Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Cuba's Mounting Inequality

Warming relations with the United States brings new money and tourists to Cuba whose economy grew by 4 percent in 2015 with more than 3.5 million tourists visiting the island in the year. New hotels and restaurants are opening. Cubans with money to invest in businesses have seen living standards improve.

But with no access to capital, and no family living abroad to send back money many black Cubans are being excluded from the benefits of economic liberalization. Local residents and analysts are concerned about the gap between the haves and have-nots and the ethnic undertones of growing inequality on the island. Black Cubans like Miguel Campuzano Perez say racial inequalities are widening and they are being left out of a potential capitalist boom. “The black people don’t have powerful families, and that continues generation to generation,” Perez, a musician and former soldier explained. “The people benefiting from remittances are white; the landlords are white.”

Just under 10 percent of Cubans identified themselves as black in the country’s 2012 census. But statistics on Cuba’s racial makeup are imprecise as more than a quarter of the population is a mix between various ethnic groups. African slaves, primarily from West Africa, were brought to Cuba by Spanish colonizers from the 1500s to work on the sugar plantations. Slavery was formally abolished on the island in 1886 but blacks were still banned from some high-end establishments and excluded from well-paid, and most Afro-Cubans worked on plantations or as manual labourers.

Free education and healthcare programs from the communist government helped made it possible for previously disadvantaged groups to get jobs as teachers, doctors or government workers. “Afro-Cubans have been the biggest reservoir of support for the revolution and are those most affected by worsening inequality,” Paolo Spadoni, a political scientist at Augusta University in the United States.

Today, outright discrimination isn’t the main cause of the growing wealth gap between blacks and whites, Havana residents said. Rather, migration networks, remittances and broader economic changes are the driving factors. Much of the island’s predominately white business elite left following the revolution with many settling in Miami, Florida.

“The vast majority who left to live abroad happened to be white Cubans,” said Isaac Saney, a Canadian university professor who researchers ethnic issues in Cuba. “They are sending remittances home and their relatives can invest in small businesses. This has led to an increase in racial inequality,” he pointed out.

In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, ravaged the island’s economy, making life particularly difficult for residents who didn’t have family members abroad. The average salary for a government worker, about $25 per month, has lost three quarters of its purchasing power since 1989, Spadoni said. While poorly paid, many state workers continue to receive other perks like subsidized food, and accommodation. Cuba has two currencies – the Cuban peso which is paid to state employees and is worth about $0.04 and the Convertible Peso, which is worth one US dollar. In the pursuit of foreign currency, professors left university jobs to work as hotel waiters and doctors took to driving taxis.

Some black Cubans say they have trouble getting comparatively lucrative jobs in hotels, because of discrimination. “You need to be white to get good work,” said Daniel Alberto Suarez, 42, an informal tour-guide. “Hotel and bar owners are making good money, but for regular people life is hard. I have no family abroad to send me money.”

A raft of economic reforms beginning in 2008 made it easier for Cubans to open private businesses, intensifying the importance of remittances as start-up capital.

Miguel Hernandez, who has light skin, manages a restaurant popular with foreigners in old Havana earning $100 per day, a large salary by local standards. “There is a lot of inequality between my friends who work for the state, and me who works in tourism,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “People will study to be a doctor, hang the title on the wall, then go work in a restaurant.”

“We need keep the ideas of the revolution: free education, healthcare, taking care of the elderly and racial equality,” Maria Luz Fernandez, 52, a primary school administrator, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Earning $40 per month, Fernandez, who is of mixed race ancestry, is well aware she earns less than young waiters from her neighbourhood. With more foreign money coming into the economy, she hopes the benefits will trickle down, and teachers and other state employees will eventually see higher salaries. “The government needs to share the new wealth with the people.”

 SOYMB doubts that will happen

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