Who Are the “Rich Cubans”? / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

Many immigrants come to Havana from the provinces, hoping to expand their narrow horizons (14ymedio)
Many immigrants come to Havana from the provinces, hoping to expand their narrow horizons (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 16 April 2015 — It is a fact that permanent poverty creates distortions in perception. The most obvious example is the value judgments we Cubans place on the supposed “riches” of some, based on a comparison with our own poverty, which is the general state of the nation.

It is common for people from the towns and cities of the provinces to see, in the country’s capital, the wealth that they themselves do not enjoy. Viewed superficially, any observer would say that Cuba is no exception in this, because it is well-known that the capitals of all countries absorb a great deal of the immigration from the diverse points of their own national geographies, attracted by better job prospects, cultural options and the many other possible opportunities that more developed and cosmopolitan cities have to offer.

But the distinctive feature in the Cuban case is that Havana, far from symbolizing a promised prosperity, or the eventual realization of the dreams of an immigrant from the interior, is an impoverished and ruined capital, whose only – and doubtful – attraction is that it is also the capital of tourism, of contraband and corruption, currently the most promising and immediate sources of moderately ‘juicy’ incomes for those who can’t count on the support of remittances from family members who emigrated abroad, and so it is a mecca for those fleeing the narrowest provincial horizons.

Havana is the city with the largest influx of international tourism and, in consequence, where there are the greatest number of prosperous private business, whose owners have been able to pull together a relatively large amount of capital and whose employees receive a remuneration greatly superior to that of state employees, and so enjoy a standard of living much higher than that of most Cubans. They have come to constitute a sector that perceives the overall atmosphere of mediocrity and poverty that permeates the island as a brake on their capacity to consume and their personal development.

The legal aberrations that make a Cuban from the provinces “undocumented” in the country of their birth, have resulted in a profound cynicism among social sectors

Aside from the proliferation of restaurants, cafes, beauty salons, or rooms to rent for foreign tourists, along with the shady domestic operators, the extensive capital geography offers refuge and anonymity to the provincial immigrants who survive in a precarious balance of double illegality: that conferred by the law (Decree 217) – which expressly forbids those who have no address or job in the capital to remain there beyond a certain length of time; and that which derives from this: the inability to legally get a job without a residence in the city. A closed circle that, with few exceptions, condemns to marginality and exclusion immigrants from the interior who decide to establish themselves in “the capital of all Cubans.”

The economic deformities, coupled with the social exclusions and the legal aberrations that make a Cuban from the provinces “undocumented” in the country of his or her birth, have resulted in a profound cynicism among social sectors based on their place of birth, their access to advantageous jobs or the ability to start private businesses and their ability to consume.

Thus, a fragment of “new rich” has arisen, representing those who have some means of income several times greater than the average Cuban’s, that sees themselves as a group distinct from that marginal and miserable mass, often forced to break the law to guarantee their survival.

However, in an economy in ruins, where there are no legal guarantees for anyone, where the laws of the market are barely a joke and the authorities have total control of lives and property, it is absurd to speak of a “growing class of rich Cubans.” At most, we could be facing a proto-entrepreneurial class that fights to sustain itself and defends a limited private space in the face of eventual and real changes that will allow them to really soar; but which is starting to socially distance itself from the most socially disadvantaged and create their own niches.

If some class is “growing” in Cuba, it is that of the excluded and extremely poor.

If some class is “growing” in Cuba, it is that of the excluded and extremely poor. In the interior of Cuba poverty has increased, there is almost zero access to the Internet, fewer cell phones, and infinitely greater problems with transportation, food, water and electrical systems, not to mention medical or other services. But this does not make the capital an emporium of riches that spontaneously or naturally despises immigrants from other provinces.

It is the Government itself that exiles the immigrants who come to the capital, deporting them to their places of origin, which deprives them of their rights as citizens of the Island. The Government, moreover, restricts the rights of all of us, denying our economic, political and social freedoms addressed in the United Nations covenants, signed by Cuba in February 2008, but never ratified.

The disdain of many Havanans toward those they call “Palestinians” – in reference to their ‘statelessness’ – born in the eastern provinces where major poverty and lack of opportunities are concentrated, is just a sample of the contempt that the Government itself feels for all Cubans. They encourage grudges between us when we have an executioner in common.