Dispatch, Cuba: A hard life in Havana

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Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers spent a week in Cuba on Insight Cuba’s people-to-people tour, visiting Havana and Trinidad and points in between. Her second dispatch follows. Click to read Gay’s first dispatch.

Miguel is a 38-year-old graphic designer who lives in East Havana, in a house he inherited when his mother died some months ago.

“It’s in an apartment building with three small rooms, two bathrooms, a small hallway and a kitchen. I sleep and work in the same place,” Miguel said. “Small” is the operative word.

He and his girlfriend live there, and he is fortunate. Cuba, especially Havana, has a severe housing shortage. Housing is in short supply as are the funds to buy a house, even a small house by our standards.

“Five years ago it was impossible to buy a house. A law was passed three years ago that allowed people to buy houses, but they are expensive,” he said.


The average price of a small house (165 square feet) is $10,000 Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUCs, which are pronounced “kooks.” One CUC is on par with $1 U.S., so the average house price equals $10,000 U.S.

“That’s not possible for most of us,” Miguel said.

He’s freelancing now, and there’s not a lot of work to be had in his field.

The major design company for which he had worked was taken over by the state, a.k.a. the government, and he lost his job.

He’s not bitter. “I feel fortunate. There are jobs to be had through word of mouth and a website that lists jobs for designers. I know English, which I learned in the Navy, I’m a college graduate, I have friends, and we get together and listen to music. I do want to travel, I want to see India and China and hang glide over the Grand Canyon, and I think that will happen. Cuba is my country, my homeland. I want to see other places, but Cuba will always be home,” Miguel said.

While I spoke with Miguel, fellow travelers in my Insight Cuba group talked with university students, one of many activities at the heart of the people-to-people interactions.

In the past three days, a disti

nguished architecture professor gave us the history of many of the graciously deteriorating mansions seen all over Havana, we toured the largest cemetery in Havana (138 acres, 60,529 graves, and burial is free for everyone) and watched sweaty rehearsals at a ballet school whose dancers are headed for their first-ever performance in Romania in October.

Later we visited La Colmenita “Little Beehive” Children’s Theater, the high point for me of day three.

The performers ranged from 4-year-olds to 14 and up, boys and girls. They danced and sang for us, and then grabbed our hands and pulled us into the circle to dance together.

We formed a conga line and moved around the room, in a rhythm of Cuban music and a mix of American bee-bop, hip-hop and moves not seen since the 50s.

Angela, “6, almost 7” she told me by holding up fingers when I asked, “Quantos años?”, wrapped her arms around my waist in a big hug at the end.

I left a big bag of crayons and drawing paper with the director as we left.

Kids are the best ambassadors anywhere in the world.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.

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