If you ask our guide in Cuba, Sergio, he will tell you there are no homeless people in Cienfuegos or anywhere in Cuba, for that matter. The official story is they are mentally challenged and choose to live on the streets but they have family and a home to go to. We did not see any signs of homelessness but that doesn’t mean it does not exist. Cuba is complicated and, as a tourist, we discovered contradictions everywhere. The economy is changing. Private enterprise is emerging.
The government gives Cubans food rations for 15 days a month. It’s free. But the other 15 days, you are on your own to survive. Sergio says when men are ready for college, they either go to school or join the military service. I imagine many choose college, then, I asked. He nodded. (Other literature I have read says students must either serve 2 years in the military before college or obtain an exemption.) However, after military service, says Sergio, the government will give a Cuban an apartment. (I have yet to locate any evidence of free housing in Cuba.) And good luck getting your neighbors to agree to paint your building the same color you like.
Sergio claims a tourist guide earns the same government salary as a teacher, about 20 CUCs a month. Doctors might make 100 CUCs. The exchange rate is .87 CUCs to an American dollar. The rest comes from “income.” A side job. Tips. Entrepreneurism . . . of sorts.
We were isolated from most residents of Cuba during our visit. The so-called people-to-people exchange did not really exist. In part, because most Cubans cannot afford the activities offered to tourists. However, tourism comprises about 30% of Cuba’s economy, and we met many Europeans and Canadians on vacation. White collar professionals like doctors were in residence mostly at Hotel Nacional in Havana, while more blue-collar workers such as bricklayers from England stay at Trinidad resorts, it seemed.
After several days in Havana, we headed a little over 200 km to the south and east to the French city of Cienfuegos, Cuba, established 1819. There are about 100,000 residents of Cienfuegos, which enjoys a reputation as the only city founded by the French in Cuba. Cienfuegos is a National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage site. Below are photographs I hope you will enjoy: