When the coronavirus pandemic left José Enrique González Calvo practically without a job as a guide, he did not hesitate to direct his gaze to the digital universe. This 24-year-old from Havana, whom everyone knows as Pepe, had until then one of the best free tours of the Cuban capital on GuruWalk, the leading platform for this type of tourism, in which clients do not pay in advance, but rather give a kind of tip at the end of the tour, based on their satisfaction.
The intention of the young man, whom we already met in the first part of this work, was to offer his services online, to remain active, even virtually, in a task that—according to OnCuba—he is passionate about, and, of course, receiving for it monetary retribution that would allow him to recover his finances, diminished during the pandemic. But then he ran into technological and operational limitations he didn’t count on, some of them a consequence of the U.S. embargo on the island.
“For example, through Airbnb, there is an option of online experiences, just as they have them live,” they don’t call them tours, he commented, “and customers can book them at a specific time so that one can explain the topic they propose, and in principle everything is fine. The problem is that Airbnb uses the Zoom program for these experiences, and that is complicated because it is blocked for Cuba,” explains Pepe to OnCuba. “Also, although I could use a VPN, Internet consumption is much higher that way, and I don’t have the Nauta Hogar home internet service; I would have to use mobile data, and therefore the expense is very high and it doesn’t add up, it’s not worth it. I suppose that’s why among Airbnb’s online experiences there aren’t any on Cuba, because of the blockade.”
This is not the only technological obstacle as a result of the embargo referred to by Pepe. The young man—whose free tour is centered on the history and present of the Cuban Revolution—has explored other paths, has connected with other guides, has interacted directly with the GuruWalk team seeking solutions, but, in the long or short run, he has again stumbled on the same stone. The unavailability for the island of PayPal, the leading American company in online payments, used by many of his potential clients, is not a mirage for him and for many more Cubans who could receive money this way and be rewarded without setbacks for their job. And although there are “shortcuts” and alternatives, who knows where they might find another stumbling block.
Even so, Pepe has not stopped trying, dreaming.
“My idea is to publish an online tour. I could do it through a Telegram room, or a video call on Telegram or WhatsApp, where it includes up to eight people, and I can put a link to an electronic wallet, where customers leave me whatever they consider. I have even proposed to GuruWalk to create a proper platform for online tours, which I think would be convenient for it in the long term because the pandemic itself has favored this type of service,” he explains.
“Maybe there is someone who doesn’t have all the money or the time to travel to Cuba, but can book a tour online. Then, he could connect with me, so I can talk to him about my topic, and in the end it is still a free tour, because that person would pay me online what he thinks is fair,” he adds. “But that is just an idea, a proposal, because until now in practice I have not found a simple alternative to the live tours that I have always done.”
Trump slams brake
Beyond his most recent personal experience, Pepe cannot fail to acknowledge the impact of U.S. sanctions on tourism in Cuba. In particular, those implemented by the administration of former President Donald Trump, which, in his opinion, have been “terrible” for those who work in this sector and, in particular, for those like him who work privately.
“When I started working as a guide, we were already in 2018 and the Trump administration’s sanctions were more and stronger in relation to travel,” he recalls. “I remember the messages that some travelers who had already booked my tour sent me saying they were canceling because their cruise line had told them that they could no longer travel to Cuba. And since that cruise ban came into force, I’ve surely lost the opportunity to have other reservations from the United States, which, although it was not my largest market—they got more bookings from Spain and Latin America—those measures undoubtedly affected me.”
“But not only me,” he adds, “many people have also been greatly affected by these measures. Most of the rental houses in Cuba, for example, are on Airbnb, and the system that this company had begun to use to pay Cuban hosts, through AIS cards, can no longer be used due to the Trump sanctions on Fincimex. Also, with travel restrictions, bookings for rental houses dropped dramatically; many taxi drivers and drivers who moved almost exclusively Americans were left without work; many restaurants, which were created because of the cruise boom, even with American food, had to close. So it has been terrible for those of us who work in tourism, and I think Trump imposed those sanctions knowing well what he was doing, and that he wanted to help the people was just lip service.”
Roxana Capote, from Cienfuegos, portrays a similar situation. This young woman, who like Pepe promotes a free tour on the GuruWalk platform—focused, in her case, on the culture and traditions of the city of Cienfuegos—confirms to OnCuba that “before Trump’s measures there was a lot of U.S. tourism in Cuba, a lot, and many people benefited from that.”
“Although at that time I did not work directly as a guide, I was linked to tourism from the culture sector, working for galleries, in exhibitions and sales to tourists, and in some way, it also benefited me,” she says. “Before Trump’s measures we had a lot of sales, but afterwards all that was over. Tourism in the country was greatly affected, and in particular in Cienfuegos, where the U.S. cruise ships arrived. And many of the clients we had at that time could not come anymore, and we even had to cancel or save works they had already asked for because we had no way of getting them to the United States.”
However, both Roxana and Pepe have better expectations with the new U.S. government. In particular, the young woman from Cienfuegos hopes, “as I think almost all of Cuba expects, that with Biden bilateral relations can be resumed and there will be that communication between the two countries that existed at a certain time, which I think was quite good for the people.”
“Hopefully tourism can be like before, when there were a lot of cruise ships entering the country, with many travelers from the United States, and there was a lot of exchange between people from the two countries. In fact, one of my best experiences as a guide was with a teacher from a school in Philadelphia, with whom I had the opportunity to exchange, to share knowledge” she says. “He was very interested in knowing about Cuba, about how we young people developed here, what school was like, what we did for fun, where we could go if we could move freely around the country, because he came with doubts about that, and when he learned how things were here, he left very pleased. He told me that he had traveled to many countries, but that he never imagined that he would feel so good in Cuba, and that, if he had known this, he would have come sooner.”
Prohibit vs. legalize
Cuban free tour guides don’t only face obstacles that come from “outside.” In addition to the restrictions on their work, which mean the decrease in tourism due to the pandemic and the U.S. embargo, there are also other limits and difficulties “from within.” And among these, they are especially concerned about the prohibition to carry out their activity privately, despite the recently announced expansion of self-employment, as part of the economic reforms being carried out by the island’s government.
“I really don’t agree with the ban. My father has been a language teacher for 40 years and is a guide, I also have colleagues who are guides, and now we all wonder what we’ll do. Because none of us work for state agencies,” Roxana questions logically. “These agencies hire one or two guides, at the most. Sometimes time goes by and they don’t hire anyone, or they only do it when they have many services, to cover a certain moment and that’s it, it’s not that you become a permanent staff member. That’s why many guides work as freelancers. Everyone in Cuba knows that.”
“We private guides were never legal. It’s not something new. And I partially understand why,” says Pepe. “I listened to the Minister of Labor when she spoke at the Mesa Redonda television program about the ban, and it is no less true that many people have posed as guides without being one, without being prepared for this job, and that what they do is scam travelers, or sell them things, cigars. That is undoubtedly wrong and, in addition, it gives a negative image of the country and affects the work of those who do it in a professional way, or of those who, like me, without being exactly professionals, already have experience in this work, respect what we do and prepare to always do it in the best way. Up to that point, the authorities are right.”
“However,” he says, “the solution should not be to prohibit. I don’t believe that ours is a job that will destroy the Revolution, nor do I consider it necessary that it can only be exercised through the state. I understand and defend that the country’s strategic sectors and positions are in the hands of the State, but this is not the case. After all, guide work is an extra-hotel activity. Then, it is shocking that out of fear that someone will do what they should not or for lack of understanding, they prohibit it. I don’t think that’s the way.”
“I always put the example of the driver, who is someone who has to be qualified for what he does, because driving can be dangerous and by mistake, you can kill another person or you can kill yourself,” he points out. “However, the solution has not been to prohibit people from driving but to go to a driving school and then take a theory test and a practical test. If they don’t pass, they can’t drive, and if they pass, then they are qualified to do so. And that is what I would ask the minister and the Cuban authorities: to create a mechanism to validate private guides. The Cuban government has institutions that can take care of that, organize courses and give exams. This is how it works in other parts of the world and, furthermore, this is how the State can generate income through the taxes we pay. And it could even hire us if it needed our services, as an alliance between the state sector and the non-state sector.”
Roxana, based on her experience, fully agrees with Pepe.
“It is true that there are some people who have taken advantage of this work and exploit in a way that embarrasses the tourist, but I think there are ways to control that without reaching prohibition, and it is not fair that we all pay for what some do,” she says.
“Many guides have been writing everywhere, asking that, please, all people who do not have a title that accredits them as guides to take an exam,” she says. “A rigorous exam, like the one in the tourism school. And I speak with knowledge because I passed it. I had to pass an extremely long test in a classroom, a written exam, super difficult, and then an oral test, and also another test in the field. To pass one has to master knowledge of history, politics, culture, economics, first aid, language, about everything in life. If those who are examined come out well, then welcome. They are given their title and there is already official proof that they are well-prepared guides. And if they disapprove, they can’t do this job.”
“So what we are suggesting is that those who do not have the degree take those exams and that those who already have the degree and experience in this job be allowed to work. That the possibility be opened for everyone to work as guides independently, but legally, because yes, I passed the guide test, but if they catch me on the street without a self-employment card I can be fined, and maybe my degree can even be taken away. And that can be resolved if they enable us as self-employed workers if they allow us to have our card and pay taxes like the other self-employed in the country. And if someone does something illegal or if they take advantage of tourists, then let them be sanctioned, but why can’t the possibility of working legally exist for others?” she wonders.
And the future?
Despite everything, the pandemic and internal and external obstacles, Roxana and Pepe prefer to look to the future with optimism. The enjoyment of their work as free tour guides, the rewards—not only financial but also professional and personal—that this activity brings them, makes them keep the doors open, waiting for when they can go back in a not too distant time to walking the streets of their city with new travelers.
“Being a guide is something that I enjoy a lot, that I do because I like it, and I will not stop doing it when tourism can return to Cuba and have reservations again,” says Roxana. “I love to share the culture, in particular, that of my city, my country, our traditions, and I like to exchange with other people from other cultures, and since my work in digital marketing is also independent, then I am my own boss and I can organize my schedules to do both. I don’t think I’ll have a problem with that.”
“Let’s hope we can control the pandemic and have the vaccine soon here in Cuba so that there is safety for travel, and tourism can be as it was before the coronavirus and Trump’s measures,” she adds.
Pepe, for his part, is convinced that whether the ban that today weighs on private guides is repealed or not, they will continue to exist on the island. “They will continue to take advantage of the legal loopholes, using other licenses such as accommodation manager or even that of photographer. In the end, one way or another, people will find a way to continue doing this work in the shadows, when tourism recovers, and the worst thing is that there will continue to be people posing as guides because there would be no mechanism to validate them and the same vicious cycle will continue. So I hope this is rectified and alternatives are found that benefit us all, the guides and also the country.”
His expectations, says the young Havanan, are many, both that the new U.S. administration “relaxes the travel restrictions that the previous government tightened” and that, as he has read in some articles on the subject, “there will be as a tourist explosion, like that of a bottle of champagne, when the health situation can finally improve.”
While this is happening, Pepe continues to look for options to stay active in the free tour, because, he affirms, “I really like being a guide, teaching the history of my country, disproving the myths with which many people come to Cuba.”
“I enjoy meeting people. I have been able to give tours to very different people, with very different conceptions among them, and this work has made me grow as a person, has helped me to open my mind, has allowed me to know other realities, and, at the same time, has made me study, to seek ways to do better what I do, to make my tour more enjoyable and entertaining,” he concludes. “I think that in this job it is essential to enjoy what you do and if you think only about money it will never look good. For me, it is important to turn the client into a friend, to promote a more human and direct experience. That’s why I’m in love with this job and I can’t see myself doing anything else right now.”