In Cuba, we call it hope

As United States-Cuba relations continue to strengthen, the island nation's people await to see how these restored relations will impact Cuba's economy, and possibly, its culture.

The workers of Cuba all have a story. A story of struggle, hard work and survival.

“The maximum wage in Cuba is 40 CUC a month (one CUC = one USD); the average rent in Havana is 35 CUC a month,” a tour guide said. “You do the math.”

Photo: Luke Rafferty

Experience Cuba with an expanded version of this project with more photos, videos and stories.

In Cuba’s brand of communist socialism, citizens need very little money because the government provides and subsidizes necessities. However, this theory of government support has not manifested itself as hoped. A walk through Havana neighborhoods and a bus ride across the island show that the system has failed the people.
“I left my job as an accountant to work as a taxi driver,” one taxi driver recalled.

Everything is backwards. I make much more money with tourists than as an accountant,” he said. In Cuba, jobs in the tourism sector, as well as certain highly visible blue-collar jobs, are some of the best paying jobs in the country.

“A street sweeper is one of the most well-paying jobs in the city. It’s better than a doctor,” said a man who works as a delivery worker.

In recent years, there has been a large influx of people leaving “white collar careers” to work at lower-skilled jobs because they pay more.
Making ends meet is a struggle for many Cubans.

“Almost everyone hustles here,” the tour guide continued. “How else can you get by?”

With salaries capped between 30 to 40 CUC a month, one job cannot support a family. People are forced to moonlight, work two jobs or sell goods on the side, be it selling marked up cigars, Internet cards or even food.

Disconnected World

Cuba: Disconnected World by Luke Rafferty

The combination of economic sanctions and strict government control has put Cuba far behind the technology boom of the last half-century. Strict government control has restricted Internet and phone service to a single government-owned agency that provides the citizens with extremely limited access. In downtown Havana, Internet is scarce and the lines at pay phones are long.

In Centro Habana on the corner of Calle Galiano and Boulevard de San Rafael is a small city park full of benches, taking over about half of a city block. At any time of day or night there are hundreds of people in the park huddled over their cell phones or laptops. Almost everyone is there for one common reason: Wi-Fi Internet access.

For three CUC per hour, Internet access can be purchased; however, this is a rarity in Cuba. Internet cafes are almost exclusively the domains of high-end hotels, with exorbitant hourly rates. Internet in the home is almost nonexistent. This park is one of a few in the city with public Internet. As a result, there is a constant flow of people from nearly every demographic seeking an Internet connection.

It is generally understood that Internet service in the park is censored, controlled and monitored by the government, yet people flock to the park to connect with their relatives who live abroad and check their social media. On an island with few exits, the park is an escape.

A New Unity


On Aug. 14, 2015, as the American flag was hoisted up the flagpole of the U.S. Embassy for the first time in 54 years, the streets erupted in cheers and applause. History had been made in Cuba. The mixture of excitement and uncertainty of the future made it clear that this had been a long time coming.  Energy from both Americans and Cubans standing together showed that people of both countries were ready to begin making amends and reestablishing a healthy relationship.

Following the event at the Embassy, a patriotic air filled the city. The Cuban flag flew proudly throughout the city, along with American flag — a rare site in Cuba.

Many taxi drivers hung an American flag from their rearview mirror. “In Cuba; we call that hope,” said one taxi driver. “We hope that our countries will become friends soon.”

The pride of the Cuban people was palpable. Many were excited for a new future relationship not because they wanted to leave Cuba, but because they wanted to share a chance to grow economically and culturally with America. Cuban patriotism was viral throughout the city.

With more than 80 percent of the island’s population educated with university degrees, the economic potential of Cuba is immense. The lifelong dream of many Cubans is that government controls will be softened, economic sanctions will be lifted, and relationships with the United States restored.

On this day, the dreams of many Cubans were on their way to becoming realities. They could feel that their country was on the brink of a monumental change.

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