Dispatches from Cuba: Little to Buy for American Tourists in Havana


(c) 2011 Wikipedia

Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press, August 14, 2011

Someone please tell my family that my gift to them will be photos, postcards and the smell of Cohiba smoke on my clothes.

Previous Dispatches: 81-year-old crooner highlights Castro tribute concert -- Cuban culture, politics on the schedule for this tour -- Americans get rare glimpse of island nation

That's because the hardest part for American tourists here in Havana is the shopping -- or more accurately, the lack of shopping.

Because of Cuba's hard times and policies, there is little to buy and almost no stores. But even when there are things to buy, Americans can't buy them.

According to the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, we cannot bring back rum, cigars, handicrafts, jewelry, revolution-chic items or virtually anything else. In fact, the only things we can bring back are literature and certain original artwork.

So my only souvenirs so far are three postcards and the "HAV" paper luggage tag the airline attached to my checked bag.

Last night at the San Carlos de la Cabana fortress, we saw lots of souvenirs -- bracelets, bags, carvings, wooden boxes, dolls and other gifts. We lingered, looked, then came back to the hotel empty-handed.

Why is this rule in place? It gives me a headache thinking about it, but it is part of the prohibition on Americans spending money in Cuba. Americans also cannot use any credit card or debit card in Cuba because U.S. companies are prohibited from processing transactions from Cuba. The point is to prevent American money from benefitting the Castro government.

So, it's cash only. We brought cash, but there is nothing to spend it on. Well, that is not exactly true. I don't smoke cigars, but some in our group have been spending their Cuban currency ($1 buys .87 CUCs) on Cohiba Robusto cigars. They are smoking them on the back veranda of the Hotel Nacional on humid Havana nights.

Others have spent a little cash on jazz clubs and evening floor shows or on mojitos or Cuban beer when they get a spare second in our packed cultural tour schedule.

And did I mention that Carnaval is going on in Havana while we are here? It is 7 nights of parades on the Malacon -- the seaside road of the city. We can see the whole thing from the hotel. Many in our group, after a long day of museums, tours and walking, have gone down to mingle with the masses, getting some genuine people-to-people interaction.

Tomorrow, I head out of Havana for Pinar del Rio, in the beautiful western part of Cuba. Some of the travelers will go to colonial Trinidad, while a third group will visit musicians in the eastern part of Cuba. All the trips -- involving about 30 people total -- are sponsored by Insight Cuba, the American company running the very first tours here this month.

Please tell my boss her present from me when I get back will be a piece of very nice lint from Hotel Nacional.

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