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Country Reports

Cuba Country Report

Overview

INTRODUCTION

The majority of trips to Cuba (population 11.8 million) take place under calm and secure conditions. Travelers should, however, be aware of some potential concerns and peculiarities.

CRIME

Regarding security conditions, it should be noted that a slight uptick in petty crime and muggings has been observed in tourist areas in Havana, including Old Havana and the Malecón (broad promenade that runs along the coast), and in Santiago de Cuba. Take basic precautions during the day (particularly on public transportation and in areas popular with tourists) and avoid walking around at night in Central Havana. Be vigilant when using cell phones and laptop computers, items particularly coveted by thieves due to their scarcity in the country. Theft from checked luggage at airports is also relatively common; when possible, pack valuable objects in carry-on bags and lock or shrink-wrap suitcases. That being said, violent crime remains relatively rare in Cuba, particularly in areas popular with tourists.

Be vigilant regarding payments as no security code is required to use a bank card, thus increasing the ease of credit card fraud.

Beware of individuals offering to exchange money on the street. The practice is illegal and tourists are often duped into accepting non-convertible pesos, which foreigners cannot use (see FINANCIAL section). 

SOCIAL UNREST

Legislative "elections" will be held on March 1, 2018; however, in a one-party system where pre-approved candidates run unopposed, election results unsurprisingly do not elicit social unrest.

However, Fidel Castro's death (November 2016) invites uncertainty into the political future of Cuba in the medium-term. Since ceding power to his brother Raúl in 2006, a number of reforms have been introduced, notably some economic liberalization. Some believe his passing could lead to the acceleration of these reforms. There is also the possibility that his death ‒ in conjunction with the country's worsening economic state ‒ will embolden political dissidents. However, protests remain illegal in the country and police have cracked down on public dissent in recent months; any sort of popular mobilization is highly unlikely in the short-term. 

All protests should be avoided due to the potential for violence and the risk of arrest.

NATURAL RISKS

The geographic positioning of Cuba leaves the country vulnerable to tropical storms during hurricane season (June 1 to November 30). Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 caused substantial material damages, killed 11 people, and displaced more than 300,000 others. Significant damage was also caused by Hurricane Matthew in early October 2016 in the eastern provinces of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, and Holguín, including washed out roads, downed electric lines, and destroyed homes. Despite the intensity of the storm, no casualties were reported, in large part thanks to strict prevention measures and mass mandatory evacuations.

Earthquakes are common in the east of the country, but damages and causalities are rare.

HEALTH

Travelers should note that pharmacies often experience shortages of various medications. It should also be noted that since 2010 Cuban authorities have required all visitors to the country to possess medical insurance and may require proof of insurance upon arrival. In the event a hospital stay proves necessary, foreigners will likely be treated in "international" wings.

Cases of cholera are periodically reported, including in Havana and Santiago de Cuba province. The risk of contracting this and other diarrheal diseases is particularly high in poor urban areas and small towns in the country's interior. It is thus advisable to drink only bottled or decontaminated water, to wash hands well prior to eating, and to consume only thoroughly cooked food.

Some mosquito-borne diseases are also present, most notably dengue fever. A handful of cases of the Zika virus have also been reported, but the risk of contracting the disease appears to be very low. Travelers entering the country with symptoms of infectious diseases, including Zika, risk being quarantined up to ten days. To protect yourself against mosquito-borne diseases take the necessary precautions against insect bites (use insect repellent and mosquito netting, avoid stagnant bodies of water, wear loose-fitting long-sleeved shirts and pants, etc.).

TRANSPORTATION

Road conditions within the country ‒ including the road connecting central Havana with José Martí International Airport (HAV) ‒ are less than ideal and vehicles (including rental cars) and are often in poor condition, leading to high rates of traffic accidents. Secondary routes tend to be particularly badly maintained, sometimes necessitating the use of sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

If you are involved in an accident, you may not be permitted to leave the country until the case is resolved. For these reasons it is advisable to avoid driving after nightfall outside of urban areas and to hire a chauffeur when possible. Additionally, gas stations are often few and far between in rural areas, sometimes spaced as much as 100 km (60 mi) apart.

Due to security concerns, never take private (unofficial) taxis or three-wheeled "coco-taxis.' Verify that the taxi is registered (radio taxi) before getting in, particularly at airports. Additionally, as of the second half of 2016, rising fuel costs, lower wages, and fuel shortages are causing taxi drivers to suspend services, resulting in reduced transportation services across the country, particularly in Havana.

Regarding air travel, safety standards on domestic airlines are good and international norms are respected. However, flight delays and cancellations are relatively common and flight reservations often have to be confirmed several days before the travel date; failing to do so risks the cancelation of the ticket. On a similar note, direct commercial flights between Cuba and the United States were launched for the first time in decades beginning in late August 2016. 

INFRASTRUCTURE

Fuel shortages have also led authorities to cut office hours in some state industries and turn electricity off; power cuts are likely to be less frequent in tourist hotels and restaurants.

Access to internet is greatly limited throughout the island and Cuba has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world. Public Wi-Fi hotspots (for a fee, approximately USD 2 per hour) and internet cafés are becoming more common but as of late 2016 there were only around 200 such hotspots nationwide and internet access within private homes remains rare. Even when internet is available, many internet sites remains restricted.

Additionally, some foreign mobile phones may not function for calls, texts, or mobile data due to a lack of international roaming service agreements with foreign telecommunications operators.

LEGAL

Drug use and drug trafficking is severely punished in Cuba, even for relatively small quantities. Pay close attention to all bags while at the airport as well as on route to your destination. 

Be careful to not intentionally or inadvertently take photographs of military installations or restricted areas, which may not always be clearly indicated.

Finally, be aware that activities and communications by foreign visitors may be subject to surveillance by Cuban authorities throughout their stay, including in hotel rooms. Additionally, as free speech is not protected, individuals in the country are advised to avoid expressing any criticism of the ruling regime, both in person and online.

FINANCIAL

Most transactions in Cuba are carried out in cash. Cuba has a dual currency system, with one currency for locals (Cuban Peso; CUP) and a second for visitors, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). CUCs can only be exchanged on Cuban soil, so if you have extra cash at the end of your trip, make sure to exchange it back into euros prior to departure. When exchanging money, it is better to use euros as US dollars will incur a 10 percent fee.

When payment by credit cards is possible, only Visa and MasterCard bank and credit cards are typically accepted. The majority of cards issues by American banks (even Visa and MasterCard) will not function. Check with your bank regarding your card prior to departure.

OTHER

In January 2014, the European Union launched a project with the aim of normalizing relations with Cuba, which have been frozen since 1996, and signed a pact to move forward in this regard in December 2016. Since 2008, some fifteen European states - including France - have signed bilateral agreements with the island nation. Relations between Cuba and the United States - frozen for more than 50 years - have improved significantly since 2015 and diplomatic ties are being restored; a number of US prohibitions on trade and travel regarding Cuba have been loosened, leading to a tourism boom.

Travelers should be aware that satellite telephones, GPS devices, and DVD players are strictly regulated and may be confiscated. Cell phones, computers, and tablets are permitted, but GPS capabilities should be disabled.

Climate

Cuba's climate is tropical, with a dry season from November until May and a wet season from June until October (brief but torrential showers). It is slightly hotter in the summer than in the winter (27°C versus 22°C). The months of September and October see the heaviest rainfall (hurricane season).

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +53 Police: 106 Fire Dept.: 105

Electricity

Voltage: 110/220 V ~ 60 Hz

Outlets:

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