BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune

HAVANA, Cuba - (KRT) - Dressed in a pink flowing gown and glittering crown, the girl stood at the entrance to a huge ballroom where friends and family waited to celebrate her 15th birthday.

The lights were cut. The girl walked in. And then a single spotlight shone down on her. The crowd fell silent before erupting into applause.

Held at a swank hotel, the 15th birthday celebration - known here as los quince_easily cost more than $1,000 in a country where the average salary is $8 to $12 a month. No longer uncommon, such lavish parties illustrate one of the great changes in Cuba in recent years: the emergence of an economic elite.

“This day is more important than her wedding,” said the girl’s proud father. “She goes from being a girl to a woman.”

The father added that his elderly mother flew in from Miami and helped pay for the affair, which featured a 3-foot-long, double-decker cake along with a champagne toast, balloons dropping from the ceiling and a buffet and drinks for dozens of guests.

At one point, photographs of the birthday girl were projected on a giant screen, showing her at different stages of life along with images of the actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the film “Titanic.” Later, six girls in matching black hot pants and bikini tops danced in unison with their white-suited partners as the invitees looked on.

Once widespread in Cuba, the quince became low-key after the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution, when the country’s new leaders discouraged the ostentatious display of bourgeois customs.

But in recent years the quince has returned with a vengeance.

For rural Cubans, the celebration means selling a pig, taking a few photographs of the birthday girl and holding a street party with homemade brew. Others hire a professional photographer to shoot the girl in colonial-style dresses, a bathing suit, bathrobe and other attire and also produce a video.

For Cuba’s wealthy few, the quince involves hiring a choreographer, room designer, videographer, disc jockey, makeup artist, hairstylist and others to throw an elaborate party at a five-star hotel or upscale restaurant.

It is not uncommon to see birthday girls riding through Havana in horse-drawn carriages, gleaming Mercedes-Benzes or vintage Chevrolets.

At one Havana party, the honored 15-year-old was clad in a see-through robe and rose from a bed in the middle of a ballroom as her mother serenaded her symbolically into womanhood.

All this in a country that prides itself on equality, where leaders exhort citizens to work and sacrifice, where people speak of “La Lucha,” or the struggle, as much to describe the daily battle to put food on the table as the fight against imperialism.

“Since 1990 there has emerged more economic inequality in Cuba,” said Rev. Raul Suarez, a Cuban lawmaker and leading Baptist preacher. “Some people have more purchasing power than others.”

Suarez said Cuban officials are trying to temper the growing disparity by helping the poorest even as the country faces a continuing economic crisis that began more than a decade ago with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

After losing its main trading partners and huge annual subsidies, a bankrupt Cuba was forced to open its economy to tourism, foreign investment and limited private enterprise. Cubans began scrambling for dollars as the country’s social safety net began to sag and the purchasing power of wages fell dramatically.

Much of the new money is generated by Cubans working in the tourist industry, the profits from a small but vigorous entrepreneurial class and the estimated $1 billion in cash sent by Cuban-Americans annually to relatives and friends on the island.

Artists, sports figures, black marketers and others have joined this privileged group, which represents a source of social tension.

“Between 10 and 15 percent of Cubans have resources far superior to the rest,” said Pedro Monreal, a University of Havana economist. “This will cause problems for the young because they are able to see that higher education and high work skills are not important for living better.”

A Cuban psychologist now earns five times her state salary by working weekends baby-sitting the children of foreigners. A physician earns more than 10 times his official salary by shooting photographs of quinces in the back yard of a luxurious private home.

“That’s nothing,” said the doctor-turned-photographer. “There are physicians working as taxi drivers who earn 20 times what they could make in a clinic. There are doormen or bartenders at hotels who earn 100 or 200 times more.”

Cuba’s nouveau riches spend $10 or $15 on a meal at Palenque, a packed outdoor pizza parlor and grill in an upscale Havana neighborhood. They buy Italian prosciutto, Norwegian salmon, American chicken and other imported food at Palco, a high-end supermarket that accepts only dollars.

They enjoy evenings at nightclubs featuring fashion shows and relax during the day at Club Havana, a beachside resort open to foreigners and Cubans working for overseas companies.

The elite have cellular telephones, access to the Internet and the ability to purchase a car - all of which are out of reach to all but a few other Cubans with top state positions.

Then there are the lavish quinces, which have caused disillusionment among some young Cubans who grew up believing theirs was a classless society.

“It makes me sad because we were taught that there are no differences, no inequalities,” said Jimena Codina, 17, who has attended more than two dozen quinces in the past few years. “Now we realize it’s not that way. The quinces demonstrate the differences.”

But others say the quince is a legitimate and enjoyable rite of passage regardless of economic differences.

“This only happens one time in my life,” explained Katia Martinez, who was getting photographed and videoed for her quince. “It’s like a dream come true.”

Fathers often begin saving for the quince at the birth of a daughter. Family members, friends and neighbors often kick in extra money. Table settings, colonial-style dresses, elaborate heart-shaped balloons, special goblets for toasts and other luxuries are sometimes flown in from Miami.

With some teenagers attending two or three parties a week, a whole industry has developed around the celebration, with Cubans opening dress rental and photography shops. Others fashion the gigantic cakes that are de rigueur.

One businesswoman involved in quinces said the number of business competitors in her Havana neighborhood has increased 15-fold in the past eight years.

“It’s booming,” said another woman who produces photographs and videos for quinces. “The quince is the way people show their status.”

The frenzy has left even privileged Cubans stressed out.

“They want, want, want. Each day the kids want more,” said one anxious father who works for a foreign company and is preparing for his daughter’s quince. “It’s part of being human.”