by Jim and Melanie
If all we showed you were tourist sites, you would miss some of the most interesting parts of our trip. Below we give some impressions of the food and housing, utilities, transportation, and employment we saw. Needless to say, we are not experts and it’s possible we got some things wrong. However, this is our understanding as best we can convey. If you would like to know more, an interesting source of information and data is available from The World Factbook of the CIA.
As tourists, we ate very well in Cuba. Our hotel’s European-style breakfast buffet included a vast array of breads and pastries, fruits, sausages and other meats, potatoes and eggs. Lunches and dinners were at government-owned or privately-owned restaurants. Though we had rice and beans at several meals, meat was always on the menu. Our first dinner in Cuba included roasted chicken, while others featured pork, beef, and seafood.
Typical Cubans, however, have a more constrained diet. The cost of living exceeds official wages. To help offset that, the government issues coupon rationing books to each household, to provide subsidized staple foods. The rations differ depending on the age and health status of the household members, and they vary somewhat depending on supplies available. For example, each month the rationing booklets allow each healthy adult a total of 5 pounds of rice, 5 pounds of sugar, 1 pound of chicken, and 5 eggs, as well as a few other items. The items must be purchased at the citizen’s assigned market, based on their registered address.
Besides the rationing market, Cubans can shop for groceries at farmers’ markets and at regular store-front grocery stores. We visited a farmers’ market and saw a variety of produce available. However, there was very little meat or seafood.
We understood Cubans eat a small amount of seafood, considering it is an island nation. As we drove around the waterfront of the Havana area, there were few boats visible. Though we are speculating only, we thought there may be few fishing boats because those would make emigration easier.
Other than the rice and beans, there didn’t seem to be a particular flavor or dish that was typical in the food we ate. In general the foods were not strongly seasoned in ways we might connect with “ethnic” dishes.
Cubans’ housing varies more broadly than the food they have available. There are large, single-family homes as well as small ones; there are multi-family buildings including high-rises; and there are homes that have been split into multiple units. When we say “single-family,” that means a family of as many as four generations living in one home. This is typical regardless of the size of the home.
After the revolution laws were enacted limiting ownership to one residential space. Many wealthier citizens fled the island under these and other constraints, believing that they would soon be able to return and reclaim their property. Instead their property was claimed by the government and reallocated for housing. The photos below show a variety of homes we saw in Havana and west of the city. Though some of these look quite dilapidated, Havana has a neighborhood with large, well-cared for homes. Many of these are used by international delegations, though, rather than Cuban nationals.
Most Cubans own their homes, with ownership dating back through the family to the revolution. Rentals are available but not as common. In 2011, the government announced a new policy allowing buying and selling of residential properties. Prior to that, property could be traded but not sold. There continue to be many restrictions on both ownership and transactions.
Cubans are required to register their address with the government. The address dictates a variety of things, such as the food rationing markets as discussed above. Medical services and school attendance are based on address. In addition, citizens are required to live in the district of their work. If they don’t already live there, they must find a residence before they can get employment in that district.
The photo below of a typical utility pole in a Havana neighborhood is similar to ones in many other developing countries. The infrastructure still relies on technologies that are older. This pole supports the electric lines, phone, perhaps cable TV, etc. It works as it has for decades. But, it lacks protection from storms and outages.
On several occasions, we noticed the power dropped out to a location we visited. It came back on after only a brief time. We were told by our guide that some areas of the country only get electric power a few hours each day. During that time, you need to pump water to rooftop tanks, recharge devices, and complete other electrical tasks.
Water was generally in good supply for us. But, we were encouraged to use the bottled water provided on our tour bus. Even in our hotel, we were told to use the bottled water for brushing and rinsing our teeth. No one we knew of on the trip experienced any negative effects from food prepared for our meals.
The sewer system is not robust. You were advised to not put paper in the toilets. Most toilets had an attendant on duty to provide you with paper and soap products as desired. Tipping them was encouraged. According to a 2006 report:
Havana’s population of over two million people uses a sewer system designed for a population of 600,000. Havana’s wastewater flow receives primary treatment only, and excess flow is discharged with minimal, if any, treatment.
Internet service was available in limited locations. About 30% of the population has access. Our guide said she gets access once in a while. Our hotel did not have free wifi available. You could access it in a single location but it was not free. We didn’t bother bringing a laptop or tablet device. It was actually good to not be assaulted with constant 24/7 information.
Our cell phones did not work on the Cuban system. Increasing numbers of Cubans have cell phones and probably exceeds 10%. We did have numbers provided for the hotel in case we needed to be reached in an emergency. We brought a small digital camera instead of relying on the phone camera.
We read a lot of articles and talked to many people earlier this year about our plans to go to Cuba. We had the impression that everyone drives 1950s era American classic cars. It isn’t so. Yes, there are many of them. They are fun to see. Tourist areas have more around because the owners expect some money for rides they give. Away from the tourist sites, there are fewer of the old cars. There are cars from Korea and Russia, Europe, and maybe China. Buses and trucks were common in some areas.
In scanning through our pictures, we looked for some good examples of the kinds of vehicles found on the streets of Havana. They are in the gallery below. We weren’t trying to get car photos. So, there aren’t many. Also in the gallery is a picture of the 4-lane expressway style of highway we took to the west end of the island. It could pass for any typical expressway in the U.S. with ramps, overpasses, and a lovely rest area. There were some major differences. Many people gathered under the overpasses in the shade while they hitchhiked. We were told you are required by law to pick up hitchhikers. There were also all modes of transportation on the road from walkers, to bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, buses, horses, and horse drawn wagons.
Jobs and Wages
Officially everyone of working age who wants a job can get one. However, unemployment is real. Since most jobs are with the public sector, economic growth has been slow and resources are tight.
The average wage in Cuba is approximately $20-30 per month. (Yes, this is a big range, on a relative basis, but it’s hard to get a high-quality number.) Most are in state jobs, but in the last few years more Cubans have had opportunities to open businesses for themselves. They and their employees are not held to the government wage scales. In addition, those in the tourist industry, whether government-employed or not, are able to earn a large proportion of their income in tips.
For example, a bathroom attendant at a state-owned restaurant might make the lowest wage, let’s say $20 per month. Each time a patron visits the restroom, they might tip her approximately 50 cents. It would only take 40 bathroom visits in a day to equal her whole month’s wage.
Our tour guide (who did an excellent job) received tips from each of us at the end of the week. If she received the US equivalent of $75 per person, her tips would have totaled more than $3,000 for the week.
As it happened, our guide was about five months pregnant. When her baby is born, she and her husband will be able to take a combined one year of parental leave, with pay. In a private conversation with her, we learned that pay is salary only. “But my pay isn’t salary,” she said. No, most of her pay is tips, which will not be included in her maternity leave pay.
Just after we returned to the States, this article appeared in Vox.com, about why Cuban cabdrivers make more than doctors. You might find it interesting for another perspective on the issue.