Cuba has long been a destination I have wanted to visit. I had a preconceived idea it would be like stepping into a time machine and heading back a few decades to see classic American cars and old buildings everywhere. So, when an opportunity to collect data in Havana for ECA International’s latest Cost of Living Survey arose, I didn’t hesitate to put myself forward for it.
My trip schedule before Cuba included visits to other islands in the Caribbean, and I found it incredibly difficult to find flights to Havana from any of these places. I had, after much searching, been able to book a flight from the French island of Guadeloupe, only to receive an email later telling me it had been cancelled. This was irritating as it had been the only direct flight available, and I had built my entire trip to the Caribbean around it! Never mind, I thought, as I managed to find a different flight, albeit via Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, with the same airline.
Fast forward to the end of my trip in the Caribbean, and I was ready for Cuba. My first flight from Guadeloupe to Santo Domingo went perfectly smoothly, but as I made my way to the connecting gate, I noticed my flight to Cuba wasn’t on the departure board. I hadn’t received any alerts from the airline, so I made my way to the customer service desk in the airport – only to be told my flight had been rescheduled for the next day! After a spontaneous 24 hours in the Dominican Republic (a story for another time!), I finally arrived in Havana.
My expectations had in many ways been quite accurate. Cuba is a very charming country. The Old Town in Havana is beautiful, with stunning colonial-era architecture, and was swarming with tourists while I was there. The busy street of Obispo is packed with great restaurants and trendy shops and stalls, and the locals are extremely friendly.
And the classic American cars? Well, they are still to be seen on many of Havana’s streets, I’m delighted to say. It was notable, though, how many modern cars there were too, with Japanese and European models aplenty – including the luxury Infiniti Q60 which arrived last year. In fact, I estimated that only one in three cars in Havana are now ‘classics’.
Hailing a taxi in Havana gives a good sense of the ‘relaxed’ nature of the city’s life. Taxis are nearly always classic cars (often blue or green) and most that pass can be waved at to stop. You then hop in to ‘cab share’ with other passengers. The driver will drop off and pick up numerous people en route to your destination. In the city centre, there were also bright-yellow tuk-tuks available for hire, which are slow but great fun.
There’s no doubt Cuba has a buoyant tourist industry. Over the last decade, it has tripled its market share of visitors to the Caribbean and this growth is expected to continue. As such, international brands have been cropping up in Havana, like Lacoste, Adidas and Benetton.
Despite its many charms, however, there were other aspects of Cuban life that were more negative eye-openers for me.
Take the supermarkets, for instance. Many staple items were very hard to find or were missing altogether, including milk, rice and butter! Numerous shelves were empty. Global brands like Coca Cola were rare to see, and were often substituted with local brands like Ciego Montero. Bizarrely, many random items (such as soap or canned tuna!) were kept behind staffed counters.
While supermarkets were always busy, it soon became obvious there was a supply and demand issue in Havana. For expats living here, it is quite a quest to shop even for everyday essentials, as trips to multiple supermarkets are usually needed to check off everything on a typical shopping list. Having just arrived from Guadeloupe, where an expat could pretty much buy anything they wanted, this was a stark contrast.
Economic problems have built up over decades, created by numerous factors, including a trade embargo with the United States and poorly devised Cuban government policies. Imbalances and shortages have been at least partly caused by the island’s long-term adoption of a multiple-exchange-rate system.
My colleague, Andrew Payne, wrote back in 2013 about the intentions of Cuba to scrap its dual currencies. While both are still in use, some progress has nevertheless been made. I found that nearly all shops priced in the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) - which is targeted at foreigners and holds more value. Only the ‘agromercados’, scattered around the city and selling fruit and vegetables, still advertised in the Cuban non-convertible peso (CUP). This made my job of collecting data much easier as I didn’t have to juggle two different currencies too much!
In 2015, Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba in nearly a century. He also took steps to improve relations and open US-Cuban commercial ties, although the trade embargo is still in place. Donald Trump has threatened to pull back from such reforms, and I can’t help feeling Cuba will suffer if he does.
Visitors will continue to admire the attractions of what still feels like an ‘older world’ for many years to come, such as the classic cars, the absence of mobile phones and dancing in the streets. However, the truth is that some of the island’s charm is in danger of fading. Cuba is crying out for foreign investment, as many buildings are in poor repair, internet access is very limited, and the supermarkets are among the worst I have seen.
Despite the threat from Trump’s America, Cuba trades and receives investment and tourism from many other countries, so its slow crawl towards the modern world is likely to carry on. In the meantime, if you want a blast from the past, you can still get that here. I am certainly keen to return one day to see how things have progressed, but perhaps I’ll go with a different airline next time!
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ECA publishes Cost of Living data for more than 460 cities around the world. It is available from ECA in several forms: as part of subscription in a calculator which allows you to experiment with different types of index and review the outputs; in reports, providing background detail for specific indices; and as part of the Build-up Calculator for performing balance-sheet calculations. Cost of living data is also pre-populated in ECAEnterprise, our Assignment Management System, and in our Net-to-Net Calculator.