The Return: Living and Working in Cuba (part 2)

By Katherine Perez Dominguez

Photo: Alvaro Santamaría
Photo: Alvaro Santamaría

HAVANA TIMES — I left my last post with a house and its four walls which, like always, has no any other objective but to tell you about a personal experience and vision I have, which is also subjective, about the country which some of us return to after having lived so long abroad. And I don’t get tired of saying it but with four walls, I’m extremely happy.

The reason is simple and has a lot to do with this trait of mine which I shared with you in my last post: I’m not a big fan of taking risks. This is why the option of buying a house in Spain never even crossed my mind. I’ve sometimes thought that I was born in the wrong era (I guess we’ve all thought this at some point or another), that misfortune follows on my heels.

When I used to think that the only economic crisis that I would have experience in this life would be the one in my birth country. it turned out that the European economic crisis began when I hadn’t even been living in Spain for a year, a crisis which was merciless with southern countries. I couldn’t believe it!

While it is true that this Spanish crisis has some features which are very different to the one that Cuba experiences, its effects were also felt among those of us who always suffer, people with low incomes. If you are a Spanish wage earner with an average salary and living in Madrid, one of the most expensive cities in Spain, the normal thing people did was go to the bank to ask for a loan so that they could buy an apartment. The average price of a very humble home was around 100,000 and 200,000 euros at the time. Average salaries (it’s now less) were 1000 euros per month.

If you wanted to buy a house, you would have to accept a mortgage which would last between 30 and 40 years until it would be paid off. If you lost your job and you couldn’t get another, how would you be able to pay back a loan for so long? At the end of the day, if you couldn’t pay for it, the bank would seize your home and you would still have to pay back the debt. With so much risk, buying a house was never an option for me. It wasn’t for my Cuban friends living in Spain neither.

Those who managed to save money in Spain (not all of them, of course, lots of people get by day to day), were able to contemplate buying a house in Cuba. Once you have a house, the person who returns hasto buy everything that is necessary so they can sleep and eat, at least, in their Cuban home. Then our famous right to a container, in order to move furniture and electrical appliances from your Spanish home to your Cuban home without having to pay tax at Cuban Customs, plays out.

Foto: Alvaro Santamaría
Foto: Alvaro Santamaría

After doing your research and bouncing a ping-pong ball from office to office, you end up realizing that it’s one thing to be entitled to this, and a completely different thing to be able to use it. First of all, Cuban Customs only give you 6 months for the container to arrive in Cuba, with an extension of another 6 months if you can justify the cause for delays. If you’re living in Europe, distance and money don’t make this an easy task for those of us who have very limited time.

On the other hand, there are two ways to get your container to Cuba: by ship or by plane. The first option is undoubtedly the cheapest, although the time period to make the move works against you. However, I didn’t find a single Spanish logistics company who offered this service. Everybody told me the same thing: by ship, we can take your container to any country in the world that you want, except for Cuba.

The reason behind such a strange ocurrence was never made too clear. I didn’t receive a satisfactory explanation in Cuba or in Spain. As always, the most admissible explanation I found was off the record. Cuban doctors and personnel who go on missions in other Latin American countries and their containers seem to be the reason why this happens. It seems that the island’s ports and warehouses are absolutely packed with containers from all of those people who are returning from their missions, so Cuban authorities don’t give authorization for ships holding private containers coming from Europe to unload them on Cuban soil.

The other option, which doesn’t create any problems of this kind is just out of my reach. The average cost of moving tthings from my home by plane was around 4000 euros, which I would also have to add other transportation costs such as getting it to the Spanish port in question, the moving company, etc. After buying a house in Cuba, my savings had been seriously hit and there was no way I could contemplate moving my things by plane.

So my things stayed there, the things that you accumulate over a lifetime. Luckily, I’m not very attached to my things, although I must admit that at the time it was impossible to feel a bit sad and frustrated. However, I had to get back up and try out my plan B: get the basics I need to live in Cuba.

Talking about inflation in Cuba is like water off of a duck’s back. Everybody recognizes it, everybody suffers because of it, everybody has to live with it in the smallest daily detail. From the most basic of items, food, to the most unnecessary. Although I guess a fridge or fan in a tropical country isn’t unnecessary at all, but an essential item.

Photo: Katherine Perez
Photo: Katherine Perez

The first problem is that these goods are so necessary. Electrical appliances made by brands unknown to me (they might be very popular in China but in Spain, nobody knows of them), cost a great deal.

To give you an example, in Spain, you can buy a cheap fridge for 300 euros and pay for it in installments if you don’t have all of the money right then. Fridges cost between 700 and 900 CUC in Cuban stores, triple the price in Spain. If we add a stove and oven (700 CUC), a bed and a mattress (1000 CUC), a dining table and chairs (500 CUC) to this, just to mention the basics, it turns out that the buying these goods costs just about the same as bringing it over your entire house from Spain by plane.

That’s when you have to turn towards one of the country’s more recent traditions: recycling. Somebody gives you a fridge that no longer works and you get it fixed. Somebody else gives you their Cuban-made stove and there are experts who know how to leave it as good as new. Pallets are the key building material to make tables, beds and all kinds of furniture.  Therefore, my house is a tribute to recycling, something which is very trendy right now in Europe but is simply a question of necessity here in Cuba. And then you remember IKEA…

To be continued…

Katherine Perez

Katherine Perez: Citizen of the world, lover of books, travel and art. Back to my island after a long time. Sharing and living in peace are my highest goals in life and, of course, happiness, which is nowhere but in yourself and the people you love. From my new base of operations, this large island where I was born, I write as a way of exorcising demons.

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