After more than 50 years of halted diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, President Barack Obama announced last year that the situation would finally start to normalize.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests,” he said in a speech at the White House.
The embargo, however, didn’t just fail to advance US interests. It turned Cuba’s social structure completely upside-down.
In Cuba today, native Cuban and renowned photographer Tony Mendoza tells Business Insider, waiters and artists sit at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. “It’s a hilarious society because … these people are the classes that are the wealthiest individuals,” he explains.
Ironically, Fidel Castro, equally a socialist and a nationalist, sought to elevate the working man — every working man. In reality, his rebellion in 1959 sparked years of political and economic suppression.
As a result, the incentive structure of Cuban society ended up being all wrong.
First of all, according to Mendoza, waiters in Cuba receive tips directly from tourists, which boosts their incomes. In general, tourism, a “nonstate” sector, is essential to Cuba’s economy. In 2012, 2.8 million visitors flooded the country, accounting for nearly $US3 billion in revenue. With the embargo lifting, American tourists can soon join the fun.
Similarly, Mendoza says Cuba has permitted artists to hold exhibitions abroad, free of the government’s watchful eyes. “They’re the cultural reps of Cuba,” Mendoza says. According to him, artists keep about 50% of their earnings.
“The embargo was a disaster because the people who were free of kissing the government’s arse and who were independent of the government salary were the wealthiest,” Mendoza adds.
Aside from those two careers, most people receive a state salary of $US20 a month. “Everybody has to break the law to survive. There is no more morality,” Mendoza explains. “Because $US20 is not enough.”
For example, if you work at a gas station, you might siphon off some gas during the day to sell later. Or contractors often steal concrete blocks. “Everybody does it,” Mendoza says.
In 1996, when Mendoza went back to his homeland for the first time since leaving in 1960, he flew into Santiago and hired a driver to travel to Havana. Not once did his driver stop at a gas station for fuel. He would pull up in front of random houses, make small talk, and then the resident would grab a small tank of gas and fill the car.
Julia Cooke also chronicled Cuba’s bizarre transformation in her 2013 book “The Other Side of Paradise: Life In The New Cuba.”
“In order to get any simple commodity, you have to figure who’s selling it, and who needs to be buying it,” she explained to NPR. One of her friends gave her the phone number of a black-market food provider who sold blue cheese, parmesan cheese, serrano ham, and smoked salmon.
At this point, Cuba didn’t really have a choice other than to kiss and make up with the US because the country’s entire economy perpetually sits on the brink of collapse.
“When I came back,” Mendoza says,” it was so clear to me that the embargo was a disaster, and it didn’t work.
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