Climbing the Cuban Social Ladder

Some people who’ve never been to Cuba and don’t know how things work here assume that everyone earns the same paltry salary and that there is no class distinction. Au contraire! But how much you earn doesn’t necessarily make you esteemed in everyone’s eyes in Cuba. Due mainly to the circulation of two currencies and hard economic times, Cuba’s scale or pyramid of economic earnings has been inverted for some time now and the bellboy (who earns tips in foreign currency) is often at the top, with the brain surgeon (who slaves away for a salary in national money) often at or close to the bottom. So it makes for a strange social ladder which many people visiting here for the first (or second, or third…) time can’t seem to grasp.

Some of those who most blatently stand out in terms of the pay scale are artists. Artists officially linked to the Ministry of Culture often have special benefits and considerations that most everyday Cubans don’t qualify for. Authors’ rights allow them to declare salaries and receive earnings that most regular Cubans don’t even dare to dream about. Some time ago a short-lived bill allowed many Cubans, especially artists who had the opportunity to travel abroad, to purchase and import vehicles, paying the import tax in national currency. No justification of the funds or earnings one would assume would be required to make the purchase was necessary, as was the case with all previous car purchases by those who had worked abroad for the requisite amount of time to be permitted this privilege by the Cuban government. So you’ll often so a relative nobody driving around in a car which stands out from all the old beaters, and maybe it’s because he or she somehow managed to earn it. Or maybe it was simply because somebody else (a family member abroad?) financed it. Certain artists can be seen driving around Havana driving the latest Audi convertibles, or Mercedes Benz cars, or even souped-up utility vehicles.

A friend of mine sings in a rather famous Cuban orchestra. Sometimes I think he would be more economically solvent if he’d chosen to be a comedian, but I do digress. The world these artists live in is often called the “farandula” in Cuba. Once he was relating a story about a European tour he was on where another very well-known Cuban singer who calls herself the “Diva” was also touring along with them. He said that on the tour bus she was bragging about how much money she spends on her wardrobe, that she wouldn’t dream of buying the same cheap crap as regular Cubans when she traveled, oh no. She only pays $100 or more for her denims, and only the best and most expensive shoes will be found on her feet. My friend is more down to earth than her, or more likely just doesn’t make the same claims since his pay is relatively low as a hired musician. Most Cubans are bargain hunters when they get the chance to travel. So one day he was in the hotel elevator with one of his bandmates and the bandmate was telling him that the “Diva” was full of it. That the previous day he’d been out shopping at a bargain basement place, and not only did he spot Miss Fancy Pants there who claimed she wouldn’t be caught dead in cheap clothes, but she was actually INSIDE the $2 box of reduced clearout shoes hunting for the best deals!!! When they got to the ground floor, the Diva was there and he just said “El Cajon” (The Box) when they walked past her. She didn’t know she’d been spotted buying cheap shoes, so couldn’t figure out what the reference was all about. They just left it at that.  

The fad nowadays is to have a cell phone. If you’re a young person and you don’t have a cell phone, well you’re just behind the times. Not that many young people in Cuba or students actually earn enough to be able to pay their own bills. But it’s a status symbol. A matter of wants trumping needs. And the younger generation is fixated on brand names too. If you don’t buy Adidas or Nike shoes, then your peers will probably not look very favorably upon you. It’s sad really, since the generation that preceded them was of a much higher moral caliber.

Cubans have always been well-dressed, proud of their appearance and very clean in terms of personal hygiene. If they can’t afford to buy new clothes in the “shopping” then they hunt around for used ones that are fashionable, well-fitting and in line with their budget. Or have a seamstress make their clothes. And they are ever so conscious of the quality of footwear. I remember a guide friend of mine once commenting that one of my clients must be very poor. The client was a university professor, very well-spoken and on a relatively expensive holiday so I asked him why he thought that. He asked me if I’d not seen the old beat-up sneakers he was wearing riding his bike all week. Ha! It’s funny where a society places its priorities and how someone else’s eyes may judge you. A Cuban may live in a tiny house in a bad neighborhood, but he will be presentable when he walks in public.

Maybe some of the young people in Cuba today have been influenced by their traveling family from Miami. Some of them have very poor living conditions in the USA, but wouldn’t dream of letting their families in Cuba know that the American dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. So they rent thick gold chains and spend gobs of money renting upscale Audis or Mercedes Benz cars on their 1-week holiday in Cuba and the impression they create is that they’re living the high life. Meanwhile, they might be struggling to make ends meet, working 3 part time jobs and living in a rented room somewhere back in the States.

A lot of parents in Cuba nowadays are struggling to instill good old fashioned values in their children. Work hard, study, be modest, live within your means. It’s a tough job to convince them that the future will eventually turn around since the values of their generation have been corrupted. But I commend their efforts. The 40-somethings of Cuba lived in very different times than today’s youth. I hope that they are successful in imparting the same moral lessons they learned to their offspring.

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