COJIMAR, Cuba — The streets of Cojimar are confusing. In this small city about 13 miles outside Havana, signs are scarce, roads are winding, and native taxi drivers often have to stop and ask for directions block by block.
After 15 minutes of stop-and-go driving, my taxi parks at a building on the edge of town that could have been airlifted from Soviet Moscow, a gray, narrow edifice with crumbling staircases and corrugated steel rods poking through the unadorned concrete walls.
Inside and to the left is the apartment of a woman I’ll call Rita Sardinas, for reasons that will shortly be apparent. She is in her mid-40s and rents a room in her apartment via Airbnb. The interior of her home is the exact opposite of her building’s exterior—a brightly colored, well-kept, and inviting space. Good housekeeping is fairly normal for homes inside such buildings throughout Cuba.
But there is something out of the ordinary about Rita Sardinas and her apartment: She is offering her home on Airbnb, without the required government license, as a renegade rental. And she may be on the vanguard of serious changes coming to Cuba.
“We’ve been renting the extra room for a few years, since my son moved to the U.S.,” Rita Sardinas begins. “But it wasn’t often. Maybe we would have guests once or twice a year, and they were usually friends of my son. Now that we’re on that website, I’m sure there will be more.”
That website, Airbnb, has seen great success since it was made available in Cuba. More than 2,000 listings on the Caribbean archipelago have been posted since the website began operations there in April.
In Cuba, citizens are allowed to rent out rooms or entire apartments to tourists if they acquire a license, which costs about $150 a month, according to the blog Sitio Cubano del Trabajador por Cuenta Propia, or Site of Cuban Workers With Private Businesses.
Casas particulares, as they’re called, became legal in 1997, during the economic hardships that arose after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They were meant to ease the tremendous recession that resulted from the disappearance of Soviet subsidies, but in Cuba, the $150 license is equivalent to a little more than seven months of the $20 median salary. With a cost so high, the license clearly wasn’t meant for the average Cuban. Even if the business became profitable after the first month, it would take years of saving—accumulating capital, which is technically illegal—to be able to pay for the first month. Many of those who are able to pay already have some advantages, be it through remittances from family abroad, government favor, already established private businesses, or “a-legal” transactions, usually conducted on some sort of black market.
And although these homes are part of the nascent private economy, they do face government control. Every proprietor is required to register the guest’s name, passport number, and duration of stay in a government-provided logbook. If a member of the local Comité de Defensa de la Revolución or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, citizen-led groups in every neighborhood that serve as the eyes and ears of the government (read: informants), sees an unlicensed resident renting a room, the fines are steep.
“About $50 per person, per night,” Rita Sardinas said of the fines, adding that repeat offenders can be stripped of their homes. “It’s a hard place to be in, with the license and the fines all costing more than I make in a month.”
Though few are starving in Cuba, there’s not much left, if anything, for pleasure spending after heavily subsidized necessities are purchased, whether with income or through government ration books. However, those who do have the money are willing to buy luxury items not found at the local tienda, which means a lot of people are willing to sell. Enter the black market.
“The black market is the only thing that works in Cuba, and vacation rentals are the next step,” Alberto Sardinas, Rita’s son who lives in the United States and runs their Airbnb account due to limited Internet access on the island, told the The Daily Beast over the phone.
There’s no way of knowing how many people are renting without a license, but Alberto Sardinas is sure that many are risking it, especially in the capital, amid a recent thaw with the United States.
“There’s less surveillance [in Havana] because the government knows a lot of people are coming, and it wants to project a different image of what is happening there. So oppression isn’t as visible,” he said. The Guardian reports that the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba has increased 36 percent since the December announcement of renewed relations between Washington and Havana under the auspices of 12 White House-approved categories that justify a trip to the former Cold War enemy. This number will only increase as congress members mull the removal of travel restrictions still limiting U.S. tourism.
“Another reason is that Havana, like capitals in many countries, is a laboratory for change. The regime knows that if it’s going to stay in power, things will need to be different in the future, and that includes being able to use the Internet,” Alberto Sardinas continued.
Indeed, one of the biggest hurdles normal Cubans still face is Internet access, according to an internal government document leaked (PDF) by La Chiringa de Cuba, a blog that focuses on current issues in Cuba, especially access to the Internet.
The document, titled Estrategia Nacional de la Banda Ancha en Cuba, or National Strategy for Broadband in Cuba, says 3.4 percent of Cuban households now have daily access to the Internet. By 2020, the government hopes to raise that number to 50 percent. Broadband, by the way, is defined as a connection of 256 kilobytes a second.
The government appears to be serious about the plan. According to the Associated Press, the newspaper Juventud Rebelde announced in late June that 35 government-run Internet centers (think an Internet café without coffee) would be equipped with Wi-Fi. The government also plans to reduce the cost of an hour of Internet access from $4.95 to $2.
“It’s a step forward, although you can’t forget that this is a country where nearly every citizen is under government surveillance in some way,” Henry Constantin, an activist for Internet access in Cuba, told The Daily Beast. “The Internet comes directly from the government, and it’s another means of keeping a watchful eye.”
Constantin is confident that nevertheless, Cubans will find a way to sidestep the surveillance and that connectivity will bring necessary changes to Cuban society. “Though it appears the changes are coming down from on top, the government is responding to pressure from below, from the people,” he said. “We know that the more Internet we have, the more freedom we have—freedom of expression, freedom to conduct businesses, freedom to live as we want.”
For Rita Sardinas, being able to live as she wants is what motivated her to begin her rebellious renting in the first place. Her salary and rations book just aren’t cutting it.
“We aren’t scared. We know there’s a risk, but like all middle-class Cuban families, we have to do something to make more money,” she said.