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Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies

Abel Contreras chats with North Carolina A&T State journalism professors Gail Wiggins and Linda Callahan in the living room of the apartment he shares with his mother, an artist. His uncramped quarters are the envy of many Cubans.

Cubans want middle class to be built on achievements as well as income

By Tonyaa J. Weathersbee
Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies

HAVANA – By Cuban standards, Abel Contreras de la Guardia is living large.
He lives on the top floor of a 65-year-old building in the Old Town section of the city. The only person he shares it with is his mother – a luxury considering the fact that housing shortages often means generations of Cuban families wind up being packed into sparse quarters.

Contreras has lived there for 10 years. It’s a step up, he said, from where he lived before: On the ground floor of an even older place.

“An old house is like an old lady,” said Contreras, who is 37. “You have to put more makeup on it every year, and building materials are not cheap in Cuba.”
His kitchen countertop boasts gadgets such as a blender and a water purifier. In the living room is a color television; in his bedroom a computer, a CD player, a collection of jazz music, and a window air-conditioner.

“People have their priorities,” Contreras said. “I hate the heat.”

Yet Contreras, who works as a guide for Havanatur – a state-run tour company here – is reluctant to say that his accumulation of non-cramped quarters, creature comforts and a job that allows him to earn money that dwarfs that of the average Cuban worker makes him part of a burgeoning middle class.

That’s because in Cuba, class was never supposed to be measured by income, but by achievement.

“Actually, a lot of people are confused about socialism,” Contreras said. “Socialism has social classes. They are supposed to be intellectuals, workers and farmers.

But even Contreras admits that since the introduction of the Cuban convertible peso  – which was created in the early 1990s to help Cuba pay off its foreign debt in hard currency following the fall of its main economic partner, the Soviet Union – they’ve seen the re-emergence of class based on income and possessions.

Cubans like Contreras, who have access to the Cuban convertible peso – known as CUCS – can buy more goods and services than those who only have access to Cuban pesos, which is known as CUPS. That is the currency that’s used for most domestic transactions, including the payment of salaries.

CUCS are worth 24 times more than CUPS. And the Cubans who get CUCS tend to be those who work in the tourism industry, or who receive money from relatives and friends abroad.

This situation doesn’t sit well with many Cubans who are doctors and other professionals who have worked hard to achieve their class status as defined by the socialist system, Contreras said.

“You can be a medical doctor, and have a specialty and seniority working in a hospital, but if you’re working in a tiny hospital in the middle of nowhere, with no access to Cuban convertible pesos, that makes a big difference,” he said.
Those who are able to get a regular flow of convertible pesos are able to live a better life than those who can’t, regardless of the educational and professional status they achieve in Cuba’s socialist society.

That’s because unfortunately, 95 percent of the Cuban workers get their salaries in Cuban pesos, and virtually all big ticket items – and many of life’s necessities – have to be purchased with convertible pesos.

A view of Abel Contreras' possessions. Contreras, a guide for Havanatur, can afford them because unlike most Cubans, he has access to convertible pesos, which are worth 24 times more than regular Cuban pesos.

Said Contreras:  “For me, it can be a luxury item. But toothpaste, a pair of shoes, cooking oil and toilet paper, those are necessities that have to be bought in CUCS. So all of the people who work for foreign companies or hotels, they get a bonus that could be earned in Cuban convertible pesos. That makes a big difference for them.”

Contreras said that while he is paid in CUPS, his job enables him to earn CUCS. And the CUCS allow him to have a more comfortable lifestyle than many other Cubans. But for Contreras, comfortable doesn’t mean fulfilled.

That’s because he has degrees in English and French from the University of  Havana. He’s taught at the university, and he’d like to be able to do more with what he’s learned rather than pin his hopes for a better life on the tips he gets from tourists.

 “At the university, my salary was 1.30 in U.S. dollars,” Contreras said. “ One dollar equaled 108 Cuban pesos. My salary was 198 Cuban pesos.

“ That’s not normal…it (getting a degree)takes a lot of time, study and sleepless nights, and when you finish the university, you think you’re going to be dependent on your work. But you’re dependent on tips…that’s almost like charity.

“I love what I do. I would love to have my standard of living raised. But I would love to have my standard of living dependent on my work, my efforts and my salary, and not on the goodwill of my clients.”

The government, however, may be heeding the angst of Cubans who are trying to make their desires for a better life square with the goals of the Revolution and their ideas of personal dignity and fairness.

In 2008, egalitarian salaries were abolished in Cuba, making it possible for the most productive workers to be rewarded a minimum 5 percent bonus on their base salary. Managers could earn a 30 percent bonus if their team increased its productivity.

Some observers hailed the change as a small, but necessary improvement.
Lizette Fernandez, a former dissident, told The Guardian, “If  you worked in an office in Cuba, you often got paid the same as the person who cleaned the office. Slow and lazy people got the same or even more, because the bosses got their jobs through political connections and didn't do any work.”

Also in 2010, Cuban president Raul Castro announced plans to allow the nation’s private sector to expand. He did that, in part, because the global economic crisis has made it tough for the Cuban government to support its cradle-to-grave welfare system. Around 250,000 people were allowed to start businesses or to seek their own employment.

That change could make it possible for more Cubans to get access to CUCS.
Yet Contreras believes that the key to creating a middle class in Cuba that rewards people for their intellectual achievement – which is what the Revolution was supposed to do – as opposed to rewarding them for being in contact with foreign tourists, is to eliminate the dual currency system.

He acknowledges, though, that such a change isn’t simple.

“We pay for electricity in Cuban pesos, but if we have to pay it in CUCs, that’ll be a lot of money,” Contreras said.

Still, he said: “My dream is that we have only one currency. I know that the Cuban economy isn’t at that point right now.”

But still he yearns for a better future for his country.

 “We’re dreamers in Cuba. If you are able to dream, it means that you are still alive,” he said.

 “I can tell you my dream. I would like for the people in my society to have the same amount of social benefits that they have now…with a free market.

“ I would like to find the right balance for the great amount of social benefits that we fought to have in Cuba, especially for the black people like me, and my parents, but if you have to work 24 hours a day, you should be able to live better than someone that hasn’t worked any hour in their life.”

Index of IFAJS Special Report: Cuba in Black and White