One of the first things you will notice when you start to mix with local people is that there is a real sense of community and the people are very close. Everyone knows everyone else’s business it seems and Cuban people love to talk, chat and gossip, be it over a coffee, on street corners or sat on the wall enjoying the views from El Malecón (the sea front area which is popular with walkers in the daytime and early evenings).
Cubans, in other words, are a very sociable race and in the local community it can sometimes be hard to have any real privacy. With this loss of privacy though, comes the advantages of having the help and support of others around you and this is one of the strengths of Cuban society. People help each other and the sense of community, which has long been lost in a country such as the UK, still very much exists in Cuba.
One thing which might both surprise and impress you when you spend time here in a city such as Havana, is that the Cuban people take great care and pay a lot of attention to their appearance and presentation. You can be forgiven for thinking that poverty might have compromised the attitude towards hygiene, but it quite clearly has not here. Great attention is given to personal hygiene and great pride is taken in being well dressed, even if simple clothing is used.
Hygiene is very important to Cubans and there is a proverb in Cuban that in hard times, some people would place the need for soap, deodorants and other self hygiene products, above anything else. Being well presented and hygienic is a fascination of sorts for locals.
The directness of Cuban people can be something which takes a bit of time getting used to, if you are no longer used to honest and direct thoughts. In the UK, for example, political correctness has led society to be almost afraid to speak their mind for fear of supposedly offending someone else. Cuba is a very refreshing country to visit in this respect, because people are much more open and frank about things, quite similar in many respects to what you can expect in a city such as NYC, USA, where New Yorkers can also be quite blunt and honest about their thoughts.
Just like the people from any country, Cubans have their own bespoke sense of of humour and one which can take a little getting used to. The humour, in many respects, reflects the hardships that many Cubans have experienced in the past, hence a sometimes black and sensational sense of humour i.e one based on dark situations.
If you spend time with local families, you most likely will get the sense that the wife does tend to take on the role of housewife and cook, although no more so than in most Italian families in Italy to this day. Many women in Cuba though are living a Westernised modern style role in that many women in Cuba have highly skilled jobs, particularly in the medical sector i.e. as highly skilled and trained doctors and specialists in a range of medical related areas. One of Cuba’s most well known feminist, Vilma Espin, who was married to Raul Castro, fought heavily for the rights of women in Cuba. Women in Cuba overall tend to be more liberated and less constrained than in many other Latin America countries, countries in which the role of a woman is generally one which matches the traditional role of woman as a housewife and man as the breadwinner. Men do tend to be the main earners in Cuban society, a reflection in part of the lack of jobs in the country and the fact that many jobs can be highly corporeal in nature ,such as in farming. and construction.
Cuba’s position geographically lends itself to influences from many corners. A part of Latin America, very close to the United States and then also with influence from parts of West Africa including Gambia and Senegal, Cuban culture is a diverse melting pot. The influence from the U.S. is clear to see visually as you walk around a city such as Havana and see the old vehicles from the 1960s still being used en-masse. The trade embargo and the movement of many Cubans to America, in particular into South Florida, also continues to link the two countries and their influence over each other. Cuba’s location as a Caribbean Island and also a part of Latin America influences the people of Cuba and can be seen in the vibrant dance forms and lively music played throughout the island. The African influence adds another dynamic to Cuba, the African influence originating from the movement of slaves which the Spanish colonialists shipped. Afro-Cuban culture is strong and expressed, for example, in the music.
If you love to travel and experience different cultures, the truth I always feel is that you will meet mostly good people wherever you go and a small percentage of bad people. I have to say though, that from my time in Cuba, apart from the guy who stole my wallet in Havana (is more common statistically in major cities such as Barcelona , Rome . NYC etc), the other 99% of experiences with the Cuban people were very positive. The local people are a proud people who, despite their poverty, will also often share what little they have with you such is their kindness and hospitality.