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Culture and etiquette

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There are a few cultural idiosyncrasies in Cuba worth bearing in mind. Cubans tend to be fairly conventional in their appearance, and view some Western fashions, especially traveller garb, with circumspection, mainly because Cubans in similar dress (and there are a number around, particularly in Havana) are seen as anti-establishment. Anyone with piercings, dreadlocks or tattoos may find themselves checked rigorously at customs and occasionally asked to show their passport to the police.

Many shops restrict entrance to a few people at a time, and although as a tourist you may bypass the queue, you’ll win more friends if you ask “¿el último?” (who’s last?) and take your turn.

Service charges of 10–12 percent are becoming increasingly common in state restaurants and in smarter paladars, most notably in Havana. In state restaurants where it is not included you should tip at your discretion; in paladars tips aren’t expected but always welcome. There’s no need to tip when you’ve negotiated a fare for a taxi, but you should normally tip when you use a state-run taxi.

Gay and lesbian travellers

Homosexuality is legal in Cuba and the age of consent is 16, though same-sex marriage remains illegal. Despite a very poor overall record on gay rights since the Revolution, there has been marked progress in the social standing and acceptance of gay men and women in Cuba since the early 1990s. That said, police harassment of gay men and particularly of transvestites is still quite common. Despite this, there are now significant numbers of openly gay men in Cuba, though gay women are far less visible. There is still a strong stigma attached to same-sex hand-holding or similar displays of sexuality, but freedom of expression for gay people is greater now than at any point since 1959. There are no official gay clubs and bars as such in Cuba but there are a few gay-friendly venues, particularly in Havana and Santa Clara.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of President Raúl, has emerged as a champion for gay rights in Cuba in recent years. As director of Cenesex, the National Centre for Sex Education, she has been instrumental in a number of initiatives designed to increase tolerance and awareness of gay issues. In 2007 Cenesex was behind the country’s first official recognition and celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia.

There is no pink press in Cuba. The only magazine in which gay issues are regularly discussed is the rather academic Sexología y Sociedad, the quarterly magazine published by Cenesex.

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