How People Live in Cuba: Poverty, Queues, Scarcity

How do ordinary people live in Cuba?

When you come to Cuba, you get a strong feeling of going back in time, to the days of the Soviet Union. The support given to Cuba by the Soviet Union has left its indelible mark. The country’s atmosphere, Khrushchevka houses, Moskvich and Zhiguli cars in the streets of Havana remind one of the Soviet Union of the second half of the 20th century. Televisions and recorders “Record” and “Rubin” still work in the local apartments and amaze with Cubans’ ability to maintain equipment in working order for over 50 years.

Standard of Living in Cuba

In terms of living standards, Cuba belongs to the third world countries, lagging far behind Europe and the United States. But low wages and lack of infrastructure are compensated by low cost of living, free medicine and education. Of course, compared to the U.S., the quality of medical care and education are not as good, but for Cuba’s economy this is a decent level.

In recent years, the Cuban government has been working to raise living standards through economic development by actively cooperating with capitalist countries.

The low standard of living is evidenced by the following factors:

  1. High car prices and yet little urban public transportation. Cubans who have to walk a long distance do the best they can, and it is not uncommon to see a car full of people.
  2. Food is cheap, but there is very little choice. There is a total shortage of products such as sausages and other delicacies.
  3. Slums with ramshackle shacks, often found in backward South American countries, are common housing for many Cubans. Especially many are on the outskirts of Havana.
  4. Goods of wide demand (soap, toothpaste, powder, shampoo) are in short supply.
  5. Internet in all apartments is a dream for Cubans. Only well-to-do people in the country use the Internet. However, educational and medical institutions, hotels and government offices are equipped with Internet through an expensive satellite connection.
  6. There is no system for hot water in the country. To wash, many Cubans fill large barrels of water and leave them to warm up in the sun. Affluent people install boilers in their homes.
  7. Cuba has only one cell phone operator and its services are very expensive – $1 per minute.

Russian immigrants who moved to Cuba during perestroika in their homeland assure that Cuba still lives like perestroika Russia in the era of scarcity. There is a large number of our compatriots, who with all the difficulties of life are not going to return to their homeland.

National currency

Until 2006 Cuba had one currency – Cuban peso. Until now this currency is still in use, mainly by local citizens, Cuban pesos is used to pay for products at the market and for salaries. In 2006 a new currency, CUC, was issued. It is actively used by tourists, as the CUC is a convenient form of exchange ($1 = 1 CUC). All tourist places – sightseeing, tourist stores, restaurants and cafes, cultural events are paid in CUC currency.

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The cost of food

There is a program in the state to provide free groceries to residents, through a card system. It is very reminiscent of the era of vouchers in the USSR. Each family receiving groceries on cards keeps a special notebook, which details all the necessary purchases for the year ahead.

To get the goods on the card you must stand in a long line, and if the line is longer than usual, it means there is a shortage of goods. But even standing in line for hours doesn’t guarantee that there’s enough food for everyone, so the line is taken early in the morning and usually involves all family members in turn.

  1. 80 grams of bread per person.
  2. 150 grams of rice.
  3. 150 gr. beans.
  4. One piece of chicken.
  5. A bag of coffee.

Usually, the cards are calculated for 1 month, i.e. foodstuffs calculated for a month are given out at a time. However, in reality they are only enough for a week.

Milk in the stores is sold powdered milk, real milk can only be afforded by the owners of the cows. Beef is incredibly expensive and is only sold in foreign stores.

Owners of cows are not allowed to slaughter cattle for meat. It is forbidden by law and carries criminal penalties and real prison sentences. After a cow dies of natural causes or disease, a special service is called in to take away the cattle.

Although Cuba is a country with a tropical climate and ocean, fish, fruits and vegetables are also in short supply. They trade them from behind the counter, risking a hefty fine.

The cost of food in a Cuban store:

Groceries Price in US dollars
Bread 1-1.2
Milk 1 liter. 2
Pork 1 kg. 5
Chicken 1 kg 4
Beans 1 kg 1
Coffee 4-5

Buying and renting real estate

Prices for buying and renting real estate in Cuba are quite affordable. And foreigners can afford to buy a house or an apartment not only at a low price, but also in the shortest possible time. The only nuance – the apartment must be in a new building with a foreign contractor. For example, a one-bedroom apartment will cost about $15,000. The average price per square meter is $500-$600. Keep in mind that buying a home in the country does not make you the owner of the land on which the property stands. Prices depend on the location of the property. On the oceanfront or in the private sector housing is more expensive than in the city.

Rent is also quite affordable. Tourists rent apartments for rent, with an approximate cost of $15 to $ 80 per day. Such apartments usually have everything you need (furniture, air conditioning). Renting a 2 or 3 room house on the oceanfront costs about $100 per day. Long-term rent an apartment in the city costs $250-350 a month, in the country – $200-250.

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Features of life

Despite the poverty, Cuban residents do not lose their cheerfulness. One gets the feeling that life here flows slowly and carelessly. Cubans have managed to bring a special flavor to the poor housing, clothing and urban transport. Many things are reminiscent of the Soviet Union, with a unique Cuban atmosphere. The life of the people on Liberty Island is full of hard work combined with the romance of a beautiful island.

Cuban mentality and traditions

The main character traits of Cubans are lightheartedness, friendliness, positive attitude to life and kindness to others. Do not be surprised if the stranger in the street natives come up to get acquainted and invite him to your place for dinner. For them, it is the norm. However, if a Cuban notices the reluctance to talk, he will never impose his communication.

Cubans are friendly at first sight, but you should not let your guard down and leave your belongings unattended. Extreme poverty has caused frequent thefts. And although there’s no need to be afraid of open robbery on the streets, especially in tourist areas, but to steal a purse or phone is not considered shameful.

Cubans don’t stay at home in the evening. Evening is a special time for them, which they spend either dancing, walking or just sitting on chairs in front of their dwelling. Once you get to a traditional Cuban street in the evening, you can see almost every house Cubans relaxing. The streets are always full of musicians, who infect locals and tourists alike with their music. The Cubans openly disregard the norms of decency common in European countries, so unprepared tourist may be strongly surprised by behavior and manner of communication of local residents.

Another distinguishing feature of the Cubans is their love of freedom. It was the boundless love of freedom which caused a serious conflict with the U.S., resulting in isolation and poverty.

In the relationship between men and women, there is complete equality and no prejudice. Men are loudly and openly admiring the woman they like, accompanying their compliments with loud applause and approving whistles. But to insult a woman here is considered unthinkable.

What does a typical Cuban house look like?

City houses usually have 1-4 floors and are built of concrete. Houses higher than 4 floors can be found only in Havana. An interesting difference in Cuban houses is the absence of glass in the windows. It is not advisable to install glass because of periodic hurricanes on the island. Instead there are wooden or iron shutters on the windows. The roofs of Cuban houses are equipped with a terrace for relaxation.

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Mandatory attribute of the furniture of almost every home – a rocking chair. Often it is taken out into the garden or outdoors to rock in the fresh air. Wrought iron gates and columns are a common style of Cuban homes. Especially colorful look narrow streets with houses painted in bright colors – red, orange, blue, green.

In the capital of the country there are old houses, built in the colonial style and are of historical value.

Attitudes of Cubans toward newcomers

Cubans treat foreigners well, they have a special attitude to newcomers from Russia. The islanders remember the invaluable assistance rendered by the Soviet Union to the friendly Cuba. For Cubans it does not matter if you are Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian, for a local you will be a Soviet man. Despite the fact that the aid to Russia has long ceased, this has not affected the attitude toward the Russians.

The Russian diaspora in Cuba is about 6 thousand people. However, despite the good attitude, it is more difficult for Russians to live in Cuba than before. Russian is no longer taught in schools, and teachers who have immigrated to Cuba are forced to work in the tourism sector, in trade or as cab drivers. Many older Cubans refer to Russia as Cuba’s sister.


Cuba is an extraordinary island with a friendly and freedom-loving population. A visit to this country will be interesting both to young tourists, and to the generation who grew up in the Soviet era. Unique atmosphere and flavor of the country will leave a lasting impression on people of all ages.

How People Live in Cuba: Poverty, Queues, Scarcity

My observations about the lives of ordinary Cubans. What does their reality consist of? How poor do they live? What hardships and deprivations do they experience? Let’s take a look.


God, how poor they are! Rejoice in your country’s well-fed life of abundance and accessibility! Not everywhere in the world is so prosperous. Here, in Cuba, poverty, ruin, shortages, food on coupons, empty shelves in stores, queues.

In the streets of Old Havana. The streets of Old Havana. The parade room in Old Havana.

It’s hard to live here, and even money doesn’t save much. To collect a full food basket, you have to go around half of the city: in one place they sell bread, in another – eggs, in the third – meat, in the fourth – rice. The usual supermarkets we are used to in Cuba, and those that are, small and with an assortment of five products.

Anything that is not on coupons, i.e. over the norm, is expensive. How about a half and a half of water for a dollar? Even for us bourgeois, it’s expensive, but what’s it like for ordinary Cubans? They have an average salary of $18 and even engineers only $50.

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On the other hand, I haven’t seen much homelessness in Cuba, crime is low, people are cheerful, polite, and friendly. They live poor, but they don’t hold a grudge against foreigners. I can’t say that the locals are out to get rich off the newcomers – everything is within the norm, just like in any touristy place.

Typical Havana convenience store. Beer, cigarettes, drinks, cookies. A butcher’s shop in the market (from the market, of course, one name only). A lingerie store. It is forbidden to take pictures!

Empty shelves

The presence of stores in Cuba does not help much. There is nothing to buy there!

Half of the shelves in Cuban stores are completely empty. The other half is stocked with one or two kinds of goods. Even if there is an assortment, there is nothing to buy in the store: mayonnaise, grits, sauce – everything is not useful for a tourist. Store in Trinidad. Empty shelves again and expensive yogurt. Store in Varadero. A pharmacy in Havana. Now think of ours, where the shelves crackle under the weight of a thousand brands of medicine. A display of stationery as if it were from the native 90s! A storefront in Havana.

State orders on line.

Queues in Cuba are senseless and merciless! They are a way of life, they are omnipresent, they are there for any reason. In institutions, at bus stations, in exchange offices, and even in cafes during rush hours. In supermarkets, there’s a double challenge: first you have to stand in line to get in, and then you have to go to the cashier’s desk. At the bus station there is some Kafkaesque nonsense: first you stand in a queue at one window to book and pay for the ticket, then you pass the same test at the second window for the absurd operation of exchanging the receipt from the first window for a real ticket.

Havana, Cuba

The queue of tourists at the ticket office at the bus station.

They move unbearably slow – everything happens five times longer than it is required in a normal situation. For example, in the line at the bus station cashier’s desk in front of me was eight people, it took me an hour and a half to get to the cherished goal, while there were two cashiers. The aunts at the ticket office, as is usual in bureaucratic conditions, savagely enjoy their power over people and do everything to torment the client.

To understand the situation, I will note that half of one day in Havana it took us three simple (as it seemed at first) things: buying a bus ticket, currency exchange, print out a document from a flash drive. Half of the day. We spent it standing in lines and looking for the right institutions.

Havana, Cuba

The queue to the ATM.

Queues are a strong and effective instrument of control and discipline. It is like a formation in the army, but even steeper and deeper in psychological impact. The queue is more legitimate: it is not built by someone’s order, it occurs due to natural reasons, it is perceived as a norm, as an immutable part of the universal order, as a cosmos, conquering the chaos. The queue is useful to the state: it educates and disciplines the individual, it teaches patience, patience and patience again. The queue teaches to suffer, to endure hardship for the sake of the reward at the end. The line dissolves individuality, equalizes, averages out. It eradicates the seeds of rebellion and creativity, it teaches you to submit to the established order without appeal and without complaint, and not even to think about the possibility of alternatives.

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The bus queue in Havana. The line for the store.

What I guard, I have.

As it should be in a socialist country, people in Cuba live by the principle of what I guard and what I have. This attitude helps them a lot to survive in this poor country.

We went to the observation point in Trinidad. It is on a mountain where there is a communications tower.

Of course, the site is fenced and guarded.

Of course, security guard does not sleep – he hospitably allows tourists on the territory and even gives a mini-excursion.

It goes without saying that a small gratuity awaits him. And I am sure this is the main part of his income. At the average salary in the country of $18 a month, he earns $1 or $2 for each tourist, which a lot of people come here, and it is a good help.


View from the observation deck of the mountains around Trinidad.

Bottom line

Life is not easy for the Cubans: they experience many hardships that we have safely forgotten. It’s hard and sad to see their society in such a deplorable state, because they shouldn’t have to live like this. Cubans are intelligent, well-mannered, and decent people, not some yesterday’s savages who have had “civilization” dumped on them and don’t know what to do with it. The people in Cuba definitely deserve better. And I really hope that the current generation of Cubans will live to see those glorious times.

As for us travelers, there’s nothing to think about – you have to go to Cuba! This is one of the most colorful, interesting, authentic countries in the world. In this era of globalization all countries are becoming more and more alike each other, but Cuba stands apart – you will not find another one. It is very interesting! Yes, it is quite expensive. Yes, it is uncomfortable. Yes, it is difficult, and sometimes oh, how difficult. But what the hell is this bright country! And it must be seen now, before it forever changed.

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