Headed to Cuba for Business? ¡Cuidado!

I went to Cuba in September on a research/business trip, in hopes of finding a Spanish language partner school for my language program. But I never got to enjoy the country's glorious beaches, its picturesque old Chevys, its friendly, exuberant people.

Related: Airbnb Lands in Cuba

Instead, I got fleeced. And I ended up fleeing my Havana hotel at 4:30 in the morning, ignobly exiting down a fire escape, with the princely sum of 25 cents in my pocket.

Don't let this happen to you! If you too have a business trip in mind that involves Cuba, a country with which the United States is rapidly normalizing relations -- and business deals -- take precautions. Here are some tips on how not to repeat my own bad experience in this island nation.

Image credit: Ryan Mcmunn

1. Don’t listen to your bank. 

You can’t use U.S. credit or debit cards in Cuba, no matter what your bank tells you. Your bank will say, “You have a Visa debit card, and it works everywhere.” It doesn’t. Anywhere. Instead, bring enough euros or Canadian dollars to survive your stay and make it to your meetings. Don’t bring U.S. dollars unless you want to pay the 10 percent penalty Cuba imposes for an exchange. Tip: When conducting business in Cuba, buy Euros or Canadian dollars, which don't have the fee.

2. Don’t trust your hotel. 

We stayed at a Spanish hotel that's part of a chain. We thought we had prepaid for the hotel. But, upon our arrival, the hotel demanded that we pay 1,250 euros. We were shocked (and unprepared: We had just 1,000 euros on us). So, we spent the morning calling a friend’s aunt to see if we could stay with her. We tried the bank. And we Googled other options (on Cuba's ultra slow Internet).

Then we went to the hotel bar, and charged to the room drinks we couldn't actually pay for, because we needed to make a sound decision. Ultimately, we gave the bar 100 euros and made the rest up with our reserve U.S. dollars. From that point on, we had almost no money. Tip: When conducting business in Cuba, bring more money than you think you’ll need. You'll almost certainly need it.

3. Trust but verify.

We were eating lunch when the owner of the restaurant came by. He showed us pictures of his daughters. I shared with him that our family had a pub in Ireland. We were delighted to have a new friend. Then I went to pay the tab, and he accompanied me. I had my 50 peso bill on the counter, but the clerk said he couldn’t accept that amount for our 4 peso tab, and he didn’t have change.

Related: What Will Franchising Look Like in Cuba? 3 Clues From Similar Markets.

The "owner" we had just befriended then said, “Senior, senior, your money, it is no good here.” And I thought, “That’s nice. He's going to buy us dinner."

I was wrong. The man grabbed the 50 peso bill off the counter and ran out the front door, not even pausing to pick up the pictures of his daughters. Why? Because they weren’t his daughters, he wasn’t the owner and I had trusted without verification. Tip: When conducting business in Cuba, remember: If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

4. Don’t count on the U.S. embassy.

Despite the U.S. embassy's prominent location and impressive façade, its personnel are not much help. We were in dire straits; we had 50 pesos left. With barely enough to pay for a cab to the airport, we went to the embassy seeking help. The Marine guard there was very friendly. However, all he could help us with was the location of a cheap bottle of rum and a cooked rabbit. We took his advice: Wrong move again. Tip: When conducting business in Cuba: Don’t drink rum and eat rabbit; neither tastes good and both lead to bad decisions.

5. Find the good people.

Don’t let my first four points cause you to not trust the locals. There is plenty to love about Cuba. I was walking through a park, for instance, when two men shouted out, “Senior, senior! No, no!” But I walked right past them, thinking “Those guys are annoying.” Then I hit my head. There was buzzing, then bees. I freaked out! 

I had literally walked into a hornet’s nest. And it hurt. I ran down the street screaming, “Ai yai yai!” until a bartender ran out and started beating me with an ice bat to get the bees off. 

It worked. I bought him a beer. I should have listened to the men on the bench, and thank God for Carlos (the bartender). Tip: When conducting business in Cuba, remember: Like anywhere, there are good people and bad people.

When you find the good people, stick by them, and they will stick by you. I myself keep in touch with Carlos; he is a great man, one of the “good people.” When my language business is ready to open up shop in Cuba, he will be instrumental.

6. Figure out the currency beforehand.

it’s confusing, but there are two categories: the CUC and CUP. Technically, one is for foreigners, and the other is for locals. Prices are shown in both currencies and tend to match up. That said, we were refused taxi service to the airport (after having fled the hotel) because we tried to pay with CUP (after realizing that the exchange rate says 1 CUC = .37 CUP, I understood why).

We essentially tried to pay a $50 taxi bill with $18.50. Tip: When conducting business in Cuba: Get a good CFO and find a local accounting company in Havana. This is hard to do, and to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out the currency. But here is a good starting point.

7. Internet: Don't expect a lot.

Get ready to hate your computer. I lived in China for eight years, and China is the dark kingdom when it comes to the Internet. But I wasn't as frustrated there as I was in Cuba. Of course, in China I knew what was happening, but only partly. In Cuba, however, it was just . . . so . . . slow. On top of that, the only place with Internet connectivity was the hotel where we stayed. At least in China, you could get service in almost any bar, restaurant or hotel you walked into. Tip: When conducting business in Cuba: Print out everything you need before you go.

8. Be prepared to barter. 

Always. Barter for cabs, meals, beers, rickshaws, whatever. Everyone barters in Cuba, and you need to be ruthless at it. We drove our taxi rides down from 15 CUC to 7 CUC in four days. So, bartering is a good skill to have, and honing it on the streets will set you up for success in the boardroom, which may be little more than just a dirty closet. So, get ready. Tip: When conducting business in Cuba: do what I just said.

¡Buen viaje!

In sum, Cuba is an unbelievable place. Enjoy the history, the beaches and the ride . . . especially the kind you get in a 1957 Chevy convertible. Just be careful, and aware. Cuba is not Miami, Key West or Mexico. It is a different place and deserves both your respect -- and your business.

Our mistake was, we weren’t aware and had to sneak out of our hotel at 4:30 a.m. We also failed to pay $250 in incidentals, got robbed at the airport and left with just 25 cents to our name. So, don't be us. Be smart, respectful and attentive; and you will be treated the same way. 

Related: Why Fatburger Might Become the First Burger Franchise in Cuba