Cuba

Street Artists, Performers, Helpers, Panhandlers, and Beggars in Cuba

Written by Mark McElroy

My tips will protect your wallet — and your heart.

Throughout our stay, we were approached by artists who wanted to sketch us (without permission), sing for us (witout invitation) or play songs for us (without our asking).

By all means, if you like the sketch by it. (It will cost you about 5 CUCs.) If you like the song, tip the singer (from 1 to 3 CUCs). If you enjoy the music or the performance, tip the performers (up to 5 CUCs for individuals or 10 CUCs for a group).

You are not obligated to tip or pay for any performance you didn’t ask for. Be aware, however, that “asking for it” takes very little effort on your part. Take that sketch in your hand to inspect it, and you’ve bought it. Photograph the singer or linger to enjoy the band, and payment is expected.

Street Performers

Before we set foot on Cuban soil, our Fathom hosts warned us about the street performers. “You might see ladies in white robes and head dresses, wearing lots of red lipstick, and asking if you’d like to take a photo with them. Be aware they’ll expect you to pay for the privilege.”

I had also read that street performers expect about one CUC per photo — and to me, that seemed like a fair deal for a souvenir selfie. So when I came strolling out of the terminal and spied a gang of lipsticked, kerchiefed women, instead of veering sharply away, I dove right in.

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Here’s a great photo of me, making the sort of mistake I say only rookie tourists would make.

They were funny. They were friendly. They were eager to have their photos made with me and Clyde. They loaned us prop cigars and planted big kisses on our cheeks. And when they were done, the leader of the group turned to me and said, “Twenty!”

I was shocked. I had planned to tip the women about two CUCs each; they had been great photo models, after all. Five each made me feel a little taken advantage of — but even that hefty price wasn’t going to break the bank.

I handed her a 20 CUC note. She smiled. “It’s twenty per person. There are four of us.”

My heart sank. My photos weren’t going to cost me twenty dollars. They were going to cost me eighty dollars.

By not having set a price beforehand, I left myself open to extortion — and when the deed is done, you have few options. I could have pitched a fit or summoned police — but my understanding is that I would have a snowball’s chance in Havana of getting any real help.

So I paid up and walked off and tried my best not to let that bad experience color my entire day in Havana. (To be honest with you, though, it really kind of did.)

Helpful Locals

While in Havana and Cienfuegos, we encountered many Cubans eager to provide simple services of all kinds, from opening doors to warning us of breaks in the pavement. Others struck up ostensibly friendly conversations (“Where are you from? What is your name? Where are you going?”), hoping to be enlisted as impromptu guides. Still others provided small favors — like allowing tourists to move to the front of the checkout line at a bar.

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If a local lets you go to the front of the coconut milk line, a tip (or covering the local’s tab) is expected.

All of these services — from moving to the front of a line to accepting presents — come with the expectation of payment. If you want the service offered — guidance, let’s say, from one square to another — negotiate a price up front and pay it after services are rendered. After all, instead of begging, these people are trying their best to earn money by providing services.

But if you don’t need or want the service, you must be very, very firm and very, very clear when turning these offers down. When the offer comes, say “No, thank you” as many times as it takes and keep walking.

Panhandlers

As locals learn the schedules of the tour busses associated with the Adonia, the panhandlers are coming out in full force.

Multiple times, we were approached by many individuals claiming to be operating in some official capacity, flashing ID cards, asking for support for a school or day care center, or offering you a “Welcome to Cuba” present.

If you take that present in your hands, you will be expected to pay for it. Instead, in all these case, smile, say no firmly and repeatedly, and walk away.

Beggars

With the arrival of tourists, there are also many desperate Cubans hoping for handouts.

Life is very hard in Cuba, and it is a fact of life that many people are hungry, sick, or disadvantaged. In Cienfuegos, beggars wedged themselves between trinket carts, crossing their palms with their fingers and asking for money. In one square in Santiago de Cuba, we were mobbed by aggressive and desperate people demanding handouts.

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In this tranquil square in Cienfuegos, we were mobbed by beggars when one “helpful” tourist started passing out coins.

Please, please, please: do not give money to these people. When you do, two things happen.

First, giving money to one of them draws at least a dozen more who will angrily claim that, having given money to one, you are obligated to give money to all. The mob that surrounded us in Santiago de Cuba appeared because one do-gooder tourist began handing out CUCs like candy — and when he ran out, the crowd turned on the rest of us.

But — worse — when you give money in this way, you are creating an unsavory expectation that begging is a profitable and sustainable way of life. It isn’t. Despite what your soft heart tells you, giving money to beggars ultimately does them more harm than good.

Though it may break your heart to do so, you must shake your head, say no, and move on.

About the author

Mark McElroy

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