CubaNews / June 2003
By Larry Luxner
Alexis Rojas Riverón is a retired bus driver, and his wife Maria del Carmen doesn’t work. So they decided to rent out their tiny one-bedroom house in Havana’s Playa neighborhood for a few extra dollars.
“Sometimes I charge $25 a night, sometimes $30,” he said. “We've been doing this for two or three years now. Right now, I have a Mexican art student living there. He’s paying only $250 a month.”
For the privilege of renting out his casa particular, Rojas — like the thousands of other Cubans who do likewise — is obliged to keep detailed records in a yellow, 80-page ledger called the “Libro Registro de Arrendatarios.”
Each such book has a six-digit control number, and in that book, Rojas duly enters the name, address, nationality and passport number of every guest, the date of arrival and the date of departure. These details are reported to immigration authorities every morning.
Last year, Rojas earned a total of $2,980, all of it in dollars. Deducting $298 (or 10%) for expenses and the $1,041 he already paid in monthly taxes to Cuba’s national tax agency, ONAT, that left net income of $1,641. His final tax was 10% of that, or $164, leaving the elderly couple with a net profit of $1,477.
A few blocks away is Casa Nora, a freshly painted, impeccably maintained casa particular on Calle 64, between Avenidas 41 and 43.
Run by Félix and Nora Delgado, the establishment has existed since August 1995.
“It wasn’t prohibited then, but we didn’t yet have a license,” said Félix, a 61-year-old retired economist. In 1997, a new law was established to allow homeowners to rent out rooms or whole houses to foreigners only.
The Delgados, who have been married 37 years, live downstairs in an apartment which is extremely comfortable by Cuban standards. So is the rental unit, which has its own entrance, living-room area, telephone, kitchenette and upstairs bedroom. All fixtures are brand-new, and everything works — including the air-conditioning.
Delgado generally charges $30 a night, he said, “but sometimes we’ve gone 15 or 20 days without anyone.” Regardless, they still have to pay $120 a month in taxes.
“When we started in 1995, we invested everything we had in this business, which was about 8,000 pesos and $400,” he said. “Most of our money went into painting the place and buying new furniture and curtains. The floor is also new. We’re retired, so we’re completely dedicated to this business.”
He added: “We have to work a lot, because our business depends on the service you give. If your place isn’t comfortable and clean, the people won’t come back. If they do come back, it’s because they got good service.”
Delgado said “our best years were 1998 and 1999 — we made around $2,000 each of those years.” Since then, things have slowed down a bit. Guests come mainly from Canada, Mexico and Germany, and occasionally the U.S.
“Last year was extremely difficult,” he said, pointing out that Casa Nora grossed $2,300. But monthly taxes ate up $1,440 of it. After paying the 10% income tax, the Delgados were left with $774 in profits.
“It’s not a business to get rich, but only to live a little better,” he said, acknowledging that “yes, we do live better than other people.”
According to local sources, there are an estimated 1,900 casas particulares in the Playa district alone.
“Some people rent their whole house with a pool, others rent houses with only one or two rooms, like us,” Delgado told CubaNews. “A few months ago, there was a lot of illegal competition from people who weren’t registered and didn’t have permission to rent, but they rented anyway. These people did a lot of damage to the legales, because their prices were lower. Some were charging only $5 a day.”
But such places have their drawbacks, Delgado pointed out. “If there’s a robbery, you can call us and we’ll call the police. But if you are staying in a casa illegal, you can’t do that.”
Across town in Havana’s Vedado district, Isis García rents out her fourth-floor, two-bedroom apartment for up to $40 a night. Even though it’s is nowhere as nice as Casa Nora, García’s flat commands a higher rent because of its desirable location at Infanta 53.
“I generally don’t have it too bad because my place is very accessible,” she said. “We’re one block from the Malecón, so the tourists can walk to Old Havana. People like my apartment because it has a view of the ocean.”
García, who’s had her casa particular license since 1997, said she pays $160 a month in taxes, and last year had to fork over an additional $400 in income taxes, since she grossed around $4,000.
“Last year was my best year ever,” said the 56-year-old retired state employee, adding that “I have to improve the place, because if I don’t, the tourists won’t come back. I’ve put in a new floor, which cost me $800 in materials.”
García said she understands there are 400 casas particulares in Centro Habana alone; this doesn’t include Vedado or Habana Vieja.
It would be a mistake to equate casas particulares with the bed-and-breakfasts familiar to Americans or Europeans. Many of the smaller places in Cuba don’t serve breakfast because, says Delgado, “if you offer gastronomic service, you have to pay an additional $30 a month in taxes, even though not all tourists ask for this.”
Delgado said “this is an error on the part of the government. It’s my point of view that they should be more flexible.”
On a more delicate subject, we asked if casas particulares — popular with male tourists because they can bring prostitutes back to their rooms without interference from hotel staff — actually promote sex tourism.
“Not exactly,” said Delgado, shrugging. “Foreigners come here, go to a disco, meet a girl and bring her here. If she’s younger than 18, she can’t come in. But a lot of times, I don’t even see the girl because I’m sleeping.”