With the U.S. embargo on Cuban products and ban on travel lifted, it’s becoming easier and more important to be familiar with the island nation. But there are some things that you won’t find in any travel guide. Here are some lesser-known facts about Cuba and her people.
#1 Cuban mechanics are some of the best in the world.
Since trade between Cuba and the United States came to a halt in the ’50s, Cubans were stuck driving cars made prior to 1959, and seized from their original owners. But what happens when one of those cars breaks? With no way to import replacement parts, Cuban auto mechanics have gotten crafty, cannibalizing junkers and improvising parts from scrap. Some cars in Cuba have no original parts in them other than the chassis!
#2 U.S. plans against Cuba got completely ridiculous.
At the height of the Missile Crisis, the CIA was desperate to weaken the Cuban government in any way possible – even removing Fidel Castro’s beard. In 1961, president John F. Kennedy authorized “The Cuban Project,” a series of plans including sprinkling hair remover on Castro’s clothes, poisoning his cigars, and planting explosive seashells on his favorite beaches.
#3 Cuba has more doctors per patient than any other country.
For some reason, Cuba has 6.7 doctors for every 1,000 people. The country has been known to send medical professionals to developing nations in order to help the sick there.Who could sanction a nice country like that?
#4 Baseball is really popular.
Baseball remains the most popular sport in Cuba, even after professional sports were outlawed in 1960. Fidel Castro even pitched for his college intramural team, and attended a huge number of games throughout his life. (Though it’s not true that he tried out for the Yankees.)
#5 Cuba has a beautiful, well-preserved culture.
With nine sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list – seven cultural and two natural – it’s not hard to see why the people of Cuba can take such pride in their heritage. Most recently, the Historic Centre of Camagüey joined the list in 2013.
#6 It’s also a natural paradise.
Cuba is kind of like Mother Nature’s secret vault. It’s home to the prehistoric Manjuarí fish, found nowhere else on Earth, as well as the world’s smallest hummingbird and frog. Not to mention over 3,000 species of plant found nowhere else. Even better, 22% of Cuba is protected natural land. (Strangely, not one animal native to Cuba is poisonous.)
#7 Religion is a big deal… but it wasn’t always.
Even though most Cubans are practicing Catholics, Christmas wasn’t made a national holiday until 1997. Why the sudden change? In order to prepare for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998! Cubans had been asking for increased religious freedom for a long time prior, so making the holiday official was probably a good idea anyway.
#8 The internet is rare in Cuba.
Surprisingly, only 5% of Cubans currently have open access to the internet. The penalties for violating web restrictions can be steep – five years in prison is a pretty common punishment.
#9 Castro loved the Beatles.
Fidel Castro was enthusiastic about a lot of things. Baseball, communism, etc. But he loved the Beatles so much that he had a bronze statue of John Lennon placed in a Havana park. Before long, recordings of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” were common finds on the Black Market.
#10 Cuba struggles with massive poverty.
To offset the rich history, nature, and culture, most Cubans are… well… pretty poor. The average monthly wage over there is only $20. That’s a shame, because now that the auto market has opened up again, a $52,000 car in the U.S. would cost $262,000 in a state-owned Cuban dealership.
#11 The LGBT+ community has it pretty good over there.
Cuba wasn’t always the best place to be openly gay or transgender, but they’re doing their best to make up for that. There’s a National Sexual Education Center, where Fidel Castro’s nice Mariela Castro is leading the charge to end homophobia and discrimination. Transgender people can even have free sex reassignment operations in Cuban hospitals.
Until recently, citizens of Cuba were only allowed to stay overseas for 11 months, and only in approved destinations. Very recently, though, the government’s policies have changed: with an ID, passport, and the necessary visas, Cubans can now travel anywhere they like for up to two years. If they choose to go to the U.S., however, they’re still subject to the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy: a Cuban immigrant caught at sea by U.S. officials can be turned back, but one that makes it to land is allowed to stay.
Just before JFK put the Cuban trading ban into effect, he apparently bought 1,200 Cuban cigars for his personal stash. But you didn’t hear it from me.