I frequently take the bus that goes by the Naval Hospital in East Havana. That prestigious medical center was built before the Revolution to attend to the needs of the navy, as its name implies.
Today the facility primarily serves the Revolutionary Armed Forces, but it also provides services to adjacent communities, including more distant areas such as eastern Havana and Matanzas provinces.
The provision of those services of course increases the need for transportation in the area; the result being that numerous bus routes converge with all types of people coming and going.
Among them are not only those seeking remedies to their health problems, but also the general public.
These, therefore, include out-care patients, those accompanying them, medical personnel, as well as the entire “floating” population in the area. All of these people share one thing in common: the need to eat during the time they’re either waiting for treatment or a bus.
That’s why when self-employment was authorized in 1990s, the walkway in front of the hospital was soon filled with food stands of all the sizes and colors offering orange juice, pastry, pizza, sandwiches, coffee, sodas, fried bananas, boxed traditional Creole takeout, etc.
The owners customized abandoned truck containers to house their small business. There was a great variety of food from which to choose, giving those of us who had to pass through the area a sure supply of snacks to curb our mounting hunger. I, for example, would go directly to the natural juice venders who sold glassfuls at the moderate price of only two Cuban pesos (about eight cents USD). This prevented me from having to quench my thirst with “instant sodas,” full of dubious chemical substances.
Then everything changed. One day, somebody from the State decided that the grounds surrounding hospitals was not an appropriate site for small businesses. The worker-vendors received the ultimatum that they leave the area or be forcibly removed.
It was promised that these would be substituted by State-run kiosks to provide quality food. Indeed, they put up some of these, offering a certain degree of specialization: ham sandwiches and a variety of snacks. One even sold food in hard currency and another was open 24 hours a day, though when the individually operated ones existed, several were open all night.
Instantly the natural juices disappeared and instant soda appeared… It remained this way for several months, though it was no longer the same as before. It was now always more of the same, repeated umpteen times. Gradually the variety declined until there were only about five or six standardized articles, almost always of poor quality. It came to the point that it was impossible to get not only juice, but any fresh drink in the area surrounding the Naval Hospital.
Several weeks ago came the kicker: the specialized State-run kiosks also disappeared, ceding their place to a single container complex providing even fewer choices.
Self-employment was re-introduced in Cuba at the beginning of ’90s (after its elimination in the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968; Cuba lived almost half of a century without small businesses). These businesses are basically non-exploitive operations with a single operator or, alternately, family-run businesses.
The sector includes the famous “paladar” restaurants, as well as photo services (one of the more prosperous branches of self-employment, for photographing traditional sweet-15s “quinceañeras” and weddings), and Havana’s emblematic ’50s US car taxis “almendrones” and rickshaw-like bicycle-taxis, etc.
This whole time, self-employed operators have been at the mercy of administrative decision-making, and there is no union or other organization of which they are a part. Everything moves through informal networks in the face of actions-sometimes unexpected-by the authorities.
The history of individually owned kiosks at the Naval Hospital clearly indicates to me that when “measures are taken” against this dynamic sector of our economy, not only do the producers lose, but also the consumers-which is to say the people as a whole.
So who wins?