Quarantine in Cuba - How are Cubans dealing with coronavirus lockdown

If there is one thing Cubans are famous for, it is their gregarious fiesta loving ways - salsa dancing, neighborhood dominoes matches, and vibrant street life. So how then are they dealing with the social isolation of COVID-19 quarantine? Cuba resident Karell Aragú Pérez describes how everyday Cubans are coping with the strict lockdown in place in Cuba, and finding ways to entertain themselves.


A man helps a child put on her face mask in Havana, Cuba

Initial Phase

After an understandable fear and panic phase, positivity and living happily throughout a compulsory virus lockdown, became vital goals for Cuban citizens. Our social patterns were dramatically altered: no playing dominoes outdoors, no sitting in parks and squares, no socializing in our neighbor’s front door, and no partying whatsoever.

A group of Cubans playing dominos in the street next to an image of Che Guevara

Street dominoes was one of the activities immediately banned by authorities at the beginning of the quarantine period in Cuba.


Using our Experience to Adapt

Eventually, personal stories were spoken out by those who lived through the Special Period of the 90’s (a severe rationing of many basic products after the collapse of the Soviet Union), somehow forewarning that today’s scenario is very much like a dejà-vu. In fact, queueing long hours for supplies, precise measuring of government provided ration products for the entire month and spending money wisely, have become embedded practices in the Cubans’ everyday life.

Cuban Creative Resilience

As need is the mother of all creations, Cubans’ ingenuity appeared and helped us deal with shortages since the very beginning. Useful recipes, fitting everyone’s financial possibilities, showed up conveniently. Liquid detergent for dishwashing, toothpaste, and even wet wipes for babies, are produced by many Cuban families at home. Moreover, people brainstormed homemade food ideas like: ice-cream, cheese and condensed milk, helping the craving for meals we are all experiencing in confinement.

Liquid detergent for dishwashing, toothpaste, and even wet wipes for babies, are produced by many Cuban families at home ...

Many families also decided to spend time sewing their own masks at early moments of the lockdown. Some even donating to neighbors and medical centers.

A lady in Cuba fitting a mask for her grandson

A lady fitting a homemade mask for her grandson (Photo by Xinhua/Joaquín Hernández).


Dancing and drinking "isolation" away

There is no greater pleasure for the majority of Cubans than sharing a bottle of rum and dancing with family and friends. Current times demanded a change of our extravagant way of celebrating festivities. Bars, discotheques and recreational areas were immediately shut down. Local parades, family birthday celebrations or anniversaries were limited to small number of participants, or simply called off.

For instance, "quinceañeras" (girls turning fifteen years old) have been sadly deprived of a traditional party with friends and family, and having their photos taken in phenomenal settings chosen by professional photographers. Instead, we see handwritten signs prompting the event, and homemade short clips of the family members dancing cautiously, in an attempt to not miss out on such an important celebration.

A quinceanera photoshoot in Trinidad, Cuba

Quinceañera (girls truning 15) parties have been limited to family only affairs during the lockdown. Gone missing as well, are the often extravagant photo sessions that are traditionally part of the ritual.

Cubans deal with the lockdown anxiety in the best way they know: turning on the stereo with rich afro-Cuban music and dancing their fears and concerns away. Rhythms like: rumba, mambo and casino can be heard in every neighborhood, loudly of course, cheering up people’s souls.

Here is a video of my wife and I performing our entry for the Cuban Adventures #stayhome Staff Dance Competition.







Home schooling


Once educational activities were stopped and students sent home, parents were given the important responsibility of prioritizing home schooling. Several teaching tools were provided by the Ministry of Education to lead parents to a good teacher-absent way of educating their children.

A child in Cuba doing some homeschooling with his mother

More challenges arose in the midst of the sanitary crisis accompanied by a shortage of supplies. Parents strove to identify teaching methods, probably unknown to them, to best suit their children’s learning strategies. Switching roles and leaving the parental comfort-zone to the unexplored teaching area, gives parents a first-hand perspective on how to educate their children academically. What all parents agree upon is the fact of spending more time with their kids, getting to know them in such an extended way, is rarely attained in normal conditions. Families have also created literary and drawing initiatives amongst members. They pick up books, share readings and exchange literature. Children feel motivated for reading and parents ask them later to draw or paint based on what they learned from the book. Coronavirus related drawings created by infants are also posted online and shown on TV.

dibujos de ninos en cuba sobre coronovirus covid-19

Children's drawings about Covid-19 have been featured on Cuban TV.

Internet and Social Media

About five years ago, Cubans finally opened up to a greater extent to the marvelous but tricky world of the Internet. An idea that seemed so remote in the past, is now so vivid, so much so that the number of Cubans accessing the network increases at overwhelming speed. In 2019, for instance, 63% of the Cuban population (about 7 million) accessed the Internet at least once that year. That figure was only 39% in 2016.

Some live with the odd sensation of having lost much time waiting for this opportunity, and get insanely consumed by news and information found on every platform. Cuban people spend most of their quarantine interacting and posting on social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have eventually replaced those valued family moments. Video chatting with relatives abroad, catching up with friends, and most importantly, teleworking, were scarcely employed before in Cuba, but are now the most common uses of digital platforms for Cuban citizens.

Families continuously struggle to ration their monthly incomes to get food, house supplies, clothing and now, the Internet too. Because of social distancing, using the Wi-Fi hotspot areas has become difficult, and few have access to a home connection (called Nauta Hogar), so mobile data has become the safest and most suitable way to surf the web. Prices, however, are still far from reasonable when stacked up against the standard Cuban wage, hindering fair access for the vast majority.

A wifi internet hotspot in Havana, Cuba

Due to social distancing requirements, the Cuban public wifi hotspots are no way near as crowded now as they once were (as shown in this photo). Most internet uses now prefer to use a mobile connection which has only been available to Cubans in the last 2 years.

Do Cubans have Netflix?

In Cuba today, we luckily enjoy a modern digital television transmission that provides 10 TV channels, all owned and directed by the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT in Spanish). With different approaches, those channels are meant to fulfill the demands of the Cuban people. However, we usually find the TV programs or shows quite boring, old-fashion or repetitive. That is the main reason why we tend to get El Paquete, also known as: “The Cuban Netflix”.

All over the country, there are licensed people, whose business consists of providing Cubans with the most up-to-date international TV shows, series or films, as well as music, videos or award ceremonies. Most Cubans rely on this digital package of information to live through this quarantine. Having access to the latest episodes of Netflix or HBO series, getting to enjoy the famous Brazilian soap operas, or recently, Turkish or Korean ones, and watching the Oscars films and ceremony, makes the Cuban lockdown more entertaining. Talent shows, such as: MasterChef; The Voice; or World of Dance, become truly inspirational, and sometimes boost our artistic and creative skills.

Conclusions

This pandemic has laid bare the nature of humankind. Crisis management has proven to be a weakness for most countries. However we have learned to be resilient and achieve positive outcomes. As Cubans we have refined our acute sense of overcoming social vulnerabilities; and by improving our ingenuity, strong spirit of partnership and joyful personality, we have embraced a new and hopeful lifestyle to face isolation during the quarantine.

About the Author Cuba tour guide, Karell Aragu Perez

Karell Aragú Pérez is an award winning tour guide for Cuban Adventures with a background in dance and choreography. Born in the small central Cuban town of Manicaragua in the foothills of the Sierra Escambray, he moved to Santa Clara for his tertiary studies. He joined Cuban Adventures in 2016 and quickly became one of our most outstanding and requested tour guides. His motto is to always be passionate about what he does and to do it with fun and humility.