Havana / AFP
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 percent of economic activity on the island. But the other 20 percent 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.