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Exploring and Living in Cuba

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Living in Cuba is much safer than residing in most large cities in the United States or Latin America. In fact, the crime rate is less than in any other Latin American or Caribbean country, making Cuba the safest country in the area. There is some petty theft but the type of violent crime found in the U.S. is virtually nonexistent. You will probably feel safer in Cuba than in your home country.  Violent crime against foreigners is a rare occurrence. Most of Cubans are honest hard working people.

NOTE: If a Cuban is caught assaulting a tourist they get a double jail term. This serves as a good deterrent and should be the norm in every country to discourage crimes against tourists.

The majority of tourists and foreign residents will never encounter any problems, but it’s always wise to take some precautions because of the minor criminality that exists.  Remember, you should be careful in any third-world country.

In a region (Latin America) that riddled by a drug trade and the violence that goes with it, Cuba is virtually free of both. Because there are no drugs, there are no guns on the streets. The poilice do not even carry guns. The murder rate is one tenth of Jamaica’s and one seventh of the Bahamas’ and in the Western hemisphere, only Canada and Chie rank lower.

Americans, Canadians and Europeans are viewed as millionaires by the people of third world countries, including Cuba.  Comparatively speaking we are much better off.  There are always a few dishonest individuals looking to take advantage of foreigners.  However, if you are alert, exercise common sense and take some basic precautions, you should have few problems with crime in Cuba—better safe than sorry. 

Robbery is most likely to take place in large towns and cities.  Parts of Havana should be avoided at night. When going out at night avoid the side streets and don’t go alone – ever! Take a taxi to return to your hotel or to go to a restaurant.  Be especially careful in those areaswhich have poor lighting and narrow streets.  Pickpockets can be a problem anywhere in the world. Theft of handbags occasionally occurs.

 Thieves tend to look for easy targets, especially foreigners, so you cannot be too cautious.  Make sure your neighborhood has a night watchman if you live in the city. However, ask for references and closely screen any person you hire.  Also, report suspicious people loitering around your premises. Thieves are very patient and often case a residence for a long time to observe your comings and goings. They can and will strike at the most opportune moment.

You should take added precautions if you live in a neighborhood where there are many foreigners.  Thieves associate foreigners with wealth and look for areas where they cluster together.  One possible deterrent, in addition to a night watchman, is to organize a neighborhood watch group in your area.

As for burglary, you are better off living in an apartment or condominium than a single detached dwelling.  The former tend to be less susceptible to burglary due to their design and the fact that there is “safety in numbers.”  Apartments sometimes have intercoms, security access and even guards.  Neighbors will usually help keep an eye on your place if you befriend them.  Be sure to inform them when you will be away. 

One of the best defenses against burglaries is having a house sitter or a live-in maid.   If you do hire a maid, ask for references.  Be careful to treat your household help well to ensure their loyalty.  It is advisable to have a safety deposit box for jewelry or any other small valuable items.  Again, in the long run you are better off toning down your materialistic life-style and not making an ostentatious display of your wealth by having a lot of unnecessary luxury items. 

If you leave town, get a friend or other trustworthy person to house sit.

Rural areas are less populated and usually more isolated. This makes them prime targets for burglars and other thieves.

Here are some safety tips:

  1. Dress simply.
  2. Never flaunt your wealth by wearing expensive jewelry or carrying cameras loosely around your neck because they make you an easy mark on the street. Keep a good watch on any valuable items you may be carrying.
  3. Find a good way to conceal your money and never carry it in your back pocket. It is best to carry money in front pockets. It is also a good idea to always carry small amounts of money in several places rather than all your money in one place.
  4. Be very discreet with your money. Do not flash large amounts of money in public. When withdrawing cash at the bank, ask the cashier to count the money again slowly; it is not advisable to count it again in front of others. Every time you finish a transaction in a bank or store, put away all money in your purse or wallet before going out into the street. Carry a single credit card. Don’t carry bank credentials unless you are thinking of doing bank transactions.
    Don’t carry large amounts of your money, your passport or valuables in exposed areas of your clothing.  If you have to carry large amounts money, conceal it with a money belt or another device underneath your clothes.  Keep a small amount of money in your pockets to fool would be thieves by making them think that is all you are carrying.
    Never exchange money on the streets or in a bar, chances are great that you receive counterfeit or outdated banknotes in exchange for your good money. Beware of those who say they can get a better exchange rate than he could get at the bank. Make it a habit to check your cash and change all the time, this practice can save you good money.
  Shortchanging can happen!
  1. Don’t show your cellular telephone in the street. Should the cellular ring and you are walking in the street, stick to the wall, look both ways, answer and ask the person calling to ring back later.
  2. Always look at the hands and eyes of anyone walking towards you, if they have their hands in their pockets, since it is possible they are carrying a weapon.
  3. Never carry any original documents, such as passports or visas. Make a photocopy of your passport and carry it with you at all times. The authorities will accept most photocopies as a valid form of identification. Exercise similar precautions to avoid having your purse or camera snatched.
  4. If you really want to keep a low profile and not stand out, dress down and wear clothing like the locals so you don't stick out like a sore thumb. Do not wear expensive jewels or golden chains, most Cubans wear very cheap or fake jewels, and snatching of gold chains can happen.
  5. Try to avoid street hustlers commonly called jineteros who will try to sell you anything or offer to change your money. In Havana Vieja there have been a lot of purse snatchings and muggings as in the downtown areas of Cuba's major cities. But most U.S. cities have more crime in a year than in all of Cuba. Women should be careful of men harassing them.  This is another form of machismo in a male dominated society. The best thing to do is just ignore these men.  They are just flirting and saying flattering remarks—called piropos.
  6. 10. When exploring the island as a tourist, never leave your things on the beach unattended when going swimming. Don’t lose sight of your luggage or leave valuables in your hotel room. Have a safe place in your hotel room, apartment or house to hide your most prized possessions. Avoid walking on dark streets and in out of the way places at night.
  7. After a pleasant evening out, check the bill, sometimes you get an “adjusted" bill especially if there was fun and lots of drinking. Best practice: pay after each order and each time check the bill.
  8. Speaking Spanish will often protect you. It is advisable to know some basic phrases in the event of an emergency.
  9. All the cigars you buy on the streets or from someone working in a cigar factory are counterfeits. The original (real) cigar brands are only sold in the State shops, State hotels and the (official) cigar factories. Each box has a certificate and a holographic seal. The high quality cigars are not cheap.
    Also be careful when purchasing rum. Check the seal of each bottle of rum you buy carefully, especially the more expensive bottles. Sometimes the seals of the bottles of better rum are broken and the bottle is then filled with a cheaper version. Pay attention when you buy the more expensive bottles, in some stores they show you a “real ” bottle and while you’re paying they change the bottle for another.
  1. Single women living alone should never walk unaccompanied at night. If you do go out in the evening, be sure to take a cab or have a friend come along.
  2. Men should always watch out for prostitutes who often are expert pickpockets. They are also known to work with accomplices who will gang up on unsuspecting victims at a most inopportune moment. Also, never walk alone at night and when intoxicated.  You are a sitting duck.
  3. Be careful of overly friendly strangers. Treat anyone you meet on the street with caution. Don’t put too much trust in new acquaintances.  Beware of people’s sob stories to get money from you. Watch out for people who offer you get rich scams or try to sell you land “sight unseen.”   If it seems too good to be true, it usually is.  White-collar crime is a worldwide problem.  Don’t be naive and think just because you are in a third world country nobody will try to swindle you.  You don’t have to be paranoid, just be more cautious than normal. If you use your common sense you will avoid most problems.

Be forewarned: Just because people speak English, it does not mean they are honest or trustworthy. During the time the author has lived in Latin America he personally witnessed hundreds of unsuspecting people who have been bilked out of there hard-earned savings by cunning English-speaking con men from their own countries.

White-collar crime exists all over the world, and a few dishonest individuals—Americans, British, Canadians, Cubans and other nationalities included—are always waiting to take your money. Just because he or she speaks good English does not make the individual a good person.  Con men prey on newcomers.

One “dangerous breed of animal” you may encounter in Latin America are foreigners between 30 and 60 years of age who are in business but do not have pensions. Most such people are struggling to survive and have to really hustle to make a living. In general, they are desperate and will go to almost any means to make money. They may even have a legitimate business but most certainly try to take advantage of you to make a few extra dollars. Most complaints the author hears concerning people being “ripped off,” are by individuals who fit this description.

A lot of expats let their guard down when they move abroad. There seems to be something that causes one to trust total strangers. The secret is to be cautious without being afraid to invest. Before jumping into what seems to be an once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity, ask yourself this question: Would I make the same investment in my hometown?  Do not do anything with your money in Latin America that you wouldn’t do at home. A friend and long-time in Latin America always says jokingly when referring to the business logic of foreigners who move south of the border: “When they step off the plane they seem to go brain-dead.”

Most people you will encounter abroad are honest, hard-working individuals.  However, do not assume people are honest just because they are nice.  Remember, it does not hurt to be overly cautious.

In the event that you are robbed, accosted or bilked out of money, you should contact the local authorities as soon as possible.  If you lose your passport or other documents, contact your local embassy or consulate listed in this guide.


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Cuban Spanish

Official Guide to Cuban Spanish

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Information herein is authorized through the courtesy of Christopher Howard, author of the best selling Cuba information source, Living and Investing in the New Cuba. Please be aware that all information herein is protected by COPYRIGHT © and misuse of it will carry a penalty by law.