Fidel Castro’s vision for post-revolution Cuba was an independent nation without classism. He preached for a Cuba where everyone has access to education, healthcare, and basic necessities. These intentions enthralled some folks, while others (most of the affluent class) fearfully fled in massive waves. While Castro did succeed in some aspects–Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world (99.8%)–he was not able to avoid the inevitable class system.
“Cubans are poor. Extremely poor.” I was sternly warned by folks who had never been to Cuba. So I couldn’t believe my eyes when I stumbled into an old social yacht club in Havana, full of wealthy Cubans playing on their iPads, and using expensive internet.
The surprises kept coming when I arrived to a new year’s eve family party, located in a tall, baroque-style, multiple-story home in el Vedado. The home’s interior had freshly painted walls and was decorated with modern furniture (a luxury in Cuba). The dinner table was bustling with an abundance of food and drinks. The women, beautifully endowed, were dressed as if they were heading to a red carpet event. I looked down at my hippie dress and withering sandals, wondering if I was in Cuba or Miami.
That night, we took to flashy bars that put Miami to shame. Cubans who frequented these bars seemed educated, gorgeous, and whimsical. I loved observing each one of them and trying to figure out their story. How did they get to be more privileged than other Cubans I’ve met? Do their parents own casa particulares? Do they have family in Miami? Maybe they’re bureaucratically connected. My mind wandered until my friend interrupted me, “Let’s play a game, tourist or Cuban?” he whispered in my ear. We could no longer tell them apart.
It is not uncommon to meet Cubans who own six-figure casa particular or paladar businesses, making more money than most Americans. But it is much more common to meet Cubans who have very little resources, zero access to the internet, no connections, and nothing to invest.
After a lot of online research, social observation, and conversations over Cristal beers with Cubans throughout the island, I concluded the following types of Cubans are generally the ones at the top of the socio-economic pyramid:
The Bureaucratically Connected
This is probably the highest in the socioeconomic ladder in terms of money and power, but it is also the hardest to quantify into words or numbers. These are Cubans who work in high places in the government, such as military generals and government department ministers. These folks are afforded certain luxuries (cars, internet, property), privileges, and opportunities directly from the government than probably any other Cuban. To reach this position in Cuba, takes special connections and fervid loyalism to the Castros, Communism, and the Revolution.
Not-so-fun fact: I was once uninvited to a family Christmas party because in Cuba it is illegal for a foreigner to be in the same room as a military general. I was pretty bummed out, since I really wanted to meet a military general.
The Geographically Blessed (ie. Los Habaneros)
Environment can be a deciding factor for where Cubans fall within the socioeconomic class system. In Eastern Cuba, the treatment our Havana friends got from their Santiago friends, reminded me of the way I’m treated when I go back to visit family in the Dominican Republic. I’m expected to bring gifts and take them out because I come from a place of higher opportunity and economic privilege. And as it turns out, in Cuba, Havana is regarded as just that. Folks from Havana are deemed to enjoy a better standard of living and be more financially privileged, due to the relative abundance of opportunity the capital offers (especially from tourism).
The problem here is that a Cuban cannot easily move from one part of the country to another. Cuban Decree 217 prohibits citizens without an address or job in Havana from living there. I assume this is to reduce urbanization and overpopulation. But to make matters trickier, the cost of living can be the same if not worse in regions outside of Havana. So cities like Santiago and Baracoa have less opportunity for work and less pay but just as high, if not higher, costs of living.
Cubans with Access to Foreign Remittances
Foreign remittances fuel the Cuban economy. Billions of dollars are pumped every year into Cuba from family and friends abroad. This is a particularly special aspect to the country of Cuba. Since the 1960’s the U.S. has upheld the Cuban Adjustment Act which entices Cubans to migrate to the U.S. Upon reaching land, they are instantly granted legal entrance and qualify for an assortment of government aid programs. This has encouraged the immigration of nearly 20% of the Cuban population. That’s 1 in 5 Cubans in the United States.
Cubans with access to foreign aid are at an advantage to those without these connections. In a country where the average monthly salary is $20-30, any bit of aid from the U.S. is relatively a lot.
In addition to fulfilling basic needs, these Cubans can use foreign money to invest in the newly available Cuban private sector (2011). These Cubans, with the help of family abroad, have also been able to invest in or buy homes at ridiculously low rates. Homes in the affluent neighborhood of El Vedado can sell for as low as $20,000, and multi-bedroom penthouses have been listed for less than $100,000 (Revolico). Such homes are then renovated into Airbnbs/casa particulares for travelers to rent. These Cubans are making more money than you and me combined, while paying an extremely low costs of living.
Cubans Who Work in Tourism
Tourism as the engine of the country, coupled with state-owned enterprises, has turned Cuba’s socioeconomic structure upside down. It is extremely common to meet highly trained and skilled professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants) who make far less money than unskilled laborers (waiters, cab drivers, hotel maids) in the tourism sector. These people are at an advantage for several reasons: they can receive gifts from tourists (to keep or sell), may become friends or lovers with tourists who can help them out, and/or can be paid and tipped in tourist prices, among many other lucrative benefits.
The most profitable types of work in the tourism industry are usually cab drivers and owners/innkeepers of bed and breakfasts (casas particulares).
Cubans With Inheritance
Some Cubans were lucky enough to have inherited (or been given by the government’s expropriated stash) certain luxuries from earlier decades, such as cars. In Cuba, these old cars are now used as taxis to drive other Cubans or, more lucratively, to drive tourists. Taxi drivers in Cuba’s private sector are commonly known to earn more money than a doctor who works in the government sector.
Of course, there are exceptions to everything. The list above is not all exclusive. For instance, some Cubans in the countryside who raise pigs make much more money than the average Cuban. But these are the most generally recognized groups in Cuba who are more financially privileged.
Perhaps class systems are simply inevitable in a world full of different ambitions, skills, fortunes, and environments. Hopefully one day, however, Cubans will have equal access to work towards financial success.