Are the Spanish Returning to Cuba?

Fernando Ravsberg*

Spanish actor Willy Toledo says that, in Havana, he has found “one of the most beautiful cities in the world and by far the safest I have known.” (Photo: Raquel Perez)
Spanish actor Willy Toledo says that, in Havana, he has found “one of the most beautiful cities in the world and by far the safest I have known.” (Photo: Raquel Perez)

HAVANA TIMES — “Every time I’d defend the Cuban revolution, people would retort: if you like it so much, why don’t you go live in Cuba?” Spanish actor Willy Toledo tells me, adding: “now that I’ve actually moved to Cuba, they’re going crazy, because there’s nothing they can say to me anymore.”

Though a number of Spanish newspapers affirm he lives in a mansion, Toledo in fact lives among Cubans in a working class neighborhood, in a modest rented apartment that could use some more furniture and a new coat of paint.

“I don’t need anything else. I have my bed, my kitchen, my bathroom and my books, and I’m getting along just fine with that. I don’t tend to miss material things. I do miss people, and my city. I was born and have lived in Madrid my whole life and I am much attached to it, even though it’s become something of uninhabitable city.”

The Spanish right-wingers accuses Toledo of having many privileges denied Cubans, but the truth of the matter is that, in his own country, he also lived better than most, having been born to a wealthy family and earned a lot of money as an actor. “Of course, no one questioned that at the time,” he says to me, smiling.

He acknowledges that, in Cuba, having money can open certain doors and afford access to certain luxuries, but not all of them. He again laughs when he says: “You can spend days looking for a frying pan, and you still won’t find it, no matter how many euros you’ve got.”

He feels better in this Cuban reality than that of the tourist. “I enjoy experiencing Havana one day after the other, going to the movies, the theatre, to concerts, to dinners at friends’ houses. I have more time to read now. I didn’t have the time in Madrid, and I’m reading like mad now.”

I remind him that his native city is a hectic European capital and ask him how he is faring in Cuba’s peace and quiet. He replies that, today, his nights out consist in buying the occasional bottle of rum and “going over to a friend’s or the Malecon seawall to bend an elbow.”

He adds that, “there’s plenty of life in Havana, there are things to do every day. I do miss having an entertainment guide, like they’ve got in Madrid (…) but I always find out what’s going on anyways. In fact, I don’t have the time to go to all the places I want to.”

Playing Dominoes

By the looks of it, Toledo is not having a hard time adjusting. In fact, “it’s fairly easy. I’ve travelled across Latin America (…) and I think Cubans are a lot like Spaniards, in the way they speak, their sense of humor and the way they relate to others.”

For Willy Toledo, “Cubans are a lot like Spaniards in the way they speak, their sense of humor and the way they relate to others.” (Photo: Raquel Perez)
For Willy Toledo, “Cubans are a lot like Spaniards in the way they speak, their sense of humor and the way they relate to others.” (Photo: Raquel Perez)

He tends to avoid the old town, because they treat him like a tourist there. However, “I love to go to the kiosk next to my apartment to have a fruit juice in the morning, and the one across the street, to have an omelet sandwich, or just sit on the terraces where regular Cubans sit.”

He assures me he doesn’t even have any qualms about Cuban cuisine. “I like traditional Cuban food a lot. I’ve always liked it, not only Cuban food, but also Caribbean food. What I like the most is the rice there’s no shortage of it here!”

Known for his sympathies towards the Cuban revolution, the actor tells me he has discovered Havana’s charm. “In Havana, I’ve found one of the most beautiful cities in the world and by far the safest I have known.”

Toledo may be one of the more famous foreign residents, but he is by no means the only European to have immigrated to Cuba. Another Spaniard, married to a Cuban, has just moved into my neighborhood, a few blocks from where I live. They have just bought a small house with the money they put together from selling a business that barely gave them enough to live on.

Years before, his wife had secured Spanish residency through their marriage. Ironically, today it is he who is availing himself of their marriage to be able to reside on the island, where they can live better with far less money.

A few days ago, I was treated to a lunch of homemade ravioli prepared by an Italian whose Cuban wife returned to Cuba to wait for the European crisis to blow over. Seizing on the opportunity afforded by Cuba’s reform process, they plan on opening up a cooperative that will sell fresh pasta in Havana.

Securing Cuban residency, however, is no easy task. The immigrant must be married to someone with Cuban nationality or be hired by a company based on the island, and even then, many residents (myself included) have lived in the country for decades with a temporary permit that must be renewed every year.
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.

22 thoughts on “Are the Spanish Returning to Cuba?

  • Willy Toledo: “I love to go to the kiosk next to my apartment to have a fruit juice in the morning, and the one across the street, to have an omelet sandwich, or just sit on the terraces where regular Cubans sit.”: Lucky him he has the money to be served and eat in restaurants. It must be very pleasant living in Cuba, with enough pocket money, as a bootlicker of the Castro dinasty. I doubt this hypocrite will ever dare to enter surgery in an average cuban hospital.

  • Here are some figures for you:

    “In the first six months of 2013, 16,767 visitor visas were granted to Cubans — a 79 percent increase over last year, according to figures the Interests Section recently released in Cuba.

    Another 29,000 Cubans received visas to immigrate to the U.S. in 2012 – that’s 9,000 more than what was agreed to in the 1994 immigration pact with Cuba, following the exodus that sent some 35,000 fleeing by sea on homemade rafts.”

    The emigration out of Cuba continues. Combined with the low birth rate and rapidly aging population, Cuba faces a staggering demographic crisis.

    The Cuban government acts soon to introduce real and substantive political, economic and legal changes, such that young Cubans will want to stay on the island and have more children. If not, then Cuba will enter a demographically driven collapse. The arrival of a few clueless rich playboys like Willy Toledo will do nothing to prevent the national suicide now taking place in Cuba.

  • I have done some research and I am unable to substantiate what I said about the numbers of Cubans granted visas for the US. Barring further information, I must concede this point to Griffin.
    But I think Griffin is out of date when he says that “…the Cuban government still refuses to allow many of them to leave.” Cuban law has changed dramatically and this was widely reported. I quote from an article posted by The Miami Herald January 11 of this year.
    “Gone is the reviled tarjeta blanca, the white card or exit visa that Cuba used to control who could leave the island.”
    “Now Cubans simply need a valid passport to travel — as long as they can get a visa from the country they intend to visit and a ticket for travel.”

  • Willy Toledo announced his intention of moving to Cuba shortly after the Spanish government announced their plans to introduce a new higher tax rate for the wealthy. Hypocritically, he camouflaged his self-interest by decrying the “savage capitalism” of Europe.

  • If Willy’s opinions were limited to his personal experiences and his personal preferences, his comments would have merit. However, I have read his comments on several pro-Castro web sites indicting the US and Spain while applauding Cuba based solely on his perverted views. Given the choices his wealth, fame and passport provide, Cuba may very well be seen as a paradise. He can walk into any Policlinico and receive adequate medical attention. Given his capacity to leave a 10 cuc tip, he is assured of immediate service. If he needs a particular medication, he can go to any hotel pharmacy and pay the price asked. He can go to the Mercado 72 in Playa and buy beef steaks anytime he wants. From his perspective, Cuba is a wonderful place to live.

  • So where is your evidence for this tax-evading motivation?

  • I can’t see what is wrong for the guy going to Cuba and seeing things for himself. It’s pretty much what you did before you CHOSE to go back to GPS and broadband. Why should his opinion be any less valid than yours.

  • Most of your comments used to be true but are not longer the reality in Cuba. Obviously, you have never been to Paris, San Francisco or Prague. These are three far more beautiful cities. There are many others like Johannesburg in South Africa. Of course, if you stayed at the Saratoga in Old Havana like Beyoncé, toured Havana in one of the restored Almendrones parked in front of the Parque Central Hotel, drank mojitos at the La Floridita Bar, etc, you would likely disagree. However, if you spent anytime in central Havana anywhere near a fallen building (there are a lot of them there) or stayed in a casa particular in Vedado anywhere near a corner where the neighborhood dumpster goes emptied for a couple weeks, you would feel differently about the “beautiful” comment. Cuba has been out of the world sugar business for quite a few years and, in fact, has even been forced to import Brazilian sugar. You are right about one thing: if Cuba were to suddenly become a capitalist country, they would still be poor. They can thank Fidel for that. Prior to the revolution, capitalist Cuba, next to Argentina, had the highest standard of living in South America and even higher than many post-WWII European countries.

  • The US can ill afford to allow every immigrant who would like to emigrate to the US to do so. As a result, the Immigration Office is highly selective in who is afforded a visa. Especially from those countries where the quality of life and the wealth index are so much lower. There are still too many unemployed Americans. That said, the better strategy would be to assist Cuba in raising the standard of living in Cuba such that Cubans are less likely to want to immigrate in the first place. This exact policy has worked with Mexico where for the year 2012 net migration between the two nations was zero.

  • Oh I get it. When you want to make Cuba look good, compare them to Haiti.

  • Bob, where is the evidence that ‘like
    most the population of Haiti that would love to live in Cuba.?

    It would seem natural, yes. With misery
    in Haiti and the discrimination of Haitians in the Dominican
    Republic, due to geography Cuba would seem the obvious destination of
    choice for Haitians.

    However, with the Cuban revolution the
    once numerous immigration to Cuba has come to an end.

    According to this

    ‘Between 1980 and 2000, the
    Haitian-born population residing in the United States more than
    quadrupled from 92,000 to 419,000. The Haitian immigrant population
    in the United States has continued to grow since 2000,.”

    According to this from the
    international organization for migration between 1998 and 2003 just
    under 20,000 Haitians landed INVOLUNTARILY in Cuba no evidence they
    settled there

    The reality is that in spite of
    everything Haitians would rather risk limb and life to come to the
    USA than to Cuba. Neither is there any evidence that unlike Mr Toledo
    Haitians wishing to settle in Cuba would receive a residency permit
    and be free to walk over to the Malecon whenever it tickles their

    Long live international solidarity.

    The only conclusion I can draw from the
    available facts is that immigration to Cuba is not an option Haitians
    would seriously consider.

  • Am I wrong to say that the US is not living up to its commitment? Can someone help us establish what the facts are? i will do my own research on this.

  • Cubans don’t get a choice about much of anything. They live in a totalitarian dictatorship where most aspects of their lives are decided for them by the State. The US does issue 20,000 visas per year, but the Cuban government still refuses to allow many of them to leave. Last year 39,000 Cuban’s emigrated, legally or illegally, and most of them to the US.

  • ?! When will Cuba grant us U.S. retirees longer visas?! I’d much rather spend all winter–or at least Dec. through March–in Cuba than here in New England! Now only Canadians–and a few others–are granted this priviledge. Rather than just depending on tourism for its foreign exchange income, Cuba could become the destination for American retirees. (Such is increasingly becoming the case for Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, etc. etc.). It is much preferrable to Florida, where most retirees spend their winters in alienating “senior ghettos.” In Cuba, inter-actions with the generations are more dynamic, as used to be the case here in U.S. during previous eras, when extended families lived together–or at least still had regular daily contact with one another. Also, Cuba is much more affordable, even for those who, thanks to the economic melt-down, have had their private pensions significantly reduced. Even those surviving on social security can live better in Cuba than here in the States. Furthermore, such additional $$$ flowing into the Cuban economy would make life easier for Cubans: for those who run casas particulares, paladares and restaurants, vendors at agro-pecuarios, etc. etc. No worry about prohibitions, either. Senior citizens clever enough to get themselves to Cuba should be able to circumvent the embargo/blockade by having their pension and social security cheques forwarded through a service or by their children or friends! Still, I look forward to the epoch when the Cuban economy is not so dependent on tourism and remittances from abroad.

  • I have to agree with Willy that Havana is one of the most beautiful and safest cities I have travelled to. While the 50 year economic blockade imposed by the US certainly adversely impacts the availability of consumer goods, and in particular computers and smartphones, the Cuban government has done a remarkable job of providing the essentials such as housing, medical care, and basic food and clothing given their export income is mostly derived from sugar and tropical agricultural products, and they are blocked from their natural market. What little foreign currency Cuba does earn is largely spent on importing oil to keep the lights on and power the public transportation. Sugar is very cheap on the world market, and oil is very expensive.

    Many Cubans seem to think that if they reverted to capitalism tomorrow they would suddenly live like the American upper and middle class as portrayed in US TV and films. In reality, they would live like people in Jamaica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, with similar economies. Cubans are infinitely better off that the average residents of the surrounding Caribbean islands.

  • It turns my stomach when exiles talk shit about Cuba but when they need some thing like dental work they run to Cuba like a child to it’s mother.You do not like it when others love what You whine about . You should not worry about those with money how about those with less like most the population of Haiti that would love to live in Cuba.

  • For Cubans, as for many people in the world, the opportunity to live at a higher standard of living is not something they can achieve simply by choice. Some Cubans would like to leave Cuba and live in the US. It is not the Cuban government, but the US government, that is standing in their way.
    The US government agreed to issue 20,00 visas a year to Cubans, but they are issuing far fewer than that. If Mr. Patterson is living in the US, perhaps he could exercise his freedom of speech and advocate that the US live up to its agreement.

  • And you sound like what?

    I made a point about Toledo’s hypocrisy. What’s your point?

  • You are starting to sound like a five year old.

  • It turns my stomach when foreigners with retirement income or access to money earned in their native countries move to Cuba and sing the praises of the Castro-style socialist system. I am told that Willy Toledo is a second-rate actor from an upper-middle class background who never has to work another day in his life based upon his present wealth. That he CHOOSES to live modestly does not impress me. The fact is for him it is a choice. If he wakes up one morning and decides he has had enough, he hops on a plane the same day. The Cuban reality is very different. Most Cubans have no choices at all. His opinion about the quality of life in Cuba is worthless.

  • The world is full of rightwing nutts, from the talibans and jihadists in the muslim world to the miami cuban mafia and free market worshippers, nazi skinheads and etc

  • Oh, the sweet irony of this lefty Spanish millionaire moving to Cuba to avoid the high taxes imposed by the Socialist government of Spain.

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