Those Poor Cubans (I)

Fernando Ravsberg*

For some Cubans such items are a dream; but not to all. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 24 — In reading over different commentaries I note that many have a vision of the reality in Cuba that is no longer the case, although it may have been true in other times.  One of these criteria is the proclamation that all Cubans are living in poverty.

It’s true that poverty exists.  Half of the population supports itself with miniscule salaries and these workers find themselves obliged to steal from their workplaces to survive.  Nonetheless, it’s a mistake to think that this is the case for all the citizens.

The oft-mentioned “poverty of the Cubans” is a generalization that ignores the fact that 50% of the population receives some income in hard currency as well as their salary, and leaves out those who earn better wages than are paid in Miami for example.

Supporting Relatives Abroad

There are even some paradoxical cases of citizens who reside on the island financing their families in other countries.  A beautician working in the National Hotel in Cuba supported her psychologist daughter while the latter was in the process of having her diploma validated in Florida.

But that’s not the only case I know.  The owner of a rental house in Havana sends money each month to her daughter and son-in-law so that they can survive in the United States, while a good friend of mine paid the expenses of his daughter in Spain with the earnings from his kiosk.

Some of those who are owners of small home restaurants (paladares), as well as those with tiny cafeterias that sell pizzas, sandwiches, coffee and fruit drinks, etc, farmers, fishermen, musicians, painters and private businessmen earn from 300 US dollars up to tens of thousands of dollars a month.  I know of one who managed to accumulate a bank account of over three million dollars.

I’m assured that some are beginning to invest their money outside of Cuba, buying properties and businesses that allow them to continue growing economically. They do so, however, without giving up their source of income in Cuba.

I could tell many anecdotes about those business people: how one of them took his pregnant wife to Miami for the sole purpose of having her give birth there – at the cost of US $5,000.  They then returned together to Cuba where they still live.

You have to take into consideration that there were Cubans who stayed in the suites of one of the 5 star hotels in Havana the very day that the end of the prohibition was announced, as well as Cubans who rented BMW automobiles.

Not Necessarily Tied to Ruling Class

They can’t all be seen as having ties to the ruling class either, because many have no such relationship.  They are merely people who have been more or less successful in their sector, and who have known how to navigate within the legal limitations that exist in Cuba.

There are many ways of doing so.  I know a person who has a business importing containers with merchandise from China.  In order to achieve this, he pays a European to appear before the authorities as the nominal owner of the business.

As in the rest of Latin America, this wealthy class is a minority.  However, there also exists a middle class in Cuba made up of hundreds of thousands of people who receive a better income than the rest of the workers, and in hard currency.

You’d have to be blind not to have seen the lines of Cubans trying to obtain a cell phone when the government authorized them: there were a quarter of a million of them ready to pay the US $200 that was being charged for the connection and the equipment.

The Biggest Party Has Yet to Come

Journalists like me who covered the end of the prohibition saw how the stores ran out of electric scooters priced at US $1,000, and of Chinese computers that cost US $800.  And the biggest party is yet to come, when they authorize the sale of automobiles.

That’s because the income of a good mechanic is nearly US $1,000; a successful tobacco grower makes even more; a waiter in a tourist hotel earns more than $600; and a fisherman with his own boat can take in around $700 a month.

These people have a very acceptable lifestyle, understood as good food, money to dress well, to buy – legally or illegally – a very used vehicle, and to spend 15 vacation days at the beach once a year.

Evidently, when speaking of income you can’t speak any more of “the Cubans” in general, just like it would never occur to anyone to put the Mexican millionaires in the same bag as the agricultural workers from that country that travel to the U.S. in search of work.

*Havana Times translation from the Spanish original published in June, 2009.  Posted with permission of BBC Mundo.