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People, Social Structure

Prior to 1959, Cuba had sharp class divisions. The largest class was the peasants, who could barely support their families on the small plots of land they farmed. At the opposite end of the social scale was the handful of sugar mill owners, who enjoyed all the advantages of great wealth. Unlike most other Latin American countries, however, Cuba had a substantial middle class of lawyers, doctors, social workers, and other professionals. Industrial workers organized into very active unions, and they had a higher living standard than many workers in other Latin American countries. There was also a large group of fairly prosperous colonos, sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who grew sugarcane for the large mills under government protection. While Cuba’s social hierarchy allowed for some racial fluidity, the vast numbers of poor and uneducated people were people of color. Among these, the poorest were women of color.

Under Castro’s government, class divisions and social differentiations, such as elite education and membership in country clubs, disappeared. More equitable salaries, guaranteed housing, nationalized medicine and education, and employment for all leveled the social and economic hierarchy formed between 1902 and 1958. In protest, middle- and upper-class professionals left Cuba in large numbers between 1959 and 1962, which hastened the advent of a more socially level society. For instance, the income gap between peasants and urban workers narrowed as the government controlled wages and prices, and rationed commodities. After 1959, the highest-paid professionals, such as medical doctors who both practiced medicine and taught in universities, earned around 750 pesos per month, while unskilled laborers earned around 100 pesos per month. Prior to the revolution, successful sugar and tobacco growers were millionaires, while workers in their fields barely earned 160 pesos per month, and female domestic servants earned under half that amount.

However, the revolution did not eradicate all forms of privilege. Under the Castro government, people involved in the government, military, and the Communist Party formed a new privileged group. Although their salaries were maintained at a moderate level, they had access to better hospitals, homes, cars, and commodities.

Cuba’s success in creating a more even distribution of wealth became skewed when the government briefly loosened economic restrictions during the late 1970s. They loosened restrictions again in the 1990s when the government reintroduced small private enterprises and individual access to the U.S. dollar, which previously had been illegal in Cuba. In the 1990s differences in wealth were more noticeable than before, as some Cubans could purchase a wide variety of goods at special stores that accepted only dollars. Luxury items were also more accessible to citizens with dollars.

 

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