Saturday, January 16, 2016

How do you survive in Cuba on a paycheck of $20-30 per month?

How do you survive in Cuba on a paycheck of $20-30/month?


For the enterprising soul, there are now options that allow additional money to be earned each month.

Most of the options are related to the tourist industry.  For example, one option is to become a taxi driver. 

Another is to become a landlord renting out rooms in your Casa Particular.

For the homeowner who rents out their place as a Casa Particular, there is a very strict accounting for each person staying in the home.  Their names, their passport numbers, how much they paid, etc.  The government gets 10% of all revenues received by the homeowner.  In order to be a Casa Particular you have to register and meet specific standards set by the government.

To put the economics in perspective, let’s take an example.  If the Casa Particular rents out a room for 35 pesos ($35 US) for one night, and has to pay the government 3.5 pesos, then the renter nets 31.5 pesos.  That is more than the monthly salary for most Cubanos.

To put all of this into perspective, let’s assume that the enterprising Cubano makes more than 20 pesos ($20 US) per month by renting out rooms in their homes and/or driving a taxi.  The amounts earned are not anywhere nearly enough to do anything significant with it, such as:

  • Take a vacation
  • Start a business
  • Buy a house
  • Buy a car (see blog on the cost of a car in Cuba)

All of these have costs attached to them that are so high as to be totally out of reach of almost all the Cubans today.

To make the situation even worse, the government does not permit loans.  So, in short, there is no hope.  The extra money earned allows you and your family to have a little better lifestyle than most Cubanos, but not to advance to a new economic status.



How do you survive when...?

How do you survive when…?

When you have no rooms reserved, no car reserved, no cell phone, no internet and no itinerary for a two week vacation in Cuba? 

The answer, you meet Pepe (the gentleman on the right)

Pepe represents the people of Cuba.  He is one example of the unbelievable kindness and generosity exhibited by the people of Cuba.

How did we meet Pepe?


For weeks prior to our trip to Cuba I attempted to find lodging using the internet and making phone calls.  I was unsuccessful. 

There are no American hotel chains in Cuba.  No Marriott, no Hilton, no Holiday Inn, no Four Seasons.  The hotels that do exist in Havana were completely full.  The reason being that the Christmas holiday season is the busiest time of year for tourists to travel to Cuba. The only room that I could find on the internet search was a room at the iconic National Hotel.    The room was available if I was willing to pay $1,000 per night. 

With no hotel rooms available, my search turned to Airbnb and to Cuba’s own Casas Particulares.  Given that tourism is the number one economic engine in Cuba today, the Cuban government has begun to allow private homeowners to rent out rooms in their homes.  This is important because there is not enough hotel inventory to handle the number of visitors to the island country.  (Casas Particulares are designated by the up side down anchor shown below)

It is also important to each individual family because, once they have met the government’s regulations to qualify as a Casa Particular, they have the potential of receiving $25-35 per night per room.  This is very significant for a family that has a monthly income from each wage earner of $25-30 per month.

Again, I ran into a problem as I tried to reserve a room in a Casa Particular.  They were already reserved.  I was late to the party.  I could not find one in the Old Havana or in Vedado sections of Havana.

Finally, with only a few days left before our trip to Cuba, I was able to secure a reservation at one Casa Particular in the Vedado section of Havana, but only for one night, our first night. 

So, my son Guy and I took off for Cuba without a place to stay after the first night.  We also wanted to rent a car to see other cities in Cuba outside of Havana, but were unable to find any car rental using the internet.  

This is where Pepe comes into the story.

Our host in our Casa Particular for our first night in Havana was Pepe.

He just took Guy and me under his wing.  He took it upon himself to make sure that we had a place to stay every night we were planning to be in Cuba.  He would not stop working to make sure that we had a wonderful time in Cuba.  Pepe’s spirit and enthusiasm were amazing.  He was so generous with his time.  And he was so nice to go way out of his way to ensure that we had a place to stay everywhere we went.

In addition, Pepe gave us great advice about what to do, what to see.  He helped us develop an itinerary for our stay in Cuba.

Pepe never stopped helping us for the entire time we were in Cuba, which was 11 days.  He did this even though we only spent one night in his home. 

Not only did he arrange housing for us in every town we went to, but he also found us a car and a driver for our three day trip to the eastern part of Cuba, and the cities of Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara.

Later he found us a driver and car for our three day trip to Vinales in western Cuba. 

Thank God for Pepe!!

The best thing we did in Cuba was stay in individual homes of Cubans.  This allowed us to meet Cuban families in their homes.  This allowed us to get great local advice.  During the 11 days in Cuba we stayed in 8 different Casas Particulares. 

Why is there no unrest among the people of Cuba for change?

Why is there no unrest among the people of Cuba for change?


Why, when the country and its people are so poor and so controlled by their government, is there not a rallying cry for change, for upheaval, for revolution?

I am not sure what the answer to this question is, but I have some ideas.

One, the sheer impact of oppression and control over a long period of time.  Castro and the regime have been in power for 57 years.  

The ones who wanted to leave did so.  Almost 20%, by some accounts, of the people of Cuba have migrated since Castro took over.  Most of them to the United States.

Of the ones remaining, they have lived under the control and economic realities for 57 years.  They have become used to it.  They have accepted it as their reality.  They are surviving.  They have many good things to point to.  And since Raul Castro has assumed the Presidency, there have been a few reforms that have given some hope for change.  Yet, they also know that there is very little hope that things will significantly or dramatically change.

Second, there is very little opportunity for resistance or counter revolutionary forces to gather.  There are no guns in Cuba.  The military controls everything.  The ministers of many of the Cabinet departments are generals. 

So, it is one thing for the older generation to have accepted the realities of present day Cuba, but what about the younger generation.  How can they be silent? 

This is the perplexing question.  Part of the answer is in the system and how it works.  All children are in school from an early age and the system is drilled into them.  This is reinforced in the home.  By the father and mother, and often grandparents, who want to make sure that their family does not do anything to attract the attention of the authorities. 

Part of the answer is the lack of knowing what alternatives there are.  The lack of internet access in particular is crucial in my mind.  The youth of today in Cuba are not being exposed to the opportunities that exist elsewhere.

Still, the question perplexes me.  There is no indication that the youth of Cuba today are restless.  Are unhappy.  Are itching for change. 


99 cent store

99 cent store     


I have discovered something great.  The 99 cent store.

First time I entered such a store was getting ready for my trip to Cuba.

I wanted to purchase a bunch of small, cheap but playful gifts to hand out to kids in Cuba during my trip.

I did not want to spend more than ninety nine cents on each item. 

So, why not go to the ninety nine cent store?

Wow, what an interesting store.  First of all, I was amazed at how many people were in the store.  It was packed.  You could hardly get down the aisles there were so many people.

Secondly, I had no idea that there were so many things that only cost ninety nine cents.  Wow.  What a pleasant surprise.

And, finally, I felt like I was getting some very good deals.  I felt very good walking out of the store with my hands full of merchandise.

Where have I been all this time?


And the gifts had some wonderful results.  Here is a picture of Antonio, who loved his whistle. 

No cars

No cars


What is so striking as you first visit and travel in Cuba is the lack of cars on the streets and roads of the country.  Whether it be on the highway connecting the major cities of the county, or on the streets of Havana.

There are eleven million people in Cuba and only 600,000 cars.

In the United States there are 2.28 cars per household.

In Cuba there are .25 cars per household.

Or, to say it another way, there is one car for every four households in Cuba.  In the United States every four households have more than 9 cars.



The reasons for this?  The cost of a car.

A new car that would go for $55,000 in the USA, will require almost a one million dollars in Cuba.  A fifty year old American car which is in serious need of repair would require $35,000.  The same car in the United States would go for less than $1,000. 

The prices are insane. 

In addition, the government does not allow the banks to loan money.  So, you have to buy the car with cash on hand.

Remember that the average salary in Cuba is around $30 per month. 

Needless to say, even if someone had the money in Cuba, why would they want to spend it on a car when they have so many other needs? 



But even more interesting are the implications of this.

The major impact of less cars that I have noticed is the difficulty of people getting around.  Whether it be on the main highway going from one city to another.  Or whether within the metropolitan area of Havana, and the daily challenges that people have to get to and from work.  They have to rely on buses and collectives, and individual cars that will pick people up.  There are not enough of these public transportation options to provide the frequency needed to make traveling easy in Cuba.

Another impact of so few cars is the lack of congestion on the streets.  This leads to a subsequent lack of helter skelter, crazy, rush hour, horn blowing, people getting tense and irritated, and road rage.

The pace is slower, more relaxed.  There is room to breathe and take a deep breath.


What are some of the drawbacks of Cuba?

What are some of the drawbacks of Cuba?


The answer to this question depends upon your perspective.  About what is important and meaningful in your life.

For example, if you believe that having money is important, then Cuba is not the place to be.  See the blog on living on 25 pesos ($25 US) a month.

If you believe that being able to follow your dreams or your passion is important, then Cuba is not the place to be.

The government controls everything.  The government determines...
Whether you can search the internet to determine what study abroad opportunities might exist for you. 
Whether there will be a band playing tunes along the Malecon on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the New Year.  
Whether you can start a business. 
Whether you can travel to other countries. 
Whether as a doctor, you can participate in an international conference call in your specialty.

What is wonderful about Cuba



What is wonderful about Cuba?


First and foremost, it is the people.  La gente. 

The first and by far most important plus about Cuba is its people.  They are wonderful. 

And I mean exceedingly wonderful.  Unbelievably nice.  Generous beyond belief.  Truly amazing. 

We experienced this in so many ways.  Our last night in Cuba was spent in the home of a doctor, his wife, Betty, and their son, Gabriel.   On New Year’s Eve, they invited us to join them for their family dinner.  We ate and talked for almost four hours.  They shared a very special evening with us, total strangers.

The night before our last night we hiked an uphill 1.5 kilometers to get a view of the sunset over the valley of Vinales.  Some refer to it as the Yosemite of Cuba.  This particular spot looked out on what is called the Valle del Silencio, the valley of silence.  At this spot, there is a farm and wooden porch that the family has turned into a restaurant.  We, tired and hungry, asked if we could have dinner there, but all the tables were full, having been reserved by tour groups for weeks in advance.  Somehow we were able to find a bench to sit on to at least take in and enjoy the sunset as we tried to renew our strength for the hike back to the town of Vinales.

One of the staff, a dark skinned woman named Esther, asked if we wanted something to drink. As we talked with her, she naturally engaged with us.  We explained that we were the only persons to have come to her restaurant on foot.  Everyone else had been driven by a tour bus or taxi.  Therefore, our thinking went, shouldn’t we be given special consideration?  Ha, ha.  We developed a relationship which eventually turned into asking us to stay for dinner.  They gave us the table usually reserved for their family members, which numbered as many as ten or so.  The family waited until we had finished our meal to eat their own meal. 

Another example of unbelievable kindness and generosity.  And there were many many more on our trip.  Many times we would just stop and marvel at the kindness that was being extended to us in a variety of situations.


Second, safety.   There are no guns in Cuba.  They were all confiscated by the government.  There are strict, very strict, penalties for transgressions.  Such as harassing a foreigner or stealing something from them.  That could get you up to 7 years in prison.  The feeling of safety and security among the people is pronounced. 

Mothers do not hesitate to let the children of all ages play in the streets, in the neighborhood, in the parks.  All without supervision.  No young female in their twenties worries about walking home from a late night party.

This feeling and reality of security and safety is accomplished without a visable show of force.   You almost never see military personnel, in distinct contrast to Mexico for example.  And there are very few police personnel on the streets.


Third, helping the other person.  Providing a helping hand.  

For some reason, Cubans by and large practice being your brother’s keeper.  Or, do unto others as you would do unto yourself.  If a car is broken down on the road, the natural instinct of Cubanos is to stop and help, not to keep driving and avoid the problem. 

This may come from the fact that most Cubans are in the same boat.  They have the same financial resources, the same problems and the same conditions to live under.  But, whatever the reason, the natural instinct in Cuba is to help the other out.


Fourth, la casa.  The home. 

Almost all homes are very basic, minimalist concrete block construction.  One story, with bedrooms, bathroom(s), kitchen, dining area, living room area, with approximately 800 square feet of space.  The nicer homes have two stories and a very simple one car garage.  A television, phone, water, sewer and electricity.  No internet.  And hopefully air conditioning in most of the rooms. 

But most importantly, in my opinion, is the front porch.  Almost every home has this.  And it is big enough to have on it a couple of rocking chairs, usually wooden and white in color.  This provides the opportunity to relax and reflect.  Also the opportunity to talk and communicate between family members.  Finally, it provides the opportunity to be available and open to the rest of the neighborhood and the community at large as they walk and ride by. 

The other reason the home is so important in Cuba is that it is the home for the entire family, and I mean the entire family.  Spanning sometimes four generations.   The grandparents live there.  The parents live there.  The husband and wife and all their children live there.  And if their children have children, they may live there. 

Each family watches out for itself.  It is responsible for itself and all of its members.  There is no Social Security system.  There are no homes for the elderly and infirm. This is the result of the very severe economic realities that each family faces.  They simply do not have the financial resources to do anything different. 




Fifth, the fact that your education and healthcare is provided at no cost is a tremendous benefit, for it takes away the worry that accompanies these two issues that each family faces.

However, it needs to be pointed out that these two benefits do not work perfectly.  For example, the teachers and professors are paid so little that they cannot recruit enough to fill the classrooms across the country.  Now, some classes in elementary school have a TV in the front of the classroom, and the children watch the TV for their lesson.   Not good.

The medical service is good, but the accessibility and availability of the doctors to see you is always in doubt.  How long will you have to wait to see the doctor?  Oftena in order to see the doctor within a time frame that makes sense for the issue at hand, a financial tip or other “gifts” are required.