The Return: Living and Working in Cuba

Katherine Perez Dominguez

Photo: Katherine Perez
Photo: Katherine Perez

HAVANA TIMES — I admit it. I’m a very cautious person who is guilty of being too sensible. Taking risks isn´t my strong point, even if, like everybody else over their lifetimes, I have had to face one or two. Generally-speaking though, I almost always have a plan, or several, depending on the possible outcome.

This is why I deeply admire daring people. We almost always admire what we aren’t or what we don’t have. And that’s why heroes exist. I particularly like “small” heroes, ordinary heroes, the ones that don’t appear in history books or on the TV, those who live in the realities of the majority of people and not in the virtual world of myths.

My heroes are simple, entrepreneurial, brave people with guts, who take risks. My heroes are afraid, they suffer, they fall, they get back up, they are optimistic, and fear doesn’t paralyze them. My heroes don’t want acknowledgement, they don’t need it, they only want to be happy and fight for this happiness, without pushing somebody else over in the process.

Luckily, I know many heroes like this. People who from Cuba, or from any other foreign country where their daily struggle has taken them, live their lives to the fullest and wake up every morning thinking about what it is they can do to improve their existence. I would rather not talk about my antiheroes, at least not in this article.

As always, I’ve lost my train of thought. It happens to me quite a bit when something excites me. However, in this article, I want to talk about more practical matters like, for example, the daily life of an emigre who has returned to Cuba.

Some of the kind people who have stopped to read and comment on my previous posts, and I thank them wholeheartedly for their time and comments, have noticed that the life of somebody who returns cannot be exactly the same as a Cuban who has always lived on the island, that those of us who return bring another life experience of our backs, a second nationality with its respective passport and, what seems to be an even more obvious difference, money. And this is all absolutely 100% true, although there are aspects, like always, which can’t be and shouldn’t be left out.

First of all, there is no doubt that the person who returns, who has lived some time under different parameters, in other political and economic systems, with other rules of civil coexistence, of work, consumption, etc. has accumulated a series of experiences that can help them face returning to the island in a different way. This can also make their initial adaptation more difficult because, as those who have lived in Cuba their entire lives know all too well, in certain matters here, it doesn’t matter whether you have money or not.

Shortages, the poor quality of products that are sold and at exorbitant prices- yes, exorbitant, even for those of us who return – don’t make the adaptation process any easier for someone, who like me, had come to Cuba with their own clothes and basic personal belongings.

Do we bring back savings? A lot of the time we do. Do we have pensions in our host countries? Well unless you´re 65 years old and have worked in Spain for a certain number of years, you’re not entitled to any kind of pension.

Some people tell me that we can depend on dole money (the money that Spanish Social Security takes out of your paycheck in case you end up unemployed). Well I guess so, but that isn’t true in my case. Nevertheless, the paro isn’t an income that you´ll earn month after month for the rest of your life. The amount you get and the period of time that you get this Spanish benefit is limited, and I know that this works in a similar way in other European countries.

Photo: Alvaro Santamaría
Photo: Alvaro Santamaría

The panorama, in the majority of cases, is the following. In any case, and no matter how much money you were able to save or get as a loan, it only serves as a kind of initial fund that allows you to resolve basic matters.

One of these is undoubtedly your living situation. When I thought about returning to Cuba, the first question that popped into my head was precisely this: where am I going to live? After ten years living on my own, returning to my parents’ house – regardless of how wonderful they are, and they are – wasn’t an option. Because if you learn anything from living on your own is that a lot of things that are accepted in Cuba and are seen as normal (necessity can distort any perspective), are not normal in the slightest.

Is it normal that children have to live with their parents until they are more than full-grown adults and that relatives have to die in order for them to be able to have their own home? Is it normal that couples have to co-live with all kinds of relatives, with the tension that this creates in a lot of cases? Is it normal to hack away at a house and turn it into a thousand tiny rooms so that everybody can have their own personal space?

Well, if we think about the people we know and their different situations we will realize that this is anything but normal. Because, who hasn’t had a friend whose lifestyle has clashed with that of their family members and as a result there are constant fights and unhappiness? Who doesn’t know a married couple who have ended up separating because of these fights or simply because of a lack of intimacy, when their children come along and you have them sleeping in your bedroom because there isn´t any other space? Parents, children, siblings, grandchildren, everyone living under the same roof in peace and harmony? There are too many negative examples around me for me to swallow this maxim.

The chance to buy a house then becomes a very attractive option. And yes, you can buy an apartment in Cuba for 20,000 euros. And yes, the majority of Cubans on the island can’t even dream about collecting this amount of money in all their long years of hard work. However, is this the fault of the people who return to the island? Honestly, I don’t think it is.

People who return tend to be more practical. They are also more demanding and less conformist. So you tap your savings and you buy somewhere to live. But, you’ll agree with me when I say that 4 walls alone aren’t enough. You need furniture (a bed and some chairs at least), a cooker, fridge, fans.

Your savings have already diminished a fair bit and you have two choices in front of you. Use the famous container where you bring everything from your former country of residence, or buy them in Cuba. I´m running out of space and I should wrap this up, but in my next few articles, I´ll try and tell you about my adventures while trying to tackle another essential issue: jobs for people who return. Because you’ll probably agree with me, my dear reader, when I say that when you take the apples off of the tree and you don’t put anything back, there won’t be a harvest.

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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4 thoughts on “The Return: Living and Working in Cuba

  • Very cool story Katherine, can’t wait for you to continue, thanks.

  • The word ‘gigant’ Herr Dr. Mattner does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary – perhaps it is in ‘Mein Kampf’?

  • Well Done –you are a ‘gigant ‘of a woman.

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