Exploring Cuba: Residents Turn To Private Rentals As Tourism Blooms

Aug 28, 2018

The overhead bins are stuffed on the 40-minute flight from Fort Lauderdale to Havana. Cuban residents returning from spending time in the United States come back with arms full of everything from electronics to clothes to boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts.

Several years ago, before diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored,  a flight like this – full of Cubans and Americans coming directly from Florida to Havana – wasn’t allowed. But now, it is and this particular flight included a group of professors from Western Kentucky University wanting to learn more about the island nation that had been officially off limits to Americans for decades.  

Julie Shadoan who teaches in the paralegal studies department was among them.

WKU paralegal studies professor Julie Shadoan speaks with an artist in the Vedado section of Havana
Credit Emil Moffatt

“Cuba is just such a unique place,” said Shadoan.  “The government, the legal system, the economic system. We just don’t have that kind of experience in a lot of other places. So I think as it evolves and as we see presidents come and go and policies change between the United States and Cuba, I think it will continue to provide all kinds of interesting subject matter to study.”

For the past year, the U.S. State Department has been advising Americans to “reconsider” travel plans to Cuba following reports of mysterious sonic attacks. Last week, that advisory level was reduced, urging travelers to instead use “increased caution”.

Tourism has become an important economic driver for Cuba after decades of hard times. With more and more travelers arriving by air or cruise ship, hotel construction has not been able to keep up. So it often falls to private rentals– known as casa particulares. They’re modest homes where owners serve as hosts.

“Well, very recently it only became a reality for Cuban citizens to own their own real estate. Before that it was all government owned and so now that they are able to own their own houses, they have gotten into this entrepreneurial spirit where they are using Airbnb and less formal organizations that Airbnb to supplement their income,” said Shadoan. “I think that is a very slight opening of the door so to speak to private enterprise and how it can co-exist in a socialist society like Cuba.”

It’s a small sign of change in Cuba, but is not without government red tape. On the first day guests are asked to present their passport to the host, so they can copy down that information on a ledger.

A casa particular, a privately-owned short term rental in the Vedado section of Havana.
Credit Emil Moffatt

“Government is taking their bite out of it. So, even though it is a source of income the government gets their share of it. That’s the only way they would allow it to exist in Cuba,” said Shadoan.

But it is providing more and more Cubans with a chance to earn more money. The average salary for a Cuban with a state job is roughly $30 a month. So many people, including even lawyers, Shadoan notes, are abandoning the jobs they’ve had for years – the jobs they trained for – to try and make a decent wage.

“The thing that strikes me with all the practitioners in Cuba, is that they work for such a minimal amount of money – what we wouldn’t even consider subsistence here in the United States,” said Shadoan.  “A lot of people, I think, migrate away from those government jobs into something more private sector where they can earn more money."

Which could leave a shortage of lawyers at a time when the laws are evolving to keep up with the changing Cuban economy.

Our special series: Exploring Cuba, is created in partnership with WKU’s Office International Programs. You can learn more about the International Year of Cuba on Tuesday, Sept. 4th at 4 p.m. as history professors Andrew McMichael and Marc Eagle present “Cuba 101.”

Clarification: The United States and Cuba reached an agreement in late 2015 to restore regular commercial air service between the two countries. Prior to that, charter flights were allowed between selected cities in the two countries.