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23 November 2005
Ripping off the tourists in Cuba.
The following essay was first published in The Havana Journal in August 2005. The essay criticises one aspect of Cuba, namely the way in which scams are run with, possibly, official blessing. It is an issue that Cuba needs to address as a matter of urgency.

I thought long and hard about posting it here. I am not really too bothered about the views of right-wingers, but I was concerned that the British trendies may use it to make further attacks on Cuba. Then I thought bollocks to 'em.

This is the second essay about Cuba. The first can be found here.

The guide books advise their readers to see that all their luggage is securely locked prior to flying to Cuba. The baggage handlers at Havana airport are notoriously light-fingered and a few pounds spent on padlocks can make all the difference between getting a complete bag off the carousel or receiving one that has been thoroughly and expertly pillaged. Someone had still taken a shot at one of my suitcases – the one that had a combination lock on it instead of the others that had the more traditional keys. The face of the lock had been neatly wrenched off, but it was still sort of intact. The thief may have been disturbed, or he had run out of time, anyway the bag arrived with all its contents intact. Score one for taking a guide book’s advice. Such a pity they don’t talk about the scams that are run by the hotels as such information might have saved a lot of people a lot of grief…

The queue for the Cubana flight to Mexico City was long at Havana’s airport. It was the middle of the night so hardly anyone looked their best, anyway, but one 30-something woman looked paler and more ill at ease than the rest of us. My wife began to chat to the woman’s husband, who also looked a bit green about the gills, and found out what had happened to the couple.

They had staying at the beach resort of Varadero and their hotel had been stricken with food poisoning. The husband had escaped with a nasty bout of diarrhoea, but his wife had been taken to hospital. Around three hundred people, including a group of Mexican secondary school children, had also come down with this ailment in varying degrees of severity.

The cynic in me was amused to hear that guests at this hotel had been advised not to eat at the privately owned restaurants because, claimed their hotel, the food was often unsuitable for human consumption. Needless to say, and in the best tradition of Latin-America, the person who had thus advised the holidaymakers had made himself scarce once the dash to the toilets was on and had not been seen since.

To make matter worse the hotel had then denied that anything was out of the ordinary as far as their kitchen facilities were concerned and had blamed the outbreak on their guests’ determination to eat at the private restaurants that dot Cuban cities. The fact that nobody in this group had eaten outside the hotel was dismissed with an indifferent shrug.

Adding insult to injury, while all this was going on several guests found that their rooms had been entered and roughly half their money had been stolen. Note that the thief or thieves did not steal all the cash, so when the police were called in they just refused to believe that anything was amiss: they claimed that the complaint was an attempted scam by the tourists.

Exactly what happened at that hotel will probably never be known, but some informed guesses can be made. At the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where we stayed in Havana the breakfasts were delicious one day and terrible the next. Stale bread and dry fruit were the order of every other day, and all complaints were answered with the weary response that Cuba is a country under blockade and everyone has to make sacrifices.

Yes, well, a hotel security guard who had been suitably lubricated with gifts of clothing, soap and Mexican cigarettes confirmed what was already suspected; namely that the hotel’s employees were making one day’s food last for two and were then selling the surplus on the black market.

The hotel’s chambermaids have a little scam all of their own – at least ours did. She would stock the rooms that are occupied with toilet paper from the recently vacated rooms. The day’s supply of soap, shampoo and other toiletries was only ever half met. This wheeze came to light when our chambermaid took her day off and her replacement clumsily left the room fully stocked. The following day, when our regular maid returned, I ensured that we would not continue to be ripped-off by threatening to go and have a chat with the nice Interior Ministry policeman who was stationed outside the hotel. After that we had no problems, but it left a nasty taste in the mouth.

Screwing the guests seems to be an official policy at the Hotel Nacional: how many five star hotels in the world even charge guests for the bottled water that they leave in the rooms, much less the U.S.$2.50 that the Nacional charges for one litre of the stuff? The safe that most of these hotels have in every room is usually provided as a service to guests: not so at the Nacional; there the charge is U.S.$3.00 a day. Given these official scams, is it any wonder that the hotel’s staff decided to run some unofficial ones of their own?

So what happened at that hotel in Varadero? The best guess is that the staff were making the food last more than one day and something went rotten. This is understandable when you remember that even five star hotels suffer from blackouts that can last for several hours. As for the money stolen from the rooms that also suggests a clever, inside operation to only steal half the cash so that nobody would believe that a robbery had occurred. Or maybe it happens regularly and the police are either in on the deal or are under orders to rubbish all the complaints? We will never know.

To be fair to the Cuban government this writer did come across reports of the police running undercover operations to catch hotel criminals in the act, so they must be aware of the problem. However, and here is the big caveat, even assuming that the government has the will to fully tackle this problem there must be some doubt as to how effective their measures can be. Short of arresting every hotel employee in Cuba the scams are going to continue. That is how entrenched it seems to be.

The best advice that I can give to a visitor is, unfortunately, to treat Cuba as any other Latin-American republic and assume that basic criminality is the order of the day – a least as far as the hotels are concerned. Outside things are different as the streets are fairly safe to walk in and violent crime is almost unheard of. However, and sadly for the country’s image, the chances are that if a tourist is going to fall ill or suffer a robbery it will be because of something that happened in his luxurious, government owned hotel.

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