Nouveau riche blossoms in Cuba

A bartender prepares the glasses on the bar of a private restaurant in Havana, Cuba.
A bartender prepares the glasses on the bar of a private restaurant in Havana, Cuba.PHOTO: AFP

HAVANA (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - Eddy Relova used to scrape a living buying and selling goods in the street, but now he sits wearing a thick gold necklace at a posh restaurant in Havana.

State controls over Cuba's economy are gradually easing, unleashing a new class of moneyed consumers in a communist island where wealth is largely taboo.

Now, aged 23, Relova can sell jewelry as a private entrepreneur. His earnings have risen, making him one of these Cuban nouveaux riches.

"State-controlled work doesn't let you get anywhere," he said, sitting with his partner Valentina and their nine-month-old baby daughter.

Until recently, only a privileged few such as military officials, state company bosses, tourism workers or artists could afford cars or designer clothes. But since Raul Castro began a gradual process of opening up the economy after becoming president in 2008, upmarket bars and eateries in Havana have been opening and filling up.

"Every day, we see more Cubans coming here to eat," said Ernesto Blanco, 47, owner of the trendy La Fontana restaurant in western Havana, where the singing star Rihanna recently dined.

"There are more people working on their own account and I guess that's what makes it possible for them to come to eat in places like this."

The state still controls 80 per cent of economic activity on the island. But the other 20 per cent is making some Cubans relatively rich.

"We have seen this more clearly over the past four or five years, with the rise of private entrepreneurship," said Daybell Panellas, a psychologist at Havana University who has written studies about the phenomenon.

Studies estimate that about half a million people are now working in this new private sector and paying taxes on their earnings to the Cuban state. Panellas said the ones earning the most are restaurant owners, mechanics, landlords of rental properties and building entrepreneurs.

Another diner, Raul, 36, admitted his fortunes have improved since he has been able to work as a private taxi driver. He would not give his family name nor say how much he earns. Flaunting wealth is still taboo in an island that prizes relative social equality.

"It has improved our standard of living a bit," said Raul, sitting in a restaurant with his wife, whose numerous gold bracelets clinked when she moved. "It lets us buy things that are a bit more expensive" and travel more, he said.

Not all Cubans are ready to display their wealth. Some wait until nightfall to get their shopping bags out of the car, to avoid making their neighbors jealous.

"Being rich is not the rule in Cuba. Among the population at large, having a lot of money still carries a stigma," Panellas said.

They may still be far from the wealth of other more developed economies, but the trend is already raising the prospect of social tension.

The average salary on this Caribbean island is still no more than US$20 (S$28) a month.

"The opening up of private enterprise has driven a rise in inequality due to differences in income," said Panellas. "We have not lost our sense of solidarity and our social values, but people are noticing that without money their possibilities are limited. They are torn."

Jose Raul Colome, whose restaurant in central Havana serves 120 customers a day, said he tries to share his growing wealth around the neighborhood to avoid hostility - and offers people jobs whenever possible.

"We try to help the neighbors as much as we can," he said. "In a way, that doesn't do any harm."