Sweet Home Havana: US Citizens Living in Cuba

Graham Sowa

US Medical Students with diplomas in Havana.
US Medical Students with diplomas in Havana. Photo: www.birthingprojectusa.org

HAVANA TIMES — While hotels like Havana’s Melia Cohiba are full of Americans who think they are getting an early taste of international travel’s forbidden fruit hundreds of United States citizens have been calling Cuba home away from home for some time now.

Every morning US students studying at the University of Havana walk to classes, State Department diplomats and US Marines drive into the bustling Vedado neighborhood from restful Playa-Miramar, medical students from New York City, Oakland, and New Orleans make their rounds, US tour operators head out to the Jose Marti International Airport to pick up the latest bus full of their compatriots, and a few dozen United States exiles begin yet another day in Havana.

Even with the waxing and waning of bilateral relations over the decades there has never been a complete absence of US citizens on the island.

I showed up as part of the one of the more recent groups making Cuba a temporary home base, as a student of the Latin American School of Medicine. At any one time there are about 100 of us studying medicine here, split between a campus on the far western edge of the Havana and the more central Salvador Allende Hospital in the Cerro neighborhood.

Well before the first group of US medical students showed up in 2001 the United States Interest Section became home to at least a few dozen State Department and U.S. Government personnel. Their presence dates back to President Carter’s administration, who in 1977, thought the Interest Section would be a critical step to opening an embassy. Sadly President Carter’s second term never came to pass and the Interest Section became a centerpiece of contention instead of a functioning embassy, at least up until now…hopefully.

Havana is no stranger to roving bands of American college students on short term study abroad programs. Their unwashed Converse tennis shoes and tattered jeans make Cubans wonder, “Since when did the United States send homeless teens to university?” At any one time the number of US citizens on educational programs in Havana can number from a few dozen to over 100. This contingent is expected to grow significantly as relations continue to improve.

After swelling rapidly in the late 1960’s and into the 70’s the US exile/fugitive community Cuba has been shrinking the past few years. Some members have died, others, like William Potts have called it quits in Cuba and gone back to the United States. Recently Charlie Hill came out of hiding and gave conflicting interviews about his position on a possible voluntary return to the United States. While extradition seems a long way off the prospect of more cooperation between Cuba and the USA on law enforcement matters means this group will not be adding many new members.

Early1960s billboard in Miami.  Photo: www.ft.com
Early 1960s billboards in Miami.  Photo: www.ft.com

The emerging US community in Cuba belongs to tourism operators. President Obama reopened the possibility of group travel, otherwise known as people-to-people tours, during his first term and further loosened the travel restrictions earlier this year. Due to various layers of complex legalese these tours require a Cuban and a US tour guide. This has led to an influx of US tour leaders who move so frequently between the United States and Havana they might as well call the latter home. Now with an end to the travel ban in sight the tourism industry expat clique will soon be in the majority.

The US community in Cuba has even inspired local business that caters to this demographic. Cuba Libro, run by American expat Connor Gorry, is a secondhand English language book store, coffee shop, art gallery, and community center in Havana’s leafy Vedado neighborhood. The last time I was there gossiping with a fellow medical student we watched as an American tour leader led a bus full of our compatriots through the house-cum-bookshop.

Cuba Libro is an anomaly (or “oasis” as it is known among its fans) in Havana. And even though Americans can’t just pop down to Cuba and set up shop Cuban owned private businesses are beginning to catch on to the potentials of the US market. The restaurant El Litoral near the US Interests Section caters to Havana’s only lunch crowd that shows up with neckties. Meanwhile in the sketchier Cerro neighborhood several houses near the Salvador Allende Hospital sell cheap plates of grub to on-call US medical students.

Being a US citizen in Cuba doesn’t always mean living in Cuba as at home. Unlike other capital cities around the world Havana isn’t peppered with American fast food chains, clothing stores, or our ubiquitous advertising. So we mostly bring what we want from home. Our suitcases so full of prepackaged foods it looks as if someone robbed the checkout display at convenience store or took Halloween way to seriously. I’ve often wondered what the Transportation Security Administration inspectors think when they are rifling through my luggage in transit to Havana…another weirdo.

Around 200 years ago there were enough Mexicans living in Old Havana to create a “Little Campeche” and enough Chinese immigrants to establish a “China Town” in Central Havana. US citizens came later, with significant communities in the Playa-Mirarmar neighborhood of Havana and the gated beach community of Tarara; the Island of Youth even boasts a US Cemetery as part of its cultural heritage. Of course all of those places became solidly Cuban shortly after 1959.

Cuba is still a long way off from having a “Little Miami” in Havana. However, considering that the largest group of US citizens living in Cuba are Cuban-Americans and their children, such an experiment could become reality. Right now the only thing certain about the future of United States citizens in Cuba is that there is one.

35 thoughts on “Sweet Home Havana: US Citizens Living in Cuba

  • Kennedy Earle Clarke… You say “you must work 6 or 7 jobs just to pay rent” Really? no not really but I agree that living in the American states are far from utopia as our biggest issues are the amount of guns citizens own and how to reasonably control them, inequality in access to health care, ect…. but some things are slowly getting better. The problem I have always had with capitalism is to make it work, grow and continue we must use, use, use, throw it away and do it again, over and over which creates massive burden on our land, its resources and the oceans. Its unsustainable, so it shall eventually collapse, and the politicians know they must keep the great economy rolling or they’re finished (as most here care only about money)The thing I have noticed and been amazed at is peoples in underdeveloped/(poorer?) lands is even though they don’t have many material things and life is hard they seem much more happy and content in life than many here with everything they could want at their fingertips. But is there a perfect government system? I like living here but it’s far from perfect

  • You are just full of false assumptions and like to group people all under one label as though you are some omnipotent being. Your prejudices and ignorance make your vitriolic rants laughable. It’s blatantly obvious that you have no actual clue whatsoever of real facts.

  • I am an American medical doctor who is not licensed at the time. I have been to Cuba many many times and I want to live there for 4-5 months. Is there any chance of me working in Cuba???? My Spanish speaking is good. Any feedback will help.

  • Bravo my fried ????????. Could not have said this better. I’m in a FB war with folk demonizing me because i went to and enjoyed my trip to Cuba. Wish o could cut and paste this response


  • Im planning on visiting Cuba in Oct 2018, can anyone tell me what to expect and what things I would need to take for 7 days? Please send info to my phone or email address. Also, I would like to rent a room for 7 days, ANY LEADS FOR A ROOM? My name is Eddie 352-239-2383 Email: [email protected]

  • silly person,,,, slavery has been in the world forever. It has nothing to do with capitalism.

  • Hello there — I am a dancer and student in us and I come to Cuba for my Ballet training in Havana — but it is not with official school — I arrange on my own — I need to come back more long term — do u have any advices for how to get work? And make money while in Cuba !? Do You work online or are u independently wealthy to live there for 3 years? Do u have any tips for finding housing long term for cheaper than 25 a night?!! Please feel free to email me at email I provided!!!

  • Actually, the United States of America was not formed until 1787. That was when the Constitution of the US was ratified. Prior to that, since 1776, the US was formed of separate sovereign states knit together loosely by the Articles of Confederation. I find it quite ridiculous for anyone to talk about rights in the US. You have the right to remain silent. I walk downtown and there is a sea of homeless people struggling to survive. The US wiped out well over 200 sovereign native nations and left uncountable unmarked graves from sea to shining sea. People work without any benefits from their employers. Thank God Obama gave some Americans healthcare. Prior to the ACA 46,000 Americans died annually from lack of access to healthcare. The US backs the corporations and protects them from the people. Sweat shops abound in Third World Countries. Gun crime is the highest rate on earth. Medical bankruptcies abound. The law of the land is for the employer, not the worker, who can be fired for eating funyums. Crime is all over the place. America pollutes the air, the water, the people and the animals. And any nation that bucks America is a target for a CIA backed coup or an invasion for regime change. Puppet dictators have always been the clients of the US. The US had slavery for one hell of a long time…In fact, George Washington owned about 350 slaves. So did Jefferson who owned several plantations. Poor people never call the police for fear of being shot. And the stupid embargo is a violation of human rights. Now, what could save the US is if it changes into a Capitalist/Socialist/Democracy. A hybrid like Norway. I think that Cuba could pull this off as well through reforms….But I want the Cuban People to know that Capitalism on steroids (The American System) doesn’t work. And if Cuba goes that way it will be hell on the people. Also, a lot of the US has the death penalty. So does Cuba, I think. That has got to stop. If I lived in Havana, I would get to know the people. I would sing and dance with them. What threat does Cuba pose to the US? NONE. We should all live in peace and abolish killing and war. What is wrong with our species? The US could change. Cuba could change. I only want us all to love our fellow humans and live as one. The whole world should be one nation with freedom and social democracy for all….But most of humanity is asleep. How sad.

    Also, the US has the highest incarceration rate on earth. The prisons are controlled by deadly gangs, and are full of the poor, mostly people of colour. Americans are afraid of the police. They live in fear of being shot (especially African Americans). They live in fear of writing what they really think on facebook lest they become an enemy of the state. There is no real freedom of speech here. Say the wrong thing and you are marked. And the Klu Klux Klan is still all over the southern states. I actually liked Fidel Castro. If I lived in Cuba I would have nothing to fear from a government that cares for it’s own. Is it perfect? No. But it is better than living under the bridge downtown with Trump running things.

    “Better to die on your feet as a man, then upon your knees as a slave,” Emiliano Zapata. Americans don’t know what it was like under Batista. The Mob, the prostitution, the people were slaves in the cane fields. No one knows about the misery, the deaths, the poverty, the horror people faced daily….And it was a very brutal regime. Castro told the mob to go to hell. Castro wanted to help people, but they wouldn’t have it, those people who were exploiting the majority. So he started a revolution. Now, even with the embargo, Cubans have affordable rent, healthcare, and a life. Imagine if the embargo, which has strangled them for decades, was lifted! Cuba would blossom into a Norwegian type of society. It would happen. I want peace between the US and Cuba. I want peace everywhere. I am nonviolent and think we should be living like Star Trek by now, but the greedy people wont let it happen. Sad, isn’t it?

  • All I have to say is that, you really don’t know how it is to live in a country until you do so and there for ,you do not know what you are talking about.

  • Maybe you did not take advantage of the opportunities this country has available for people who want to get ahead. I, as well as you, am a woman, Hispanic that had to learn your language when I first came to this wonderful country. I went to school and got a Masters Degree in Physical Therapy, this allowed me to live a comfortable life, raised my children and financially help my mom, I have travel quite a lot and all of these things I would have not been able to do if I lived in Cuba.

    Maybe I could have graduated as a Physical Therapist but I would have lived a poor existence with no money, not a beautiful home like the one I opened, no car, no future, and no chance of ever as long as I lived to be able to travel except within the Island….and more important I would have never been able to express my self like you are doing, why?? because it is against the nasty government of the Castro’s.
    So I suggest that you stay in the USA and continue living poor because at least here you get Food stamps, in Cuba you get nothing, you have to figure out how to survive, first make some money and then try to find the food that your little money can afford.

  • Finally someone that really explains Cuba’s reality

  • stay in the usa, dont come to my country, trump will solve all your problems. we have enough shit to be taking care of you.

  • The USA citizens, I am sure, feel much safer than in their own home land; they are treated more humane than in the land of their birth. They are greeted daily with a hug or a kiss on both cheeks making them feel like the human beings they are created to be. Money is not the it all and end all in civil society. What Cuba is demonstrating to the whole world is that the human worth of a person can be realized and enjoyed without the excessive ownership of material things, as long as the three basic necessities of the individual are met. (1) A Proper Education (2) Proper Medical Attention when it is needed (3) Access to proper housing and affordable house rent! Look how many have lost their lives in pursuit of the faked El–Dorado? (The land where milk and honey flows) There is no such land! It is an illusion!! The fruits of the land are shared among the Cuban people! The fruits of the land in the USA are enjoyed by just a few while the other 98% of the population starve to death, while the vast majority die from want of good medical attention; while homeless people die on the streets and go hungry in the dead of winter! What kind of heartless, uncaring, unsympathetic, soulless, unfeeling, society this is, eh? What type of economic system would introduce such brutality to its citizens who fall on bad times, eh? Do you see what they are doing to OBAMA CARE which thirty million poor people enjoy? The intention is to destroy whatever legacy President Obama has left and to ensure that those thirty million people cannot access medical attention like the rich folks for the rich must live and the poor must die!

  • Thanks for the correction brother Moses!

  • Brother Informed, point me to any one individual or group who has become rich, successful and prosperous without the aid or assistance of anyone? POINt me to that individual or that group? You seem not to know your history brother; slavery was introduced into the USA in 1619. It was abolished in 1865, some 89 years (1776-1865=89) after the USA became Independent. The proclamation of Slavery in the Brirtish Conlonies occured in 1834 but came into effect in 1838, because the slave owners which exacted free slave labour from their slaves, (1636-1834=198 years) were haggling Great Britain for compensation for the freeing of their slaves. Could you imagine that brother Informed?

    In 1626 a USA ship named DESIRE was launched from Massachusetts to participate in the slave trade. Brother Informed, get hold of a copy of the book authored by Douglas A Blackmon entitled, “SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME–The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War – World War 2.. The ISBN numbers are 13-978-0385722704 &10-0385722702. The book is a Pulitzer Prize Winner for General Non-Fiction by the American Book Awards and is available at Amazon. When you have read the first two (2) Chapters, not the entire book, come back and engage me in conversation and tell me how ashamed you are of your mighty capitalist country- THE USA?

  • Dear Karlita, I do not live in Cuba, but I have visited the island a few time. I do not live in the USA and have no intention of living there. Moses and his ilk try their utmost to paint the USA as a plave where you walk down the streets and there is gold to be picked up. The USA is no El Dorado. You have to work six and seven jobs in order to pay your house rent (which is astronomically high) and you always have to be on the go trying to make ends meet. There is no connect between you, your husband, your wife, your children. Education is exceedingly expensive and cannot be afforded for persons working for the minimum wage. You are sick and you cannot access proper medical attention. You are well equipped educationally but you still cannot get a job.
    There are many Cubans who want to return home , but this would not be good propaganda for the USA and Havana Times. Some of those Cubans would never be able to visit their families in Cuba, ever, because of the difficult times they have to endure. Moses will not tell you this. Many Cubans have to turn theselves into prostitutes in order to survive. The USA is a hostile place to live in and many Cubans can attest to this fact. There is no other counrty in the world which has the number of hopeless and homeless people living on the streets in the dead of winter, as in the so-called richest country— the USA! Land of the free and home of the brave

    You go to war, you fight for the right of free speech; you return home and yes! You have free speech, but no one attends to your wounds; you go hungry, you are broke and you lack medical attention! Can free speech heal those injuries? Can freedom of speech abate your hunger? Can free speech take the homeless off the streets? Where is the human feelings for these less fortunates of the land who have been fleeced by the capitalist system which has robbed them of their Labour, their Pride and Dignity as human beings?

  • Mr. Clark, you live in Cuba, correct? I dont think anyone living in the united states would be to angry at the US while living here.

  • I would like to know about the mental health possibilities in Cuba. More specifically some dynamics of living in Cuba as a mental health professional, possibly doing research.

  • Can you give examples of this statement ?…I’d be curious to learn more about how they did so.

    However, considering that the largest group of US citizens living in Cuba are Cuban-Americans and their children, such an experiment could become reality.

  • Good stuff! What year you in? Graduate? If Serafin is your real name I guess we might not have met, if its an alias let me know who you are. Cheers!

  • Yes I am Graham 🙂
    Yes, the limited-license for physicians allows doctors who have graduated from US- or WHO-recognized medical schools and who have passed their Step exams to practice medicine under supervision of an attending physician while not in a formal residency program.

  • Serafin- are you in the program as well? if so let me know! also, there are some areas of the USA with such doctor shortages that just having the exams is enough for a provisional iscense, such as in rural MO and NY.

  • How many things can one person get wrong in one post

    I’ll just address slavery as I just don’t have the energy to address all of it

    Capitalism did not bring about Slavery. It’s a sad fact that slavery has been around for thousands of years.

    The U.S. got rid of slavery long before Cuba did. Under the terms of the Pact of Zanjón, which ended the The Ten Year War in 1878, slaves who fought on either side of the war were set free, but those who did not fight had to endure almost another decade of slavery.

    ….Oh and yes, this country is very fond of individualism. It’s why we’re successful, the strength and ambition of the individual! The world isn’t fair, but in the U.S. you at least have an opportunity. That is why Cubans risk, and in some cases lose, their lives coming here. Why is that???

  • Mr. Michaels is correct. We must take the same US Medical Licensing Exams (“Step” exams: there are 3 of them) as other US and foreign medical graduates. And all doctors must undergo training in a residency program in order to practice as fully licensed physicians.

  • 1776 not 1774.

  • Moses, What manner of man are you to be talking about hungry and homeless people in Cuba? America has been Independent since 1774. Go down to Harlem, walk the streets of New York and watch human beings search the trash cans for food like animals. If your society was one of equal opportunity, why did police have to escort students to universities which refused to admit them. If your society was so fair, why was Martin Luther King assassinated in his fight for the right of Black people to vote( 1774–1965=191 years) If your system was so full of human rights and equal opportunity, why are the workers in the fast food industry clamouring for an increase in the minimum wages and, you know what? If they do succed, their hours will be lessened or plenty of them will be laid off. If your system is so fair and just why isnt there affordable medical attention for everyone? The system ensures that the rich must live and the poor will die. Why are Black people being shot down by white police and the white police going scot free. The Revolution in Cuba is only 55 years and there has been great changes despite an illegal embago placed on it; an embargo which is against International Law. An embargo which is against the Charter of the United Nations.?America has sanctions against Russia for alledgedly invading Ukraine (no proof provided) and annexing the CRIMEA but, who can impose sanctions on the mighty well armed America which has imposed the illegal embargo on Cuba? Was any sanctions imposed on America when it defied the whole world and invaded Iraq, against the objections of the UN Resoluton? What an unfair world we live in where the Law of the jungle still exist in this the 21st century where might is right. Clean up your sordid past and join the rest of the world in its transformation into a place where we can all exist in peace and harmony and where every living human being has a chance to achieve his or her goal. For sure, this cannot be achieved under capitalism whih breeds, discrimination, exploitation, repression, degradation, hopelessness greed and I-MA N-ISM.( Individualism) We are in search of a New World Order where respect is shown for the sovereignty of each member state regardless of size. Where respect for the United Nations Charter is practised. Where the worth, the contribution and not the colour of the individul’s skin is applauded and appreciated. 1774-2015 (241 years) and people are still dying on the streets in capitalist America for want of medical attention. People are still underpaid. People are still shot down like dogs; people are still discriminated against because of their colour and the type of work they perform; the American dream is nothing more than just an imaginary, unattainable dream;–a mirage, an illusion!! The world definitely cannot use that system as a guide to perpetuate the king of transformation the world really needs (241 years and the majority of people still exist in the darkness of poverty, ignorance, disease, squalor. The capitalist system is definitely not a liberating force. How can it when it is the system which introduced SLAVERY–THE DEGRADATION OF A WHOLE RACE OF PEOPLE!!!

  • I believe they only need to have the same residency as US med school graduates and pass the US medical exam.

  • What other country can someone make $ 500.00 in three hours playing on empty buckets?

  • How many more years of study, what further examinations and what other requirements must be met by doctors educated in Cuba before they can be licensed to practice medicine in the US?

  • Many Cubans are already hungry and quite a few are homeless after 55 years of Castro tyranny. Capitalism would insure that those Cubans willing to put in a hard day’s work would be paid a living wage for their labor. In Castro’s Cuba, this is not the case. Wannabe socialists want equal outcomes. Historically, this usually means that nearly everyone is equally poor. While life can be hard under capitalist systems as well, the goal is equal opportunity.

  • I found Mr. Sowa’s article to be of most interest. When I was in Habana in March 2015, on a People-to-People program, our wonderful Cuban guide/director allowed us to venture out on our own as long as we participated in 95% {my per centage, not hers} of the itinerary: I chose to go to Cafe Libro where I met Conner as well as giving her venue substantial donations. Unfortunately, because I had to join the group a tad bit later, I did not have time to converse with her fully. Perhaps this might happen in December if I manage to return to Habana for the 31st International Jazz Festival.

    Thanks, Mr. Sowa, your article was needed. From my prior reading before my second trip, I became apprised of some of the things mentioned, but that’s all right, they just enhanced what I’d already known!

  • Oh yes I was in Cuba a few years ago and someone said to me “Cubans do not understand the Americans have to pay for everything”

  • Possibly Americans living in Cuba can explain to Cuban friends that the U.S. is not the land of “milk and honey”. That is, American should explain that life under capitalism can be hard. so that if capitalism ever returned to Cuba many would be hungry and homeless.

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