Moving to Cuba

Pedro Szekely (Flickr)
Cuba’s place in many expats’ imaginations often conjures images of an exotic isle frozen in time. A place where vintage American cars roam the streets in vast numbers, and a vibrant people dance the night away under moody tropical sky. However, there are two sides to this coin.

Many expats thinking about moving to Cuba are deterred by its communist heritage and uncertain international relations. Often, expats are simply unable to choose to settle here, because there are only two ways to do it: marry a Cuban citizen, or secure employment before your move to Cuba on a work visa. The difficult in meeting the requirements for settling in Cuba mean the country’s expat population is nowhere near as large as those of Caribbean destinations like Costa Rica. Cuba is still uncharted territory. 
However, this should in no way dissuade a decision to move to Cuba. Cuba is nothing if not an exciting, new experience. Those who take the plunge will encounter a political system that’s very different from the one they may be used to. Decades of American embargos on Cuba coupled with policies that have inhibited foreign investment have stunted economic growth. The upshot is that expats may find it difficult to get hold of things that are commonplace in their home countries, and many locals are still adapting to some of Cuba’s recent changes.  
Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl, who became president in 2008, has been slowly implementing reforms to the economy. There have also been efforts to decrease the number of people in the state’s employ and increase involvement in private enterprise. Cubans can now own property for the first time since the revolution in 1959, and immigration laws have been relaxed: Cuban Americans, who before 2009 were permitted to enter Cuba only once every three years, may now visit their families as often as they wish. Free trade zones have opened up, and import-export laws have relaxed. Now, greater numbers of the Cubans in the workforce are self-employed and pay tax to the government. These changes suggest a bright future with many opportunities for expats.
The biggest industries in Cuba are the farming and exporting of goods such as sugar, tobacco and coffee, and the tourism industry is growing. Real economic change has been slow, partly because of the ongoing US embargo. However, in 2014 the Obama administration announced their intentions to re-establish relations with Cuba and in January 2015 they lightened restrictions on US citizens’ travel to Cuba. While there is a long way to go and Cuban attitudes to America are still frosty, there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. 
Cuba is a relatively safe country: the biggest dangers are from natural disasters and poor infrastructure. Expats should take note that the hurricane season runs from June to November, and extreme weather can be a safety issue. In late 2012 Hurricane Sandy did extensive damage to many parts of the country and is still being repaired. In addition, crime, especially opportunistic theft, is on the increase, so expats should avoid walking around Havana at night and make sure to use only legitimate taxis and tour operators.
With Soviet backing, Cuba managed to build up reputable education and healthcare systems and the medical tourism industry has played an important role in the country’s economy for a number of years. However, the ailing infrastructure leaves much to be desired.. There are only two international schools in Cuba – The International School of Havana and École Française de La Havana, both of which are in the country’s capital.

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