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… or: The Cuban Way of tricking communism! Words to the wise: Cuba is always worth the story. Especially now, as the Americans really are at the verge of a (tourism) invasion. So let us tell you our own story, a travel story of how we lived, breathed and experienced Cuba in the year 2015, some 60 years after the Cuban revolution.
Cubans are especially proud of their refrigerators. Not so much of the fans on the ceiling, nor of the warm water running in the shower: Way to show in Cuba is with a huge refrigerator humming in the guest room. Full of water, beer and Cuban cola, that is.
The owners of a so-called casa particular, a type of private accommodation in Cuba, take this very seriously. They have rebuilt their house into a comfortable home for travellers. Presenting the refrigerator is the highlight of every welcome around Cuba: “Check this out! Here’s your very own refrigerator, right in the room! It even has a freezer department!” our proud Cuban hosts would exclaim. Nothing beats the refrigerator. And if it were ever to emit gurgling, humming or suckling sounds at night, there was nothing to complain about. After all, the refrigerator is for the guests to enjoy.
Because they really are very expensive – even for our standards. Refrigerators in Cuba run up to an equivalent of € 500 – € 600, sometimes even € 1.000. While most Cubans, who are employed by the state, only earn an average of € 25 to € 30 a month – no matter whether they perform surgery on cancer patients or sweep the streets of Havana.
We wanted to know how this works. We wanted to know just why there are so many casas particulares in Cuba and how they exactly make a living from tourism? How is this thing about private accommodation sprouting up as part of a Communist dictatorship where literally everything belongs to the state and hardly anyone is allowed private ownership?
We found some of the answers to our questions during our four-week trip through Cuba. Largely because we stopped to listen to some of the sweetest locals ever, who would offer their help, drinks and many times, their life story to us.
Spending the night in a so-called “Casa Particular” means becoming part of an extended Cuban family. Opening the door might be the cousin, visiting with her new baby child. Two steps ahead is the living room, where the grand-parents can be found watching the latest soap opera on TV, full blast of course. Naturally, our hosts are very proud to show us around.
In the evening, the daughter of the family cooks for everyone and the son-in-law is next to her in the kitchen, mixing the cocktails. The next morning, auntie prepares breakfast and makes up the beds: She, too, wants to earn something on the side. Then, there are the neighbours popping in for a quick chat, an uncle who is a farmer dropping some vegetables and of course the party official, who regularly comes to check on everything. Naturally, everyone is very friendly with him.
His organisation is called CDR: “Comités de la Defensa de la Revolución”. The secret police of Cuba, that is. They keep an eye on everything and everyone on the island, following their mission statement: “En cada barrio un CDR” – in each district a CDR.
Each overnight stay in a casa is being documented meticulously. About a third of the income has to be delivered back to the state. A night in a casa particular runs up to roughly € 25. This makes € 8 for the state, € 8 for their own expenses such as laundry, energy cost or repair work. However, around about € 8 are left for the owners of a casa per night. If you manage to keep your house full for a month, you may earn up to € 250. Ten times as much as a surgeon or a street sweeper.
The best income, however, is to made by extras such as breakfast, dinner or drinks. They come at a surcharge, but are clearly worth it. Because the best food in Cuba is to be found right in the casas particulares. Cubans like to cook for the whole family. To source everything fresh in an economy of scarcity, however, is sometimes a challenge even for the Cubans themselves. So keep in mind that you should order your dinner with the family as early as possible. Dinner, that is juicy chicken or pork with fried bananas, salad and of course rice with beans, the staple around Cuba. If cooking for the whole family, your refrigerator might get occupied during the day, too, as the lady of the house is in need of additional space.
Having dinner at a casa particular might easily run up to € 30, € 35 for two people. However, as this does not need to be documented for the state, we have come to think of this loophole as “cooking past the state”. And let’s face it: Your money is better spent straight with the locals than finding its way into the corrupt hands of Fidel Castro’s communists anyway. If, however, you fail to arrange yourself with the system, there is no chance of even opening a casa particular. At least, this is what we hear from those who are missing out on this lucrative form of extra income. Location, too, matters: Best be right in the centre of one of the tourism hot spots. Also, we are told, you need a lot of money to get started. And more often than not, this is only available to those who have Cuban relatives abroad sending money.
They have left their state jobs and become full time hosts. Some even own two or three casas, or rebuild them into small hotels. Some can be found proudly presenting their well-restored, American vintage car to us, or talking about travels to Europe. These hosts speak perfect English, are tourism professionals and well represented on the likes of Lonely Planet or Tripadvisor pages. During main season, they are almost guaranteed to be booked out. If you happen to look for a room from one day to the next, you will face difficulties.
Luckily for us though, that each one of the popular casas has friends, neighbours or relatives who also happen to have a casa. They might be less well known and only speak Spanish. However, they present the very charm and extremely sweet & caring hosts that you are looking for on your travels, perhaps offering a glimpse of a more authentic Cuba that still exists at this very moment.
Tourists, and masses of them, are to be expected. If you book your trip to Cuba now, you may still find a country full of small, cute little private accommodation travelling with the locals in Cuba. A land free of Mc Donalds. At the same time, we can say that the very fact of opening a casa particular is also a step in moving towards the capitalist values of the former arch-enemy, the USA.