If you want to make money in Cuba, join a band
If Jorge Guevara worked as a doctor in the US, he’d likely have a six-figure salary. But this is Cuba, and as a drummer hammering out tropical standards for sunburned tourists in the resort town of Varadero, Guevara earns several times more than he once made practicing medicine.
“In Cuba, we have an inverted socioeconomic pyramid,” says Guevara. Waiters make more than software engineers, a hotel bartender is more likely to go on a holiday abroad than a bank manager, and having a university degree typically doesn’t mean higher pay.
The reason? Call it the tip economy. After decades of socialism, economic mobility in Cuba depends not on one’s professional skills or rank but on how close one can get to tourists. And among the tip earners, musicians do particularly well, because they offer a product that foreigners want, both in Cuba and abroad.
Cuba’s cash crop
Cuba drips with music, from the songlike call of the cart vendor peddling wilted lettuce to the competing salsa blasting out of the open doorways of Old Havana. Son, rumba, danzón, conga, mambo, cha-cha-chá, Latin jazz… the list of Cuban rhythms (pdf) that have caught on locally and abroad goes on and on. Well before Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries marched into Havana, the island’s distinct sound was a world-class export.