Cuba’s Brain Drain and its Middle Class

Approximatel 125,000 Cubans entered the US between April and October 1980, a period of time that became to be known as the Mariel Boatlift.

Cubans, especially the young, are leaving their home country at an unprecedented rate. According to Pew Research 43,159 Cubans arrived in the United States in 2015. This was a 78% increase from the prior year. Not all Cubans that attempt to enter the U.S. make it. According to the U.S. Coast Guard they intercepted and sent back 2,505 Cubans in 2015.

There are many that believe these Cubans are trying to get into the US before the cancellation of the wet foot dry foot policy. Under this policy a Cuban is automatically granted residency once they put a foot on US soil. The Obama administration has emphasized there is no intention to change the wet foot dry foot policy.

It is my belief that this is very much a brain drain. If it were simply the wet foot dry foot policy it would not explain the other 30,000 Cubans that left for Europe or Latin America. Cuba is developing rapidly, but there are still not enough opportunities for highly educated citizens.

Government jobs are contracting at a rapid rate due to the lack of money to pay employees, leaving employment from private companies or entrepreneurship the only way to earn money. While tourism is expanding, not everyone finds joy in the approved forms of private employment.

This is leading to a rather interesting conversation among Cuban families, should I stay or should I go?

It is so obvious that Cuban opportunities are getting greater every day. I was in Cuba in November of 2015 and returned at the end of February 2016 and the changes were palpable.

The middle class of Cuba is growing at a very fast clip, and not just in the big cities.

But the government is still communist and oppressive. Coupled with the lack of employment opportunities for the highly educated, these types of decisions are being forced upon the young.

I have often spoken of the fact that if a revolution occurs in Cuba it will not be one of guns and bullets, but one of capitalism.

This is born out by the Cubans themselves. There is a marvelous quote in Nick Caistor’s, Fidel Castro, where a gentleman says “We’re not comunistas anymore, we’re consumistas ”.

The incredible flow of tourists to Cuba, bolstered by the relaxed relations with America is bringing much needed hard currency into this small island.

There are 201 authorized business in Cuba at this time. Those Cubans with the resources, often money sent from relatives abroad, are using this opportunity to raise their living standards and bring themselves into the middle class by opening a business.

The most logical of these is to rent rooms in your home to tourists, open a restaurant, drive a taxi, or pose for tips in the busier sections of town as a Dandy, or a Habanera, (a man or woman dressed in Colonial garb). These are the most lucrative as they bring in the hard currency, the CUC.

While entrepreneurship is to be praised on any level, a hair braider, or fresh fruit peeler, both accepted businesses, will not necessarily place the business person in front of the tourist trade that buys in CUCs.

Like any form of growth, these more obscure jobs will become profitable when the Cuban’s themselves have the CUCs to buy the services of a fortune teller or an eyeglass repairer.

This will also be when the well educated will be given chances. With no Internet, what is the point of a computer programmer? With no petroleum for items such as fertilizer or tractors and combines, what is the point of a degree in Agricultural Sciences? With no new construction, due to lack of funds and materials, what is the point of being an Architect? These are the young people fleeing the island.

They wrench their family apart. I spent two nights with a mother sobbing in her rice and beans. This is a brain drain and it has happened throughout time and across nations, it is not new.

It is only interesting to Cuba in that it is occurring at a time where economic growth is actually beginning to take hold.

This growth is not exactly evident, there is not much to spend ones money on in Cuba. Pets and Television sets are the most elaborate way to splurge, but shoes and underwear, while more logical, aren’t as easy to find. So at this point, it has been my observation that much of the money earned is stashed under the mattress, rather than being spent on services provided by others, all waiting to be put to use when more options are available.

I find it so ironic, while I live in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and watch as the middle class has all but disappeared, I travel to Cuba quarterly to witness a growing middle class.

Government experts can expound all they want on the world economy and American Cuban trade policies, but in reality the statistics in all these reports represent human beings, and their daily struggle, leaving far too many required to ask, should I go or should I stay?