Conner Gorry is a writer and journalist from New York who has called Havana home since 2002, where she works as Senior Editor for MEDICC Review, the only peer-reviewed journal in English dedicated to Cuban health and medicine. In addition to contributing to many newspapers, magazines and anthologies, her recent books include 100 Places in Cuba Every Woman Should Go; Cuban Harlistas: Mi Amor; and Havana Street Style.
Her blog, Here is Havana, has been called some of the best writing that is available about day-to-day life in Cuba. In 2018, she published TWATC, a collection of poetry and prose, available at Cuba Libro, the English-language bookstore and café she founded in 2013. Follow her adventures on Twitter, @ConnerGo.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: New York, NY
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Havana, Cuba
Q: When did you move to Cuba?
A: April 2002
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
Q: Why did you move? What do you do?
A: I had been to Cuba as a volunteer almost a decade before I moved and was immediately smitten. I kept trying to return, but it was too expensive and difficult, given the hostile relations between the USA and Cuba. After September 11th, I was eager to leave New York and was offered a job as a journalist covering the health system for an international peer-reviewed journal. Fortune shined on me, and I jumped at the chance.
Living in Havana
Q: What do you enjoy most about Havana? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the USA?
A: Having grown up in violent, drug-riddled New York (this was pre-Giuliani) and travelled extensively around Latin America, Havana is wonderfully safe. I can walk home alone at 3am, children play freely in the streets and around their neighbourhoods, and there are few homeless people, no intravenous drug users and few guns. Cubans, on the whole, have a wicked sense of humour, which also makes it much easier and fun to face all the challenges of living here.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: I’ve had tons of negative experiences, but I always tell people: no matter where you live, you have to take the good with the bad. Utopia doesn’t exist – you have to find somewhere and make your home in a place that fits your personal philosophy, needs and desires.
Having said that, the scarcity of internet is a big negative for me professionally. Things have improved in recent years – we now have public WIFI in parks for example, but it’s not practical for me to take my laptop to a park to upload manuscripts, file stories and have virtual meetings. I miss my family and friends mightily, and the lack of internet and price of a phone call makes this even more difficult.
Lastly, there are innumerable types of food I miss terribly – cheese, bagels, granola, Indian and Thai food, tofu – the list goes on and on. My luggage coming back to Cuba is always packed with all kinds of foodstuffs. On my most recent trip, I brought back tortillas, pounds of dried cranberries and apricots, sunflower seeds and trail mix, Hershey’s syrup and tons of other food that is not available at any price in Cuba.
This is a key difference between Cuba and almost any other expat destination. There are some things here that no amount of money can buy. You can’t go into the fanciest store or ethnic part of town and find mushrooms or brie or flatbread.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Cuba? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: I had been to Cuba before, for a month only, but what a month! This was during the economic crash of the 90s, known as the “Special Period”, typified by 16-hour daily blackouts, no transportation and severe food scarcity. I come from a resource-scarce background, so it wasn’t too difficult adjusting to the lack of things, but it was very tough – and still is – getting used to how gossipy and extroverted Cubans are. They’re all up in everyone’s business, and I’m from New York where you don’t know your neighbours’ names and life is very private. You can be anonymous in New York. Not in Havana!
Language can be a major issue. Even native Spanish speakers can have trouble with Cuban Spanish, so don’t assume that since you speak Spanish that you’ll understand what your neighbours are saying about you.
There’s also a certain lack of logic to many aspects of life in Cuba. I’ve had my fair share of this since I opened Cuba Libro, the island’s only English-language bookstore and café. The bureaucracy can be maddening, but I’ve learned from Cubans to persevere.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to the USA? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Cuba?
A: This is a tricky question because many foreigners don’t live like most Cubans – taking public transportation, in extraordinarily affordable or free housing, without internet at home, shopping at the market closest to their home, etc. So, it can be extraordinarily cheap, but few full-time foreigners live this way.
Buying a car is unbelievably expensive – even for the most basic hatchback. Then there’s the very robust black market where you can buy just about anything. However, it usually takes foreigners a while to figure out how this works.
Housing can be cheap – you can get a two-bedroom apartment close to the water in Havana’s hippest neighbourhood for very little. But only permanent residents (a difficult immigration status to procure) are permitted to buy property, so as I mentioned above, sometimes it’s not a question of money but access and permission.
Then there’s the “foreigner tax”. It is nearly impossible to pass for Cuban if you are not, and the cost of anything – whether it’s a plumber or an ornamental plant – will carry additional cost just for being from somewhere else.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Cuba? What is your most memorable experience of using Havana’s transport system?
A: Public transportation is one of the city’s and country’s most pressing problems. There just isn’t enough. It’s heavily subsidised by the government, so the inner-city bus system costs a fraction of a cent – but you might have to wait an hour or more for a bus to come by.
There are other options. Shared taxis and cooperative buses are also affordable, but these operate on fixed routes and so might not be useful depending on where you’re going. Also, the average monthly salary of the majority of the population is incredibly low, so taking a collective taxi to and from work every day just isn’t fiscally possible for most people. For these reasons, hitchhiking, even in the heart of Havana, is a common occurrence.
One of my favourite forms of transport is the lanchita that goes across Havana Bay. One route goes to Regla, the other to Casablanca. This little ferry is used by all kinds of Cubans, shuttling themselves between home, work and fun. Very few visitors even consider hopping on the boat to the other side of the Bay.
You can bring bikes on the lanchita, and visiting Regla is like stepping back in time: more pedestrians than cars, wooden houses listing downhill, and home to the Virgin of Regla, a major player in Afro-Cuban religions.
Those who hop on the boat to Casablanca usually go visit the giant Christ statue at the top of the hill from the ferry dock, but shouldn’t miss the nearby Finca Agroecológica El Rincón del Cristo, a reforestation programme ribboned with trails through endemic flora and medicinal plants, where you can sip cold coconut water straight from the nut, opened with a machete by folks who are part of the work training programme there.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Havana? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regard to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Cuba is renowned for its national universal health system and care. Although the basic facilities might be a bit shocking to people from the developed north, the statistics (verified by various UN agencies, including WHO and PAHO) bear out the success of the Cuban approach. Life expectancy, infant mortality, under-five mortality and other major indicators are on par with or surpass most industrialised countries.
Add to this the fact that Cuba has a robust biotech and pharmacological capacity, with unique vaccines and therapies that are sold all over the world, where nearly 70% of the medications approved for use in the health system are produced domestically, and there’s one doctor for every 150 patients. Take all these factors into consideration, and you start to see a very different health picture from other developing nations.
Cuban healthcare is so good and affordable that many foreigners come to Cuba specifically for medical tourism – although US citizens and residents are prohibited from doing so by US restrictions imposed by the State Department. The general hospital for foreigners is the Cira García Hospital in Playa, but there are specialist hospitals for neurological conditions, drug rehabilitation and more, plus centres for specific conditions and diseases which foreigners can also access.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Cuba? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Cuba is an extraordinarily safe country, and Havana is a safe capital – as I mentioned above, safety is one of the things I love about my adopted home. Sure, there are some super shady neighbourhoods; you wouldn’t want to wander around El Fanguito or Los Pozitos unaccompanied, but in general, the most dangerous threats here are dengue and giardia – neither of which are life-threatening.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Havana? What different options are available for expats?
A: You have to understand that Cuba is very different from almost any other country: not just anyone can live here. You need permanent residency to buy a home, or temporary residency to rent long-term. These are not easy to resolve, so unless you are posted here for a job which will provide housing, living in Cuba for any length of time is a dream most foreigners will never realise.
Canadians have the best and most practical possibilities because they can be here on a tourist visa for six months – this is the longest permissible stay for citizens from any source country, as far as I know. In this case, they must rent a legally licensed house which runs a high minimum charge per month for a small apartment.
Q: Are there any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Popular areas for expats include Vedado, Miramar and farther afield, Siboney.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular group? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Havana?
A: Foreigners are almost universally viewed as “ATMs with legs.” This type of economic discrimination happens every single day with foreigners, whether they’ve lived here 17 years like me or just arrived yesterday. Prices are higher, bills are padded, and similar financial shenanigans are happening all the time.
Because Cuba is so complex, foreigners are often viewed as dummies just off the turnip truck and lacking in any kind of knowledge of the ‘Cuban mecanica’. That being said, one of the things that has kept me here for so long is that I’m constantly learning. Each and every day, I learn something new here. It’s so confusing in fact, that my Cuban friends and family are often hard-pressed to explain certain things to me.
This can be very trying for successful, smart expats, particularly spouses who are accompanying their family on a job posting but don’t have employment of their own in Havana. It is very, very difficult to obtain a job as a foreigner here unless it is a previously arranged international posting. Being treated as dumb – or at the very least naive, day in and day out, can be difficult.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: There is really no cohesive expat community here – many people are isolated for one reason or another. The embassies host parties once in a while; the Canadian embassy is famous for this, and there are all sorts of cultural events hosted by the British, Dutch and Norwegian embassies. But you’re usually meeting people from your own backyard at these events, in which case: why did you move to Cuba?!
Expat bars and clubs like those that exist elsewhere are just not part of the fabric here. While there are a handful of fancy restaurants, cafés and shops frequented by comparatively moneyed foreigners, it takes some doing to ferret these out and there’s no guarantee that you’ll meet anyone over that eggs benedict.
Meeting Cubans is easy; they’re so incredibly social, but beware: foreigners are often seen as easy targets for resolving material and financial issues. If you don’t speak Spanish, your circle of friends will contract accordingly since English is still gaining momentum here, and it’s astonishing how many people don’t speak English in Havana.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with Cubans?
A: My circle is almost entirely Cuban. I have a few good friends from elsewhere, and each of them has lived in Havana for decades. Good tips/places for meeting Cubans in addition to Cuba Libro include: taking the bus or collective taxis, joining a Tai Chi or yoga class (these are extremely popular with Cubans), enrolling in a class at the University of Havana and taking every opportunity offered to accompany on a visita, this is a cultural must-do for all Cubans where they stop in at homes of friends or family to share coffee and gossip.
Working in Havana
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: It is nearly impossible to get a work visa – usually, folks who are posted here have that taken care of by their employer. Cuba has very strict immigration requisites, and if you’re from the United States, you can basically forget about it. If you’re offered a posting in Cuba, be sure to specifically ask about the visa process and who is responsible for securing it.
Q: What is the economic climate in Havana like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Once on the ground, it is nearly impossible to find a job in Havana. Opportunities are limited, local talent abounds and competition is stiff. This is a very difficult and different context for work and life, so if you are not independently wealthy and/or very resourceful with a lot of time on your hands, I would suggest a visit first before diving in. People come to me all the time with dreams of moving to Havana after spending a few weeks here. That’s a vacation, real living is a whole lot tougher.
Living here full-time, long-term, is a whole different ball game. A friend of mine from New York who fell in love with a Cuban, married her and moved here came into the café a few weeks ago saying, “We’re moving to Greece. After two months here, I realise I can’t live here.”
Living in Havana means long, random blackouts, sometimes going without toilet paper or running water, being duped by locals constantly, struggling with the language, fighting for public transportation, dealing with internet/computer/banking/bureaucratic chaos, facing food insecurity and on and on. Most of these issues cannot be resolved with money – this isn’t a context where throwing money at a problem brings resolution. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly!
Q: How does the work culture differ from the USA? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Cuba? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: This is a topic for an entire book. Cuba was a stalwart, centralised, communist economy for decades. To give you an idea, consider the common saying, “We pretend to work and the State pretends to pay us.”
Things here can be incredibly inefficient, a lot of the economy turns on favours rather than simple supply, demand and cost. Work ethic can be sketchy, and work may be cancelled with no notice for all sorts of random reasons, from blackouts to unscheduled trips or meetings or crisis management. I have had all kinds of experiences adapting to local business culture since I opened the bookstore/café at the very beginning of the private sector experiment here. One of the biggest challenges is finding reliable staff. It helps to have a very large network of friends and contacts, but even that is no assurance.
Family and children
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Havana?
A: I love Parque Monte Barreto. Cuban families go here, one of Havana’s biggest green spaces, in droves on the weekend for picnics, pony rides, jumping in the bounce houses, etc. Parque Almendares, more towards the centre of town, is another place where there are cultural activities for kids on the weekends, rowboat rides, miniature golf and even a playground.
There are plenty of playgrounds in and around the city. I have tons of content for expats travelling with family in my new book, 100 Places in Cuba Every Woman Should Go. Expats and diplomatic families often go to the Western enclave/country club called Club Havana for swimming, pizza parties, tennis and the like.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: I don’t have children, but the International School in Havana is well-regarded.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Cuba?
A: Do your research, learn Spanish, make Cuban friends and try to keep an open mind. Also be open to serendipity – Havana is the kind of place that embraces those who get it/can roll with it while chewing up and spitting out those who don’t.