cuban socialism is the perfect breeding ground for con-artists & thieves. They excel at the cynical art of manipulating gullible pro-Castro foreigners.

      • Leo Romain

        Indeed, “the perfect breeding ground for con-artists and thieves.”
        And as Cuba opens up more, you can expect more and more elaborate and sophisticated connery. Lets face it, they are not stupid and will learn fast.
        I am reminded of the 80s in Mozambique, when once the war ended, all the students returned from Russia and violent crime soared as they deployed their new “skills” learned in Russia on the streets of Maputo.
        Seeing that the mother/daughter were doctors and lawyers, one can assume they were once good people. Until the first “gullible” tourist created a temptation they couldn’t resist and the easy descent into easy money making scams was made inevitable.
        It was remarkable how unashamed they were when I called them on the scam. Their sense of entitlement to our money and things was an absolute in their minds. They simply deserve “capitalist” goodies by virtue of being Cuban.
        It is interesting to note, the constant sneering contempt they displayed for “capitalism” while whoring so desperately for the fruits.
        I suppose that is what you mean by the ” new man”
        And it starts on the streets.
        The thousands of tourists assuaging their “white man’s guilt” playing ” Santa Claus” creates this sense of entitlement and need for free goodies on the street level and is absolutely corrupting.
        Sadly, it is the nature of tourism, it is always an absolute corrupting influence absolutely on poor countries whatever the political system but made much worse by socialism.
        Hey, here in “socialist” Quebec, now that it has become a third world country, the Quebekers brag about ripping off Canada with the same fervent sense of deserving and entitlement and contempt.

  • JC

    What was the point of this piece? Did you simply need to vent, Ken? People can be hassled or hustled in any city of any country. While in Toronto recently, I observed that those doing the most aggressive accosting appeared to be on something (drugs?) or may have been mentally ill, in my semi-informed assessment. I feel more at risk when I’m hassled by people who are not rational than those who are simply needy – no matter what the language!

  • John Saynor

    I’m sorry the reader identified himself as a Canadian. I’m ashamed. Obviously he has no understanding of the economic situation in Cuba and how little the average person makes in a month and is expected to survive. I suggest the next time your choir takes a trip that you go to a small town somewhere where you won’t be hassled by people who have less than you trying to make a living.

  • Moses Patterson

    Of the many things gone wrong in Cuba as a result of the repressive and totalitarian Castro regime, one of the few fairly benign annoyances is the ‘street hassle’. In comparison, to other Latin American capitals, the hustlers in Havana are fewer in number and milder in effect. It is very rare to see a child engaged in the ‘hassle’ and the ‘take’ is usually just a few dollars. There is never any sort of physical pressure associated with the hassle and Cubans will generally break off their sales pitch after two or three firm “No” are delivered. Cuban pride is at the root of this reluctance to engage tourists. That, and the fear of arrest by the police under the charge of “asedio al turismo”. Besides, I believe some tourists arrive in Cuba with a virtual sign on their backs that reads “Take advantage of me”. They treat Cuba like they were visiting a zoo. Is it any wonder they get bit by the ‘lions’ every once in a while?

  • Ken Benoit

    Ken, I appreciated your story. I have spent some time in Havana, because my wife is Cuban and has a house in Cerro, near Monte y Infante and like you I love walking through the streets without being hassled. I would sometimes get so annoyed with strangers’ impertinence, I would ask why they wanted to know, were they writing my biography. or something smart like that. It was a chance to develop my spanish.

    I go out for walks early in the morning and often I would walk down Calzada de Cerro to a little park off a side street,called park Galicia. One morning there wasn’t any coffee in the house and we hadn’t been able to find any to buy anywhere around that area. I went out for a walk towards the park at about 6 am and as I am walking past Salvador Allende hospital, I see an old man sitting with 2 bags of coffee, one on each knee, from the bodega, the small, almost invisible shops that supply the monthly rations to Cubans. Old people often sell some of the supplies to supplement their woefully inadequate pensions. I approached the man and asked him how much he wanted. 15 each, he said, meaning 15 cuban pesos (about 60 cents). I had with me a ten peso note and 2 cuc (worth about 2 dollars). I offered him the 2 cuc, but he declined, saying that he didn’t have any change. So he didn’t even consider that he could make an even better deal for himself. Eventually I persuaded him to take the 2 cuc for the 2 bags. Isn’t it wonderful to walk through streets where you can have this kind of encounter?

  • pixie moss

    And you think your country has the answer on how to live and conduct its self do you ???Get over yourselves Candian people,stay at home if you don’t like it when things don’t go your way !!! I love Cuba,get a sense of humour and find an alternative way to solve what is a very short stay on the cuban island for you,you go back to Vancouver where you can get every thing in matrial wealth you dream of,.this article is tiresome, the rich whinging. your sob story is pitiful.A part of my heart was left in Cuba after I came home to the UK..Cubans don’t need pity ….like many countries that don’t have the social structure as the West..they need a better way,maybe not even the west can teach them that better way…because you too have faults..we are all human stop pointing the negative finger. What about the Cuban musicians you fail to mention they play with the oldest of instruments but never the less play some amazing music to entertain tourists and always with a smile…If anything we all need to learn from the Cuban people not the other way round. Id rather spend my time and money in Cuba than in Canada,even though Canada is naturally beautiful…….the tolerance of the Cuban people is the best.

  • peter mulheron Scotland

    By jings Moses blames everything on the Castro communist regime who recovered Cuba for the Cuban’s, the rightful owners of their country, not the people he argues for!!
    Yes I also do not like harassment whilst on holiday but this is a fact of tourism whether in Spain, France, Morocco Egypt, London, Berlin or wherever, so what’s his problem with a worldwide happening in Cuba.
    Lets grow up and stop knocking an economy recovering after a capitalised rape.

    • Moses Patterson

      Castro “recovered” Cuba for Castro, not for Cubans. Were it not so, Cubans would not be leaving Cuba by any means possible leaving behind a Cuba they felt truly belonged to them. My level of ‘maturity’ has nothing to do with what’s going on in Cuba. A five-year old can see that after 54 years of the Castro regime, Cuba is not “recovering”. Check your stats, the Cuban economy, even with foreign subsidies and family remittances, is circling the drain.

  • Michael

    Ken no offence but you embarrass me for being a Canadian and really for lacking a sense of humour… First off I cannot blame Cubans for trying to get something off of you. For you probably look like a bunch of rico touristas… Talk to these people, go to their houses and listen to what they have been through… It has been real hard…

    Not all Cubans are poor… Though some are real scammers and on the streets in the tourist areas of Habana it is fair game…Though not all of them are scammers… And I have also been through the same thing… Though I usually have my mirrored sunglasses on and look far from being a rico tourista… And I just say…OH!!!!!!!!!…. Me Lo Chino… Yo necisito la casa la caca… And that usually works and they all scatter… LOL

    Though on an more realistic note most Cubans are very poor and I have helped many of them. And I do not fall for the scams very easily. Though I cannot blame them for trying… I have given with my heart many times while in Cuba and I will be back again in a few days and I will continue to do the same… MRR

  • Ken Hiebert

    People go to Cuba for many reasons. Some because they feel solidarity for the Cuban Revolution, and some out of solidarity with the Cuban people even if they don’t support the revolution. Some people like to brighten people’s lives by bringing gifts. These are all good reasons to go to Cuba. But most tourists go to Cuba to enjoy themselves. And the advertising for the Cuban tourist industry is based on that. The best thing I can do for the Cuban tourist industry is give them an honest account of my experience there. I may not represent the majority experience, but I think I can claim to speak for cranky seniors from cooler climates.
    Given the anxiety many of us feel for the future of the Cuban Revolution, it is hard to hear negative comments about Cuba. But if Raul Castro’s speech (reported on this website) is any indication, we’d better get ready to hear lots of negative comments.

  • BLB

    I do this too – but wonder if my motives are pure or selfishly motivated to reduce my guilt for being ‘one of the lucky ones on this planet’ when I am the one who gets the joy (of playing Santa Claus)… still – many people do need and appreciate a thoughtful gift. Best moment ever – before boarding the tourist bus from Havana to Varadero I ran to a nearby man fishing at the harbour’s edge and handed him the lures and fishing line I had brought to Cuba with me. I was back on the bus before he actually figured out what had happen – then he just stood on the sidewalk looking at the mirrored windows on the bus with a smile – he stood for about 10 minutes just doing that – he couldn’t see inside – but I guess this was his way of saying thank-you.

  • cooking1976

    Listen folks, Havana..Cuba is what it is….a 3rd world country! Hello, and if you’ve been to others like this they all beg and hassle you in the street. It’s up to you to be “steely” enough to tell them no and make it come off like you mean it. After that they will leave you be, but if you convey the slightest sign that you are interested in their bogus stories then they’ll hang on until they squeeze you for whatever they can. Unfortunate for many job prospects are few and far the tourist money is it so they do whatever they can to score your tourist money. Doesn’t mean you have to give it to them, but if you engage the random Cuban on the street and offer them anything don’t come crying or complaining when it becomes obvious they took you. Also, it definitely is NOT OK what they are doing and it’s NOT UNDERSTANDABLE, trying to scam tourists because they believe the tourists can be scammed, (hello tourists have ZERO responsibility to fix their problems or actually even care) but it is what many of them do, that is look for the quick cash, and any traveler worth his/her salt should be investigating the basics of a city/country before they go. Trust me it’s no secret that the jineteros/jineteras/prostitutes/street scams, etc exist. A funny thing happens there when you “hace la candela” basically yell/get emotional/get indignant about something there start waving your hands etc…the Cubans begin to respect you.

  • Yael

    Okay… Next time learn to say “NO!”

    It’s easy for cubans to understand when you really mean No, they will just back off.
    I’m brazilian; I come from another poor country and since we brazilians look just like cubans I thought I wasn’t going to be “hassle” by cubans. Hey guess what? It happens to everyone, even my friends from Havana who many of them are as whiteeeee as an Icelandic (I am always surprise how many foreigners visitors think of them self as white, when Cuba has way too many white people that look like if they are from Scandinavian countries) they get asked for money even tho they are as cubans as a tabaco.

    Learn to say No, it’s an universal common sense expression. And if Cuba appeared to you as a too much hassle, do not go to any other Latin countries, or India, or anywhere in Asia.

  • Ken Hiebert

    Culture Clash
    In McGuffy’s News, a coffee shop publication, I came across this item.
    “Things That Irritate
    You have to inform five different people in the same store that you’re just browsing.”
    I think this reinforces the point I was trying to make about how Canadians like to shop. Of course, we can tell Canadians that they have to change if they wish to visit Cuba. I don’t think that is a very productive approach.