Cuba's New Class, The Tourist Divide (a brief history and theory by this non-historian)


Cuba: Communism. Revolution. Rebels. Fidel. Rations. Embargoes. We all have an idea of Cuba and how things operate there, but I'm guessing that much like myself before I arrived, a lot of those ideas are based mostly on popular opinion and outdated perceptions.

So I figured it would help to do at least a very little bit of reading on the current situation before embarking. I felt I didn't fully know enough, and I was right. Lucky for me, I also have a Cuban arm of my family now that I was able to prod for more info! And prod I did. But I also just observed.

a very brief history as I've come to understand it

Here's the long and short of what I learned: after the revolution in 1959 - until 1991 - Cuba operated as a communist country with a ton of backing and financial support from, most predominantly, the Soviet Union. Citizens received a minimal monthly pay cheque for any job done, and those pay cheques did not vary much between street cleaners and doctors (though there was and still is a difference in pay scale).

Additionally, each legally registered citizen of Cuba received rations that included rice, beans, toiletries, eggs, and a bit of meat. All of the stores, restaurants, taxis, theatres, etc. were national and therefore prices reflected the paying ability of the majority. Which is to say, everything was very cheap and though most Cubans lived without many extras, poverty was not considered to be at an extreme level. Everyone had access to free (and very good) education and health care.

However after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Russia was not so inclined to continue to help Cuba along and people got very poor, desperately poor, so so so poor (while others who were in with the government or top orders managed to fare quite well). And so to save his country from economic crisis of the tallest order, Fidel pushed tourism and instituted the dual currency system. A frankly smart move, but one not without its' inevitable alterations to the communist nation.

a new class system

Since then a new class system has slowly been emerging in Cuba, and it's based on who has access to the tourists - and their money - and who does not. Locals will do almost anything to get their hands on the CUC which is traded on par with the USD. Anyone with enough space in their homes to partition off a piece and rent it out to the tourists flocking in are making far and away more money than most regular professionals.

I think it would be safe to say that tourism in Cuba is creating a class divide among Cubans, where previously there was not much of one. But there's another divide happening, and that's the one between tourists and Cubans. Which, okay, existed from the get-go. But let me explain further.

In Cuba, tourists pay for everything with the CUC and Cubans pay for everything with the National Peso. Everything that tourists pay is marked up an incredible amount. Sometimes 20, 30 times higher or more. There are even certain places that may not accept the tourist currency (CUC) meaning that foreigners will have trouble accessing them, such as the local fruit and vegetable markets. This is rare, as Cubans are realizing that any chance to get a CUC is a chance to make a buck - pun intended ;-)

It makes a lot of sense.

Most tourists, for starters, earn just a ton more money than your average Cuban. The comparison isn't even fair. However, what it also seems to have led to is a culture of younger Cubans coming up with an expectation that tourists have TOO MUCH money, thus increasing chances of robbery but also of just being straight up asked for money.

This happened on several occasions on my first trip there (2 weeks), and while several of the people were polite when declined, we did get the odd person who was mad and spouted off to us about it. It seemed almost like the mentality of communism - share what you have - was taken to include tourists who obviously pay way more to visit Cuba than Cubans do to live there and therefore are not offered that "share" sentiment in return. It's difficult to explain how it felt to have someone be downright upset at you for not handing over some money.

Cuba's New Class, The Tourist Divide (a brief history and theory by this non-historian)

The idea, it seems, was that if we were there and already pumping money into the economy, we could afford and apparently owed them more on an ask-for-it-pay-it basis. This alarms me in terms of what is inadvertently being taught to Cuba's youth. And frankly just bummed me out a little.

Let me be clear: this wasn't ALL Cubans, by any stretch. But I note it because I was living in Nicaragua at the time, where the poverty is way beyond that in Cuba (and they actually have a strangely similar past that ended up in different places), and straight up asking for money almost never happens in Nicaragua. And so I'm curious as to why it's happening in Cuba and if maybe with an increase in tourism in Nicaragua, we could see that happening here.

I also think it speaks to the way Cuba was somewhat removed from the rest of the world for so long. I imagine that tourists being able to actually pay what seems like an extraordinary amount of money to a regular Cuban for a meal, a room, or anything really, just feels incredible and even overwhelming.

And perhaps that in and of itself might be my greatest criticism of the current dual-currency system and Fidel's re-imagined communism. Or ok, there are two:

One, that it's pushing the world on Cuba but Cubans still don't have access to the world in return. They're offered glimpses of a life that must seem extremely decadent in ways, yet have very limited access to internet and television, books or magazines, from outside of the Cuban bubble except as allowed by their, admittedly strong, educational system.

Two, the system no longer strikes me as pure communism. Yet Fidel, Cubans themselves, and much of the world still call it such. However if class divisions are steadily on the rise, and people without access to tourists are the new have-nots, if the universal rations have changed and decreased, and money can and will buy you a different life from your neighbour, can we still call it the same communism of twenty or thirty years ago?

I don't know. I'm no economist ;-) but it got me to thinking and so I'll leave you with your own thoughts on the subject. It's very interesting to see what and where Cuba will be another twenty years from now.

If you're planning a trip you might be interested in The Daily Cost of Travel in Cuba: A Budget Breakdown and The 20 Best Things To Do In and Around Havana.

What do you think? Am I way off-base or do you concur?