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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Cuba

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Life in Cuba

At a Glance:

  • For expats seeking employment, Havana may be the best choice.
  • The healthcare system, based on preventing diseases, is considered fairly efficient.
  • More than one tenth of Cuba’s GDP goes towards funding public education.

There is a lot about life in Cuba which drives expats to travel to this beautiful island. Some may instantly think about the famous Cuban cigars and Che Guevara murals, while others are reminded of the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. Either way, concepts of life in Cuba are often associated with a simple, yet romantic and happy way of life. But before you celebrate by lighting that thick Montecristo, read on for a brief overview of living in Cuba.

Destinations in Cuba: From Capital to Countryside

From big cities to rural villages, living in Cuba may take you everywhere, whether you’d prefer a more urban life or the less luxurious countryside. Everything is possible. Although this section is by no means extensive, below you will find a brief introduction to some of Cuba’s prime destinations.

Havana: The Cultural and Political Center

Havana is Cuba’s capital, located in the northwest of the island at the Gulf of Mexico. With just over 2.14 million inhabitants, it is also the largest city, not only in the country but also in the Caribbean. Havana, also known as the “Gateway to the Gulf of Mexico”, attracts expats and tourists alike. It is particularly famous for the colonial architecture that litters the Cuban landscape. The city is the cultural and political center of Cuba. Thus, many expats seeking employment in Cuba might find themselves settling in Havana.

Originally called La Villa de San Cristóbal de la Habana, Havana served as a center for trade and commerce in the 16th century. Today, Old Havana, the historic heart of the city, is the last relic of life in Cuba’s colonial past. If you ever tire of the mass of people, and the hustle and bustle of life on Parade Square, just travel out to Playa del Este. This long beach, which stretches 15km from Bacuranao to Guanabo, can feel like a different country. Just east of Havana, it’s one of Cuba’s best beaches, and the perfect place to just sit back, light a Cuban cigar and think the world away.

Santiago de Cuba: Come Here For the Carnival

Santiago de Cuba is considered the second-largest city in Cuba and also the one which is known to be the most “Caribbean”. Cuba’s southeast is influenced by trade and immigration, mostly from its neighboring countries. However, Santiago de Cuba is also famous for its colorful carnival, an annual celebration Cubans are particularly proud of.

The historic heart of Santiago is definitely worth a visit, not to mention Major General Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, where parades and meetings take place. Moreover, San Pedro de la Roca, located at the Bay entrance, bears witness to the long history of pirate attacks the city had to endure. Throughout your life in Cuba’s southeast, you will most likely discover even more places to see and things to do.

Trinidad de Cuba: The Island’s Most Popular Tourist Spot

Trinidad de Cuba borders the Caribbean Sea and, much like Havana, it is far from new. Looking back on 500 years of history, its ancient palaces and colonial-style buildings will take you back to the reign of the Spanish conquistadores. Today, life in Trinidad is mostly dominated by tourism, and the streets are just as filled with foreign visitors as they are with Cuban locals. However, the tobacco-processing industry is strong in this area as well.

To expats living in Cuba’s province of Sanctí Spiritus, this may not come as a surprise. After all, it has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, together with the neighboring Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). Aside from that, Trinidad’s beaches are what make life in Cuba particularly enjoyable. Most of them are located on Casilda Bay.

Healthcare and Education in Cuba

Healthcare in Cuba: In Spite of Underfunding Surprisingly Efficient

Contrary to what you might expect Cuba has an extensive public healthcare system, to which all citizens enjoy equal access. Particularly in the 1980s, Cuba’s healthcare system underwent several reforms and redevelopment. This is one of the reasons why, according to the WHO, Cubans not only have the highest life expectancy in the geographical region, but also place among the top five highest in the world.

Indeed, in 2014, the country was praised by Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, as a world leader in the medical sphere, for not only the extent and quality of its care but also for the systems strong link with research and innovation.

As mentioned above, the public healthcare system in Cuba covers all citizens. Private hospitals, doctor’s practices, and other private medical facilities do not exist. Instead, all health-related facilities and services are run by the government. Universal vaccinations and other universal programs have almost eradicated diseases like polio, rubella, tuberculosis, or chicken pox.

Furthermore, the small budget means that Cuba had to invent a unique approach to healthcare. It consists of compulsory health checks in order to put an emphasis on prevention. In fact, preventing a disease, or catching it at an early phase, is less expensive for the public healthcare system. This means that every Cuban has at least one annual health check-up, which often is done at home by local doctors or nurses.

For decades, Cuba has been known to have a large staff of well-trained medical specialists at hand. The research sector is strong as well, particularly in the field of biotechnology or epidemiological studies on chronic diseases. An example of their achievements is that Cuba became the first country in the world to receive WHO validation that it successfully eliminated mother-to-child transmission of syphilis and HIV.

For years, medical tourism has played an important role in the Cuban economy. Brought to the fore in news media by former football star Diego Maradona’s drug rehabilitation in 2000, an ever-increasing amount of foreigners arrive on Cuban soil to take advantage of the medical service, both vital and cosmetic.

More than 2.8 million tourists travelled to Cuba in 2012. Although no solid figures can be provided for how many went for medical reasons, there are at least several thousand that did so just for this reason. Not only do many hospitals have special divisions and trained staff to serve the needs of foreign patients, but the government recently created Servimed, alongside CSMC, with the charge of promoting medical services to foreigners.

Since 2010, tourists and expats are obligated to secure health insurance which is valid for their stay in Cuba and approved by the Cuban government. However, even if you are covered, you need to keep in mind that medical facilities do not accept checks or credit cards. So make sure to bring enough cash when you visit a hospital or clinic.

Some Issues Remain in the Healthcare System

The fall of the socialist bloc and the tightening of the US embargo in the early 90s put a strain on Cuba’s economy. Its healthcare system threatened to collapse as the budget for medicine and medical equipment shrunk by 70%. However, the health of Cuba’s population remained stable. This is due to the fact that healthcare remained a high priority for the government.

Today, the lack of medical equipment still takes a toll on medical care. Particularly the specialized medical fields were harmed in the 1990s, when special equipment and medication was scarce and hard to come by. Although, medical professionals were widely available, they could not make up for the dire condition of Cuba’s healthcare facilities.

In 2004, Cuba’s government implemented a national program to renew the country’s 444 polyclinics. They even chose 52 hospitals and tertiary institutes to be remodeled to become “centers of excellence”. The first of these centers were completed in 2006. However, there are more to come, and Cuba still has a long way to go in living up to its reputation of having one of the best healthcare systems.

Education in Cuba: Public, Free, and Well-Funded

Ever since the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, the country’s education system has fundamentally improved. UNESCO rates Cuba as the best education system in Latin America, despite being one of the less developed countries in the region.

However, this is unsurprising, as, alongside the medical sector, the education sector lies at the center of the government ethos and it invests 13% of its GDP there (as of 2014). As is the case with healthcare in Cuba, education is public and free for all citizens and literacy is at 99.8%.

Before the big changes the revolution brought, it was particularly the rural population which did not have access to basic education. Today, a large school network provides education in all corners of the Cuban island.

Keep in mind that, because educational facilities are usually run by the government, international and private education is extremely scarce. There are very few international schools in Cuba: among them, the International School of Havana and the École Française de La Havana. They are very expensive (the tuition fee is 12,600 USD and 9320 USD for grades 11 and 12, respectively), so if you are unable to send your children to one of these schools, you should consider arranging for Spanish lessons in order to prepare them for the local schools.

As for university education, the government is planning to implement education reforms in 2016-2017. Their reforms’ objective is to improve undergraduate studies, which are deemed to take too long. They will be shortened to four years, as in a lot of other countries. The other objective is to test the students for their English language skills before graduating. In fact, a lot of Cuban professionals are not able to speak English fluently.

Accommodation and Safety in Cuba

Housing in Cuba: In Need of Renovation

We have already referenced the unique colonial architecture which exists in cities like Havana. Unfortunately, while the government put lots of effort into improving rural life, major cities were forgotten about. As a result, most buildings are rather run-down and can appear to be on the verge of collapse. Plenty of houses obviously need major repairs.

On the bright side, Cuba lacks the improvised shanty towns or slums in the same form or intensity of those found in many Latin American cities. Even the poor often seem to have some place to live with access to running water and electricity.

But there is no reason to worry for expats. Some areas in Havana and other major tourist destinations are being renewed. At the same time, private housing with a little bit more comfort is available as well. Expats with a bigger budget can still find an apartment or house to feel at home in. However, keep in mind that if you are US American, you cannot enter the Cuban real estate market, in accordance with the 1961 Trading with the Enemy Act voted by US Congress. However, relations between Cuba and the US are gradually getting better since Obama’s visit in 2016, and some people think it may be a matter of time until this law is removed.

To Rent or To Buy, That Is the Question

Both renting and buying property might prove to be viable options to expats living in Cuba. Which one you choose will highly depend on your living situation and the duration of your stay. Upon your arrival in Cuba, make sure not to buy a home straight away, even if you plan on a longer stay. Try to find temporary accommodation first, before you go on the apartment hunt. It is absolutely essential that you get acquainted with your new environment and the real estate market before settling for a property.

Nonetheless, there are some advantages to buying instead of renting. First of all, property is quite affordable in Cuba) and you may be able to save some money in the long run. You should make sure to check with a trustworthy Cuban attorney, however, to figure out the red tape. As a foreigner, you may be restricted to buying property in tourist areas and reselling your house or apartment might prove difficult in the end.

Things to Keep in Mind

But whether you choose to rent or buy a place in Cuba, there are certain things to keep in mind. First off, you get a better deal if you are either fluent in Spanish or ask a native Spanish speaker to help with the communication. Unfortunately, foreigners are subject to “tourist prices” and are thus often charged more than local residents.

It is important that you visit the property and have a look around before signing any papers. The landlord should be able to answer any question you might have. Never rent or buy a house or an apartment without having seen it first.

If you are ready to buy, make sure that the person who is selling the property to you is really the owner. It is a common scam to sell a property you don’t own or to sell to several different people.

Ask your lawyer to check all the paperwork and figure out if the transaction is legitimate before exchanging money. Aside from that, make sure to shop around and compare prices. Other expats can probably tell you more about common obstacles when buying property in Cuba.

Safety and Security: Be Prepared for Tropical Storms

Information on crime in Cuba is sparse and difficult to obtain because the government does not release statistics and articles relating to crime are absent in the media. Although the debate over personal safety in Cuba rages on, with people such as Elias Carranza, a senior official with the UN Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders Institute, contending that Cuba is the safest region in the Western hemisphere, others argue that this is simply government propaganda.

Whatever the case may be, expats living in Cuba should still be alert and wary of common crimes such as theft. Be alert when you move about crowded areas and do not leave your belongings unattended. It is also wise to keep luxurious jewelry and large amounts of cash out of sight while you are in public.

As car-related muggings can happen, it is advisable to only take registered taxis. Private ones may not be on par with official regulations, or the driver could even rob you.

So-called jineteros (hustlers) or street jockeys specialize in scams and may target you as well, considering you are a foreigner. They may appear friendly, offering guided tours or cheap cigarettes, but you should stay away nevertheless. Many a foreigner has been robbed by jineteros.

Furthermore, you should keep the hurricane season in mind: it generally runs from June to November. Electrical power, water supplies, and communications can be disrupted in the aftermath of a hurricane. In this case, it is advisable to ask your fellow expats, or locals, what is the best way to prepare for an event like this.

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  • Alberto Mendez

    From all the websites I checked before moving to Havana, InterNations seemed to have the highest quality and looked the most inviting.

  • Cynthia Fleming

    I discovered that I wasn't the only British spouse looking for an expat women group in Havana. So we got together and organized one.

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