Ileana Sánchez searched meticulously through her worn purse for cash to buy a small blackboard for her 7-year-old granddaughter, who dreams of being a teacher when she grows up.
It took months for her to save enough money to cover the cost of the toy, roughly 525 Cuban pesos, because her salary as a government inspector is only 315 pesos per month and she has no other income.
Cuba’s National Statistics and Information Office, known as ONEI, recently reported that the island’s monthly median salary rose to 740 pesos, about $32 at an exchange rate of approximately 23 pesos to $1. But the increase does not represent a noticeable improvement in the life of the Cuban worker.
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“I don’t know who earns that kind of money or where they get that number, because even by adding the salary of my husband, who works in the food industry and earns 240 pesos per month, and mine, we don’t make that much,” said Sánchez.
According to the report, the mean salary has been affected by large hikes in some “strategic” sectors such as health, where wages have more than doubled, even as salaries in other sectors have remained stable for more than a decade.
“The salary is not enough for anything. If you buy food, you can’t buy clothes. And if you buy clothes, you can’t eat,” said Sánchez, who lives in the south-central city of Cienfuegos.
If you buy food, you can’t buy clothes. And if you buy clothes, you can’t eat.
Ileana Sánchez, Cienfuegos
Most Cuban workers can’t live off their state salaries, where the government controls the biggest chunk of the economy. Cuban ruler Raúl Castro himself has publicly acknowledged that wages “do not satisfy the needs of the workers and their families” and complained that some Cubans “have grown accustomed to stealing from the state.”
Sánchez said thefts from state shops, trucks and warehouses are a must because only those who have access to U.S. dollars or receive remittances from relatives and friends abroad can live well in Cuba.
“If you have no relatives abroad and you’re not a government official, you’re screwed,” she said.
Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a top Cuban-American economist who lives in Miami, said that any fluctuations in salaries should be weighted against the rate of inflation.
Although the nominal wages in Cuba rose steadily in recent years, their purchasing power remains 63 percent less than it was in 1989, when the economy began a nosedive following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its massive subsidies to the island ended.
Today, the mean salary barely buys 10 chickens per month.
Retirees are even worse off, said Mesa-Lago, because the purchasing power of their pensions currently stands at only16 percent of their level in 1989.
The median salary now buys only 19 hours of internet connection on the Wi-Fi hotspots established by the government around the country, or 84.5 minutes of local chatting on cellular phones.
A two-room apartment built in 1936 in the coveted Vedado neighborhood costs 98 years’ worth of median salaries, and a Soviet-made Lada vehicle manufactured in the 1980s would cost a worker 52 years of median salaries.
Remittances from Cubans abroad to relatives and friends on the island now total more than $3 billion a year — a gusher of money that has fueled the growth of the island’s real state market.
Sánchez said the low salaries explain why many people look for jobs in the state food or administration sectors, where they can skim products from the government, or tourism areas where they can come in contact with foreigners who have convertible currencies.
The possibility of stealing from the government has become more attractive to job seekers than the salaries themselves, experts say. Other coveted jobs are in private restaurants and B&Bs, where tourists leave tips.
The ONEI report noted that workers in the tourism and defense sectors have median salaries of 556 and 510 pesos respectively, although many of them receive bonuses paid in convertible pesos known as CUCs — which the ONEI report does not include in its calculations — and have access to special stores where prices are subsidized by the government.
The best-paid jobs, according to ONEI, include those in the sugar industry, with a median salary of 1,246 pesos per month, and in mining at 1,218 pesos. Among the lowest median wages are those in the education sector, at 533 pesos, and culture at 511.
EASTERN CUBA HAS LOWER SALARIES
For Miguel Roque, 48, a native of Guantánamo, the lower salaries in eastern Cuba are driving migration to other provinces. For the past two years, he has lived in Ciudad Nuclear, near a nuclear power plant in southcentral Cuba whose construction was abandoned when the Soviet Union collapsed.
“Eastern Cuba is another world. If life is hard here, you can imagine what it’s like there. Time stopped there,” he said. Roque works in construction in Cienfuegos but is hoping to move soon to Havana, “where there’s more work and you can achieve something.”
The provinces with the highest median salaries, according to the ONEI report, are Ciego de Ávila at 816 pesos, Villa Clara at 808 and Matanzas at 806, while the lowest are Guantánamo at 633 pesos and the Isle of Youth at 655.
Miami sociologist Elaine Acosta said the ONEI statistics confirm that the gap between eastern Cuba and the rest of the island has been growing.
“The wage increases in eastern Cuba are not enough to close the gap with the central and western provinces, and confirm the continuation of a pattern of territorial disadvantages linked to historical levels of underdevelopment,” Acosta said.
Acosta said that in the short and medium terms, those territorial wage inequalities may have “very negative consequences” for social stability because they strengthen “a pattern of territorial differences that generates vulnerabilities and exclusions.”
That can mean, for example, a larger proportion of poor people in some regions, she said.
“These wage differences can lead to an increase in social inequalities, aggravated by cuts to the budget for social services,” Acosta said. “It’s not a coincidence that the eastern provinces are the ones that have the lowest scores on the Human Development Index.”
Follow Mario J. Penton on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba
Mario J. Penton reported from Miami. Luz Escobar reported from Cuba. This article is part of an agreement between Havana-based 14ymedio and el Nuevo Herald.