This article is designed to help you to understand the damage that random gift giving is doing.  It is based on the knowledge and experience of several travellers who have made multiple trips to Cuba, often for extended periods of time.

The article is NOT intended to be a commentary on charitable donations, or the idea of giving gifts to family or friends.  It is about the disruptive practice of tourists visiting a country and randomly handing out relatively useless gifts and trinkets to Cubans they do not know, or worse, handing out expensive presents at random -  or to resort workers, who are already among the wealthiest of Cubans.


Basic misconceptions

This practice of random gifting is based on the two main misconceptions about Cuba:

1. Most people seem to think that Cubans are poorer than they are (and have little idea who is poor and who is not in Cuba).  

2. Cuba is a socialist country that does not conform to the international conception of a democracy (even though - contrary to popular belief - it does have its own version of elections)

These two things combined lead many tourists to act the way they do. Mostly out of misconceptions as to the Cuban reality. Few to none out of any desire to do harm. Many because they think they are doing good because they have personally seen the smile on the maid's or child's face.

Getting back to points 1 and 2: The thing is that Cuba is not the poorest country on earth and Cubans, while definitely poor by North American and Western European standards, are not the poorest in the world. This is not just in comparison with poor African countries, but also compared to many - if not most - of its immediately comparable neighbors. But Cuba is not located between Canada and USA or in the Alps squeezed in between Switzerland and Austria. It is located in one of the world's traditionally poorest regions. Apart from colonies that are heavily subsidized by USA, France, UK, Holland or Spain, what countries in that region are traditionally blessed with a flourishing economy? And when was Cuba? The poorest 5-10% of the population in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua are much poorer than the poorest 5-10% Cubans.

Without getting into too much detail none of these countries provide its citizens with the following:

1. A basic rationing system that provides every single citizen with enough food to survive on (but admittedly not enough to feast or get fat on).

2. Heavily subsidized basic living expenses such as cheap to almost free: Housing, electricity, water.

3. Free health care and free education.

This is all provided in Cuba.

If severe poverty is measured on factors like hunger, lack of housing and basic health care, Cuba cannot be considered a poor country.

Have a look at OECD ranking of countries based on per capita BNI, showing that Cuba is ranked as being somewhere between the 109th and 152nd poorest country on Earth. That is out of 196 countries (or expressed another way, between the 44th and 87th richest).  ( /dataoecd/32/40/43540882.pdf)

By way of another indicator, the World Bank ranks these 196 countries based on GNI.  Based on rankings from highest to lowest, Cuba falls at 73rd, placing it slightly below the center of the "upper middle income" group.


Way of life - costs of living

Many gift-givers use the low Cuban wages as the prime argument for bringing gifts. The average wage for a Cuban is indeed 12-25 dollars monthly, and yes, that does sound ridiculous. So the next thought is "who can live off that?" and the answer that many come up with is "nobody can", because it’s tempting and obvious to compare that money with the daily lives of the tourist and nobody in Canada or Europe can live off 20 dollars for just a week, let alone a few days. But Cuba is not Canada or Europe.  The difference is that the house of the visitor to Cuba is not free, and it is not possible to go to the local market in Canada or England and pick up basic food (libreta) supplies for a week for a few dollars - and water and electricity costs a fortune, not to mention cost of kindergarten and putting a kid through college. A Cuban can pay all his monthly bills with 2-4 dollars.

Apart from the extremely low living costs many Cubans have other “enterprises” outside their regular job, and thus make additional money, sometimes earning more than they do from their government wage.  The economy in Cuba is much different than that which the average tourist is used to.  In a sense, many of the first-worlders are as strapped in their own economy as what some Cubans are in theirs (in these crisis times even more).  There are probably many tourists who – after all expenses are paid – do not have much more to spend on chocolate, parties and rum than what Cubans have. And some that have less.

Another argument for gifting is the one of “there are many things that the Cubans can’t get.”  Like in any other country there may be a lack of supply of certain items at certain times.  Often these shortages are temporary, and within a matter of days, the shortage disappears altogether.  Or there may in fact never have been a shortage in the first place.  Sometimes the reports of shortages come from the reports of misinformed tourists who are basing their understanding of a whole country on some off-hand comment by a resort worker.


Resorts and 'smiling faces'

Most visitors to Cuba come back and praise the kindness of Cubans. That is so true. But it used to be truer. It is undeniably harder to make friends in Cuba than it used to be. Of course, not all Cubans have been turned into beggars and scam-artists whose whole lives are based on getting money from tourists, but it seems the average tourist is making sure that more are created every day.  An example is the growing business in a few towns that the jeep tours go through ... kids line the road, tourists toss dollar store “gifts”, and the kids turn all their stuff over to the organizer. (Oh, but the smiles on the face of the kids bring tears of joy to the eye of the giver!)

On to the good old maid here. Nobody in Cuba receives more gifts from tourists. The crazy thing about this trend of spreading  western wealth in resorts is that by far the most of good-natured, private tourist aid in Cuba goes to the same people: The maids and bartenders and workers at the resorts. On a number of occasions people post that they leave 20 CUC for the resort-maid weekly. So let’s try and do an impossible but fairly qualified low-down on her income and spending money: Assume that 15 CUC is the average (because there are likely people who ‘only’ tip 10 CUC weekly or one a day) then she is taking home 150 CUC weekly if she does just 10 rooms. That’s 600 CUC monthly. Now she is getting the same amount of food as any other Cuban for (basically) free so she will be using her 17 CUC monthly government salary to take care of bills and will still have something left. That comes to 600 CUC monthly to spend. A chicken costs 1 or 2 CUC, a pack of cigarettes cost 0.20 CUC. So that is definitely more than many of the people that leave the tips and gifts for her have to spend after all expenses are paid.  Is this estimating on the high side?  Perhaps, but many people mention tipping as much as 5 CUC per day.  No doubt there are some that do not tip at all.  But even allowing for the extremes, if the average tip is 1 CUC per day, or slightly less, the maid is collecting several times her monthly salary just in tips.

This calculation does not include the 15 baseball-caps, 25 bars of soap, 15 bottles of shampoo and all the other items that she takes home to sell in the village (even a maid can only wash her hair so many times daily). Some maids have rooms where they store their goods. They do not have room for it all at home.


Turning children into beggars

And then there is the willy-nilly off resort gifting, which is even worse. Tourists invading schools with pencils or throwing candy at children from tour busses. Teaching children at an age where they are learning how the world revolves, that it's way better business to stand by the road waiting for the tourist bus than getting an education. One can only imagine the consequences when these children turn young adults having been raised thinking of all foreigners as a quick way to gifts and money. Those tourists that spend their time in Cuba off resort do not have to imagine, the consequences of two decades of thoughtless gifting is all too real.

There are now schools in Cuba (located near resorts) that have guards posted by the entrance to stop tourists from entering and disturbing the children.


Cuba is Cuba

So what can be done then, realizing (perhaps) that good intentions are only creating a bigger gap between rich and poor in a society in which the system intends that all are equal, and that years of random gifting in Cuba has nothing for the progress of the country and made it a constant hassle for many tourists to visit? Turning doctors and scholars into resort bartenders or street pimps and university graduates into prostitutes - instead of teachers, nurses or professors.

Here are two things that can be done:

1. Tip according to local standards and realize that there are other people in the 40 other rooms at the resort tipping as well. And leave any material item and larger cash sum with organizations in Cuba that have a much better overview of who needs the aid and a way to get the aid there. None of which is in any way possible to know for a regular tourist. If it is the 'save-the-world' gene that has you handing out, consider helping out in countries that are in dire need of help. Look no further than Cubas nearest neighbor, Haiti, for instance. A starving Haitian living in the streets of Port Au Prince would probably be shocked to see well-fed Cubans being handed gifts and money just because they hold that one quality that in the mindset of many tourists qualifies them for immediate material aid: They are Cuban.

2. Accept that Cuba is Cuba and not Canada, UK or Italy. That the world is a varied place, and that there are other ways to live and make  a country go around than what  most tourists are used to. And go there with a solid conscience that the simple fact that you are traveling there makes a huge impact on Cuba's economy. A contribution that is already being spread out into every corner of the country through all the above-mentioned government initiatives (Food, housing, school, hospitals). And thus head there knowing that the trip-purchase itself is doing Cubans good.

The greatest gift is respect and friendship. That is what 'real' Cubans are interested in. The Cubans who beg for the shirt off your back or the soap in your bathroom or the peso in your pocket, may not need those items at all. And by giving randomly a tourist is only making sure that begging and hassling tourists stays a profitable business. And that more Cubans are turning to this way of life. An effect that does nothing good for Cuba - and nothing good for any tourist visiting Cuba.