The first foreign travelers who stayed with Raissa Acevedo and her mother were Europeans. They came to Cuba for work – and sometimes a little love. But since she signed up on Airbnb, Acevedo has hosted more Americans curious about Cuban life.
“What travelers want to experience is not some resort, because you can go to a resort anywhere: Punta Cana, Cancun,” Acevedo said while fixing coffee. “What they want is this . . . the reality for Cubans. They don’t have any idea how Cubans live.”
I wasn’t supposed to stay with Acevedo. But I found myself at her small two-bedroom apartment in Havana’s suburbs after learning the room I’d reserved had been double-booked, a systematic glitch that many Cuban Airbnb hosts face because of the lack of Internet service on the island.
Since embarking on cozier relations with Cuba leader Raúl Castro 15 months ago, the Obama administration has been eliminating stiff regulations on travel and commerce, which has expanded opportunities for Americans to visit the island.
During President Barack Obama’s 48-hour visit last month, he touted the popularity of Airbnb as an example of the diplomatic benefits that come from everyday Americans spending time with everyday Cubans. He likes to say nobody represents America’s values better than the American people.
“That’s why we’re encouraging travel, which will build bridges between our people,” Obama said during his address to the Cuban people from the Gran Teatro in Havana on March 22.
Renting a room with a family also tends to be cheaper than staying in a government-run hotel, and some Americans like the idea that their money isn’t going directly to the Castro regime.
There is no question the families benefit – they wouldn’t be quitting their day jobs otherwise. But those who think they’re kick-starting a new Cuban economy beyond the reach of the government may be disappointed to learn that the government gets its cut in fees and taxes. Hosts are also required to report any foreign guests’ passport numbers to their local immigration office.
The Cuban government collects 10 percent of what hosts take in. Depending on the type of rental and neighborhood, officials also charge Airbnb hosts a monthly fee. For Acevedo, it’s about $70 a month.
For Yisel Clavero Pérez, who runs Casa Amada Malecon out of her family’s 1926 colonial home in Habana Vieja, it’s $200 a month, $40 for each of her five rooms. That’s whether the rooms are occupied or not.
Clavero doesn’t have a problem with the extra fees, she said, but the amount is not insignificant considering the average monthly salary in Cuba is around $20.
“We work hard to make sure our rooms are booked,” Clavero said.
The décor of the room I booked for $40 a night was bright. Despite the dazzling red sheets, the bed looked comfortable. The bathroom looked clean. The two reviews mentioned warm showers and elaborate breakfasts of fresh fruit. In her Airbnb profile, the woman who posted it, Martica, described a stay with her husband, her parents and her as being with “your family in Cuba.”
When I arrived, Martica wasn’t home. Her father looked confused when I mentioned I had a reservation. He called his wife, Martica’s mother, who apologized. The room was occupied, she said.
After a few minutes on the phone, Martica’s father grabbed my bag and motioned for me to follow him down the street to a neighbor’s house.
Mentally, I braced for cold showers while watching him fumble with the unfamiliar keys.
Martica came by later. She apologized. She explained that it took her a day to get online. By the time she saw my reservation, she’d already taken a reservation for the room by phone. She didn’t want to panic me by canceling my reservation, she said.
It’s impossible to check the Internet as much as you’d like in Cuba. Most hosts must leave their houses to find hotels or public Wi-Fi hot spots to access the Web. At $2 an hour for Web access, it’s also expensive.
It worked out. Acevedo’s house was clean and had hot water.
Acevedo, 52, lives alone. Her mother is gone and her father lives down the street with his current wife. Her own children are grown and living in Miami and Tallahassee.
She gave tips on getting around, including how to pick up an almendron – one of those classic American cars that double as collective taxis that Cubans ride together for less than a $1 a trip.
Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, estimates that 10 to 20 percent of Americans who travel to Cuba are staying with hosts on Airbnb. More than 4,000 Cuban have signed up as hosts with the service.
It makes sense. More than 3.5 million people visited Cuba last year, yet the island has only 63,000 hotel rooms.
“One of our hosts said that they have a lot of misconceptions about Americans, but when they live with you for a year you start to think very, very differently about Americans,” Chesky said in Cuba during a talk about entrepreneurship there.
Clavero, who was part of the first group that joined Airbnb, sees new relations with the United States and the expansion of Airbnb as important steps for Cubans.
For about $40 a night, travelers can rent out her old bedroom that overlooks an internal courtyard. For $250, they can rent the whole house. They can smoke cigars on the rooftop patio overlooking Old Havana.
“If we have the opportunity to grow economically, it’s going to be much better,” Clavero said. “We Cubans, even with problems, we’re happy. Can you imagine what it’d be like without them?”
On my last day in Cuba, Acevedo pulled an old box out of her closet. She had a copy of an old 1869 constitution that helped kick off Cuban independence. She had news articles about a “young rebel.” The photo spread included glamorous shots of a young teenager, Acevedo’s mother, who had been named queen of the 1962 Havana carnival following the revolution. In one picture, Acevdeo’s mom is dressed in a fancy ball gown watching the parade. Sitting next to her, in uniform, is Cuban icon “Commandante Fidel Castro.”
“Look here. Look here,” Acevedo said giggling, as she discovered the old photo. “There she is next to Fidel.”