I have fallen in love with a country and its’ people. I am not a fan of cities (downtown Tampa intimidates me), Havana was beautiful but not where I would like to settle – if I was going to settle in Cuba. I still yet want to see the interior of the east side near Santa Clara and down SE to Trinidad, Cienfuegos and even Santiago de Cuba to find my favorite spot. Real estate prices are extremely affordable outside of Havana and even if Americans cannot own property there at this time, I hope the day will come that we can enjoy property ownership in this beautiful and happy country. I would be first in line! I am hearing of nice ocean front homes in the neighborhood of $8-25K on the southern coast.
Owning real estate in Cuba for an American would be an act of treason – trading with the enemy. There are a couple loopholes for a non Cuban citizen (but never an American) to own property from marrying a Cuban National (remember, if you divorce, the Cuban wins the property) to purchasing one of the condo properties that were built in the 80’s in Havana area and sold to the Europeans/South Americans and other investors/retirees to Cuba. These condos are very expensive by Cuban pricing (however comparable to Florida waterfront condo pricings) as they were marketed to the wealthy foreign investors. If you own property, you can obtain a year visa which is renewable for another year. I can only guess that after two years, you must leave the country for 30 days and then return on a new visa. Cuban citizens may purchase and sell property freely but you just don’t see much for sale. As an island of traditions and fierce loyalty, this also includes their residences to be passed through the family for generations. Many Cuban Americans are returning to the island as entrepreneurs, buying property and opening businesses in the name of their relatives on the island. Three of the biggest and most expensive restaurants near/in the beautiful Cohiba Hotel are owned by Cuban citizens but funded and managed by their Miami residing relatives.
While I have not seen the other interior region on the east side of the island, I could be perfectly happy living in Viñales. It is a small town – probably 15-20K in 5 mile radius population that is a simple life in the interior region on the west end of the island that is known as the agricultural center. You can see the Sierra Maestra Mountains on the northern coast as you travel west from Havana to Viñales. There you will find the highest point in Cuba – 6k+ feet. Just south of the mountains is the region called Pinar del Rio. It is a fertile valley that for centuries has been the working agricultural region. Known for it’s limestone mogotes (carved from centuries of rivers running in the valley) the beauty is intoxicating from the cattle driven carts to real cowboys on horseback and cornfields that go for miles. Many tobacco plantations as well as coffee is grown there, commercial bananas, pineapples and vegetables. They are also known for the Guayabita del Pinar – a rum/guava mixture that is a delicious sipping rum. You will find dirt streets of red clay dirt off the main drag but the homes are spotless clean (Havana was the same way in cleanliness without the dirt streets). I truly have no idea how they keep things so clean but you could eat off of most floors! This would suit me very well to live in the Pinar del Rio region and even a little farther north at the foot of the mountains. I could easily be a hermit living off the grid on a couple solar panels – which I saw in the middle of nowhere and was so surprised and traveling on horseback.
In my time there I learned many things including how it is common knowledge there were no missiles pointed at the US during the Cold War. Castro was afraid the US would blow him off the map and while the missiles were headed to Cuba from Russia, he turned them around and did not allow them to set up. Wish I had known that as a kid during bomb drills where I was putting my head between my knees and hiding under the school desk in the ’60’s! As if that would protect me from nuclear radiation. While you are not supposed to ask the political questions, I couldn’t help myself. The story was the same from several people…during the reign of Batista who was a friend of the US (and sending big $$ to the US from the Mafia gambling in Havana thus solidifying that friendship – I did go to the Riviera Hotel and walk the same halls as Jimmy Hoffa and some of the big Mafia bosses that frequented the island before the Bay of Pigs) less than 20% of the people were literate. The ‘revolution’ may have been quite drastic when it came to ousting Batista (and everyone I spoke with verified his corruption and that of one of his predecessors, Miguel Gomez), it was not an island wide military event. It was contained to a few politicals and their supporters. Look up the Isla de la Juvendad’s history. This was the exile area for that overthrow (as well as a point of execution). Castro’s overthrow of Batista was to change the way Cuba was headed and thought the move to a Communist/Socialist government would better the people.
It has definitely morphed to Socialist government with “Social Security”, private ownership of real estate and free medical/dental care. As a casual observer listening to a consensus of opinions, it seems to have made a huge positive difference from the former conditions. Now over 80% of the population is literate and most speaking two and three languages. Schools teach several subjects in English to increase their fluency. All school age kids MUST take a third language – German is very popular and there were many German tourists (they can be tourist, US citizens have to have a reason for going). Rarely did I run into anyone that did not speak at least a conversational English. Many with a barely a hint of an accent. One guy who was translating at the tobacco plantation for the elderly tobacco farmer spoke absolute perfect English. When questioned where he learned it, he swore it was in the Cuban schools. I was sure he was American educated from his proper English. Who knows?
I had always read about Block Captains who were there to report anyone that spoke out against Castro and the offenders were hauled away in the middle of the night to meet their maker. I am sure that was a time when political subversives were dealt with very swiftly and harshly but from what the people say, they are not unhappy about the turnaround under the Castro government. Many of the Cuban born Americans are now returning and opening businesses. Some can never return due to their “crimes against the government”. Cuba is a goldmine of opportunity for entrepreneurs. The Paladares for example were small family restaurants that started opening years ago as not much more than inviting paying guests to the home dining room. The Cuban women (and men) are incredible cooks! At first they could only have a couple tables, only immediate family working there and limited hours. Now that has relaxed to where they hire non-family workers to compliment their business and expanded their dining rooms for accommodation of larger crowds and now full blown restaurants under the Paladares (private ownership) theme. The standard of living is set to increase exponentially over the next few years and the change has started. Everywhere you turn, Havana is under renovation due to the influx of American dollars the last couple years but they have been a favorite place to vacation by the Europeans for a long time.
AirBNB is alive and well in Cuba and both of our accommodations were booked on line. While few have WiFi at home, it is available at communal locations. It is amazing how these homes that could be 100 years old had private baths for each bedroom. Way ahead of our standards even if you cannot flush anything down the toilet that doesn’t come from the body because of the incredible narrow pipes that service the Havana (and most city) sewer systems. The private homes that rent out rooms are called Casa Particulares. In order to be a licensed Casa Particulares, you must offer hot and cold shower and a private bath. The costs run from $25 a night to $75 for most and location will dictate your price, as well as amenities. You can also rent an Independent Apartment with kitchen and all the amenities for similar prices but you will be shortchanging yourself with mingling with the hosts. Our Viñales room was a spotless clean room with two beds and a private bath. Also a fridge in the room well stocked with beer, water and wine on the honor system. It ran $24 per night including the AirBNB fees (and my traveling companion and I split that $24). The Havana room ($45 per night – again, two beds and a private bath/stocked fridge) was in a 4th story Penthouse that was frozen in the 1950’s. The 76 yr old lady running it (with her daughter and son-in-law who lived there also) had moved there when she was 9 and had lived there all her life. It was spacious, terraces all around and again, spotless! Located in Vedado – a bedroom community on the west side of Havana that is peppered with little restaurants every few blocks. Almost all accommodations offer at least breakfast for around $5-6 and the lobster dinner we had at our Casa Particular in Viñales was about $10 and scrumptious. There is no reason NOT to eat breakfast at this price and the ample meals served filled us until evening dinner.
In the last 20 or so years, the people are allowed to own their own homes – most never moved out of their homes even if they didn’t own them after the revolution but eventually acquired them. And as far as the land being taken away, etc. it was generally farms greater than 1000 acres which were taken by the government. Not sure I agree with it but it was part of their plan. Now large privately owned farms are being permitted again – and especially cattle farms which are being assisted by US cattle companies who are bringing in semen to improve the gene pool of a country that has much of their livestock inbred. I will be attempting to assist in the same with goats now that I am associated with El Olivo organic farm and dairy outside of Viñales.
Back to the Block Captains….the lady we stayed with in Havana was one of those Block Captains and I am sure she would not admit to reporting the political subversives, she said the purpose of the Block Captain job was to make sure the children went to school, were properly vaccinated and the seniors were cared for if they needed anything. It was more of a Social Service position. Education was a priority and now Cuba can boast of having some of the best doctors in the world. While I don’t believe a highly educated doctor and a factory worker would be equal in pay scale, it isn’t as much of a spread as there is in the US. The country has free medical care and the doctors are paid a modest salary. Currently, Cuba is receiving petroleum in exchange for the loan of 30K doctors being sent to Venezuela. Private medical care is available (and mostly used by foreigners coming for the cancer protocols) but all medical care is considered good care. From what I was reading and learning, they have been curing cancer for 20 years at Cira Garcia Hospital in Havana – no big Pharma in Cuba wanting to rape the patients. They also produce some of the best cancer drugs and only recently with the changes in 2014 are they setting up to start sending those to the US. They also have some of the best dental care in the world from private dentists and very inexpensive. It was suggested if I wanted to make use of that, bring my own novacaine and syringes as it is in short supply but the talent was there. I need an implant and those are very inexpensive (hundreds instead of thousands) as well and I will eventually have it done there on one of my subsequent trips.
If you recall in June, we were told the embargo would not be lifted until several things happened. I really am not a political type of person, don’t engage in debating over my favorite candidate but went more through the recent elections touting Alfred E. Newman of MAD Magazine fame as my pick! Just saying that so there is no Obama/Clinton/Trump debates here. One of the demands of our government was for Cuba to have elections. We are not hearing in our media but Raul is stepping down in October and free elections have been scheduled for October (for almost a year) when it will most likely go to a parliamentary form of government. That is well known in Cuba!
Our embargo is causing a terrible injustice to our world environment. One example is the toilet paper being shipped all the way from Vietnam! YES VIETNAM!!! That is a freakin’ long way to ship butt wipes!!! Cuba does not have the forest reserves to produce their own (a country about as big as Florida from end to end) nor would they have access to the machinery to start/fix/run a paper mill. Any ship that docks in Cuba may not touch US ports for at least 6 months so supplies are so limited. Many ships do not service Cuba due to this regulation. The only ship I witnessed entering the port in Havana was EUKOR which is headquartered in Seoul, Korea but from my google searching has Scandinavian ownership. While Cuba is known for having all the old cars, one big thing I noticed about those cars is that they are only a shell of the car and once the engine quits, they drop in a diesel. Rumors abound that all the molds for the cars were sent to Cuba but I see no evidence that they are producing new 1950’s knock offs of American cars. Pink, purple and aqua seem to be the favorite colors! There were many old Russian and French cars puttering along on the roads but ones I saw the most that were new on the roads was a Greely (Chinese made), Hyundais and Toyotas. The Greely was an attractive car that reminded me of Hyundai. I wish I had inquired more about costs of these cars. Gas stations were not as plentiful as here but it seemed that whereever I saw one, the line was no more than our large stations. One observation for my time there was I did not see the first airplane outside of those landing and taking off at Havana International. No vapor trails from jets, no small aircraft and no drones. My traveling companion mentioned later that the son of our Viñales host pointed out “avion” in the sky, I never personally saw any aircraft of any kind. It was understandable with the lack of repair parts. Who would want to ride in a plane that had been patched together like they patch together the cars?
Getting back to housing, I saw many wonderful old buildings in Havana that appeared to be what we would know as a duplex. Half would be well painted, kept up with even small lawns, and something any of us would be happy to call home. The other half would almost be in crumbles (see my cover pic last week looking down the hallway that divided the building). The host in Havana explained that many of those buildings that were deteriorating so drastically were people who did not have the money to keep them up and they did live in them but the government would move them out to public housing if it became a condemned structure. But also, the influx of US dollars to the Casa Particulars has made a huge difference in the quality of the structures with renovations being one of the thriving businesses in Cuba – and no, it is obvious OSHA is not part of their standards. Our Havana host converted her apartment for BNB use after she sold her car. An old Russian car, it continued to have many small problems that seemed to be more hindrance than help.
While wifi is not accessible in the normal home, tv is available and it isn’t unusual to see American movies being shown. Most access wifi through their cellphones, something that I saw many people carrying. I had to laugh when I saw our guide on the horseback ride, in his rain boots with spurs, talking on a cell phone while riding down the path. When we were inquiring about menus, restaurants, etc in Havana, the host’s daughter pulled the information up on her phone. But google isn’t an option, I am told. A unique service that started in the last couple years is the (for lack of a better word) Cuban “ebay” service. Not really Ebay, but a way to buy foreign products in an Ebay type environment. Our host was very proud of a vinyl storm door she had purchased from the site. No one quite knows how the products come in the country, but they are happy they arrived.
The trip was a bucket list item (yes, I have reached that age) but little did I know I would love the country so much. No matter how little the people had, they smiled and seemed happy with their life. The food was delicious and affordable. I never saw the first homeless person, nor one beggar – far cry from the career “will work for food, God bless” at our intersections. While in Havana there were taxi drivers and tour guides approaching us and offering their services but a polite “no thank you” was sufficient that they passed on with no harassment or grumbling and continued to their next potential fare. My female friend and I walked the Havana streets close to midnight – and dark back streets at that – and never felt threatened in any way. In Viñales there were no taxi drivers or those offering tours. I did see a couple offices in the central part of the village that specialized in those services. My advice to you is to go to Cuba. Go before it changes. Enjoy a nation of happy, content and very resourceful people. It should be a prerequisite to our teenagers to spend a couple summers just learning how to play kickball again, ride horses, tend to chores and learn the simple pleasures of life.