Discrimination and Safety in Cuba
While I've written about some of the most amazing aspects of Cuba, the fact is that it's a country unlike most you've likely ever encountered. From the practice of communism to the taboo nature of being in a country with a history of conflict with the U.S., it's truly an experience. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention my struggle with one of the more disappointing points of my time there: discrimination. While it in no way ruined my entire time and I would still recommend the trip purely from a cultural standpoint, the Cuban government has instituted a "tourist harassment" policy that's rarely spoken about. In effect, it has created an environment in which racial discrimination in Cuba thrives.
Tourism is a major source of revenue and the government is serious about protecting it. The police work diligently to make Cuba safe for visitors, and indeed it is for the most part. That said, there is a longstanding policy in place that bars most locals from interacting with travelers. The purpose is to curb prostitution and prevent hustlers from approaching tourists. Granted, I was propositioned by pimps right by my hotel and prostitutes are everywhere; however, in practice this has manifested itself in a culture of systematic discrimination.
The enforcement of the harassment policy essentially means a Cuban who is not authorized to interact with visitors to the country can be arrested or fined if seen. Police officers are very present, and many walk around undercover in plain clothes. Historically, Cuba has a racial history very similar to that of other Caribbean countries and the United States. The Spanish colonized the island early-on, and eventually slaves were brought over from Africa. Today this has resulted in a mixed population of white, mulatto, and black Cubans. While many figures report that a majority of Cubans are white, there is a significant portion of Cubans of color. These Cubans are more heavily targeted by harassment laws than their white counterparts. I can say this with certainty because I was targeted myself.
I was in Cuba on a photography trip through my university. While I went to a fairly diverse school, like many institutions of higher education in the United States the proportion of white students to minorities is skewed. Given this, the proportion of my white friends to minorities followed suit. So what? I only bring this up because of its relevance to the situation. Throughout the trip I found myself harassed on multiple occasions for walking down the street in a group of my mostly-white friends. Because I have dark skin--locals would often ask if I am Cuban--police saw me as a target. There was one incident in particular in which two undercover officers stopped us on the street one night, grabbed me with little explanation, and repeatedly asked my to show them "my papers." Although I very clearly have an American accent and indignantly showed them my California drivers license, they didn't seem to believe I wasn't some undercover Cuban with bad intentions. It was only after all of my friends had repeatedly vouched for my supposed legitimacy that they seemed placated and left. To say this was a horrific experience would be an understatement.
This was not an isolated experience. It happened often enough that it got to the point where I wouldn't speak Spanish anymore when questioned. It only seemed to hurt my case. My professor, a Dominican himself, noted this happens every year on the trip. He feels the need to actually warn students of color in advance because the issue recurs so often. While I could get into how it personally made me feel to be persecuted for the color of my skin, the plain fact is that I'm incredibly fortunate to be an American. There are millions of Cubans in the country experiencing much worse on a regular basis with no resources to improve their fate. It seems to be the cost of doing business in terms of "protecting" tourists, and it's something of which anyone traveling to the country should be aware.
So is Cuba safe? In a word, yes. The Cuban people are warm and friendly, and harsh punishments for anyone found to have committed a crime against a tourist are harsh. One should follow normal safety guidelines when visiting, namely remaining aware at all times and watching one's belongings. The worst crime that would likely happen is petty theft, although it's nothing my friends or I experienced. Women and solo female travelers should be aware that Cuba, like many Latin American countries, has a strong machismo culture. Men are very forward, particularly if you stand out like one would with blonde hair. Physical assault is not a real threat because of stern government control--although always protect yourself--but anticipate relentless cat calling. Men will call out things like "Hola Linda" and ask where you're from to try to get your attention. It's annoying, but mostly harmless.
When dealing with locals, show respect by remembering that they are likely prohibited from talking to you. If they're seen, they could be punished with fines or arrest. This is not to say that one should not speak with the locals because it's one of the best ways to get to know the country and you absolutely should, but be aware. Do not approach anyone or speak to Cubans in front of police unless you're sure this is fine. Be careful when giving money to anyone. Remember that prostitution is widespread, both for your personal wellbeing and for the fact that many women are presumed prostitutes by police if seen speaking with tourists. The Malecón in particular is a fun place to hangout at night, but it's full of locals and drinking which inevitably brings police. It's unlikely that you'll be in any trouble from your interactions, but do remember that locals might.
I would hate to leave anyone with a negative impression of such a beautiful country so I'd like to reiterate that Cuba is an incredible place to visit. The country is so full of culture and vibrance, and it's unlike anywhere else I've been. I do think my experience is not isolated, however, and I would be doing a disservice to anyone, particularly people of color, by not expressing the negatives along with the positives. Any true traveler is bound to experience massive differences in culture and ways of life, and that's the whole point. If you're a Westerner you're likely of an immense advantage in the grand scheme of the world and it can be a shock to realize that life is drastically different in other parts of the globe. But this isn't to say one shouldn't experience it, observe it, and allow it to be. We may have different ways of doing things, but we're all one.