Havana, Cuba Report of what it's like to live there - 07/09/11
Personal Experiences from Havana, Cuba
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. Surabaya, Indonesia; Chennai (Madras), India; Hanoi, Vietnam
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
It's a one-hour flight from Miami.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
State Department posting at USINT.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is on the large side, but decades of neglect shows. Materials are scarce and, over time, landlords have had to improvise. There is little traffic, so commutes rarely exceed 25 minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
One of the areas where Cuba is lacking most is this area. Good produce is hard to find and sometimes not even good-enough is to be had. Products, even staples like salt or butter, will disappear from the market for weeks at a time. One needs to build up a stock of supplies to make do.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Virtually anything you need, including appliances, food and condiments, toiletries, sports goods, etc.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Despite a rich tradition, current-day Cuba is not well known for its culinary offers. That said, there are plenty of restaurant, both state-owned and private. Good sushi, Cuban, Chinese and Italian can be had. Prices range but for the most part are under equivalent prices in Europe and the U.S.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
A real challenge. There are "organic" urban farms, but not in the sense we know (e.g. they use pesticides of unknown origin).
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Plenty of availability. In the US$175-250/month range, not counting state fees of $100 month.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes. The best I have seen is in the Havana Club. The Occidental and Melia hotels have facilities too. Not top notch.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
It's a cash economy, and not only for Americans (who are unable to use credit or cash cards).
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is at least one weekly Catholic mass.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Spanish is absolutely necessary.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Significant. There is little infrastructure for people with disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are affordable and plentiful. Call service is not reliable, especially at night, and cab conditions vary.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
SUVs would be useful when it floods. Cars need to be newer than 5 years to be imported, and can only be sold within the same visa class (diplomats to diplomats, journalists to journalists, etc.).
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
No. State-provided internet is very expensive (over $100 monthly) and slow. Many people have (illegal) internet dishes.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cuban SIM cards are increasingly cheaper, though calls remain expensive. At the time of writing, residents can purchase a SIM card for $30-40 from the sole state-owned supplier, ETECSA.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are vets, but they lack medicines and current training. No kennels.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
None at all.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Casual. Most business people and diplomats make do with short sleeved shirts. Long sleeve guayabera shirts or suits are de rigeur in more formal settings.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
It is relatively safe, despite sporadic criminal activity, sometimes violent. Trends are not reported, so it is hard to take precautions. One can expect little privacy, even in one's dwelling.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is spotty, Michael Moore notwithstanding. Most foreigners are treated at one hospital, which is better stocked than what is available for Cubans. But even that hospital is unreliable. Medevac is the best option.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Good overall. Vehicles are few but old and exhaust is noxious near the main thoroughfares.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Has two distinct seasons, hot-humid summer (July-September) and a cool winter (November-March).
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
No direct experience. There is an English language school, and a Spanish one. The Cuban government makes it very difficult for foreign teachers to obtain visas, so most teachers are Cubans.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, and it's extensive.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large, mostly diplomatic. Havana is said to have the largest diplomatic presence between Washington and Brasilia, exceeding even Mexico City. There is little private sector activity, but there are some brave foreign business people.
2. Morale among expats:
Overall good, with exceptions. It's a demanding place in which to work and live, and most people learn to cope.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Quite a lively social scene.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, for both families and singles, there are plenty of activities. The social and cultural scenes are lively. There are parks and sport events.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. There is little visible discrimination, and a local gay community.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Like pretty much everything else, racial and gender atittudes are a frozen in time, and can seem very un-PC in today's world.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Many outdoor activities such as tennis, baseball and cycling. There are golf and horse riding facilities close to the city. Deep sea fishing and scuba diving available. There are numerous cultural events.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Safe, Socio-politically interesting, ability to save money.
11. Can you save money?
Yes. There is little shopping to be done.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Be safe and don't leave too much behind.
3. But don't forget your:
Don't forget to bring anything you can't live without. There is no guarantee that you'll ever find it locally.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Read Anne Bardach's Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana. There are numerous Cuban bloggers who provide an unvarnished view of life in the country.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you have any other comments?
Cuba takes some getting used to, but it's ultimately rewarding. Come armed with patience.