My New Business and Activism Situation for a Better Cuba

What I am selling.

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

HAVANA TIMES – I’ve started up a new business since December. A snack bar in my front doorway. Oficially, it’s a cafe, as that’s what we call any small or large business that sells food in a fixed place. But I still haven’t sold coffee. I resell imported candy sold on the Internet by vendors, drinks, and anything else that pops up during this crisis, as it’s very hard to find the raw materials you need to work and they’re super expensive.

Honestly though, everything is crazy expensive and it’s really hard for me to keep my cool with my children, who innocently believe that I can afford these products because I sell them, that we can eat them as we please. Even though it’s not the same, it’s something like when state-led establishments that sell products are so expensive have a couple of soda cans puncture or the plastic of a packet of candy rips, and even though you make the most of it, you lose a whole day’s or several days’ profits.

Setting up this business is an alternative to the inevitable struggle to survive. You can only make a living from independent journalism in Cuba if you are a free electron, if you don’t have the responsibilities, aside from the pleasures, of a family. Even if you want to fully dedicate yourself to journalism and even be a civil society activist for the better Cuba many want, the responsibility of looking after children overcomes this desire and forces us to dedicate a valuable part of our time that could be for the cause, to sorting things out that would be trivialities elsewhere, but are essential for our survival here.

When I started writing as a journalist with Havana Times in 2015, thanks to the opportunity Circles Robinson gave me, I already had a wife, two young daughters and a stepson. I already had State Security’s target on my back and they were keeping a close eye on me because I believe in democracy as a reason for reforming the system we have today, at least.

I was soon unable to work with state institutions without bending down on one knee, so I explored opportunities to collaborate with another platform and Diario de Cuba gave me a chance. I have remained loyal to these two media outlets ever since, and they form part of my family. Aside from work relationships, you create friendships, build professional admiration and ethics, and a sense of belonging.

The truth is though, I’m enterprising at heart (despite my intellectual tendencies), it runs through my veins, like energy or a vision. A short while after working in journalism, I started up a business with a friend and one of my nephews to record the Weekly Package of audio-visuals, as I needed to cover my own needs and wanted to improve my living conditions, of course.

It started going really well, then they came and searched my house, took away all of my means to write as a journalist and locked me up 100 kms away, surrounded by dangerous criminals, and they also dismanteled this business. We couldn’t start it up again because it didn’t really make sense to do so under the same threat.

So, I decided to put all of my energy into agriculture, as it was more your own and apparently free of the State, and I worked on the half-hectare plot my father has. I started up a tobacco farm for export after a lot of work because of red tape from the only company that controls this crop, Tabacuba. While I don’t like to be paranoid, if I had good results in practice as a farmer, I wasn’t able to bring in a healthy financial return because of the company’s management.

I earned the respect of other farmers, who came to consult me, they used me as an example and they admired my harvest, but I didn’t have a good experience dealing with a state-led company that has to sell it. As I don’t like to say anything without supporting evidence, I attribute this whole problem to the poor operation endemic to Cuban state-led companies and not to an interest “hidden away in the shadows” that didn’t want me to do well financially, like everyone around me thinks.

Forced by high living costs today and my eldest daughter about to turn 15 years old, I’ve taken a risk and started up a snack bar in my doorway. They only really allow you to do this inside your home, red tape stops you from doing it outside. It’s going quite well because I have a knack for selling, which people call “people skills”, but the reality is it takes up a lot of my time.

Every day, I wake up wanting to write to finish or start a new article for the media platforms I publish on, or to go out and look for information or an important photo, but I have to put it off a lot of the time. It’s impossible to find time when I have to go out looking for one or two products. It’s even hard for me to keep up-to-date with the news and politics, which is my passion. That’s the sad part. I need over 30 hours in the day, at least.

Survival stops me from fully giving all of my energy to Cuba and everything it holds me prisoner to. I know for sure that if “those watching over me” were bothered by an article of mine, which I manage to write between selling a soda or peanut butter, they’ll come again and break up this business. It’s easy for them because the line between legal and illegal here is very blurry.

The irony is that official discourse paints us as mercenaries on a payroll, people who aren’t driven by ideals but in search of financial benefits instead. My personal experience has at least taught me that one of the Achilles’ heels of this battle for democracy is that being an opposition member of civil society is perhaps the worst road in financial terms, with a few exceptions. When we embark on this path, we do so out of conviction, and we have to give up many things.

You need to be loyal, obedient and go unnoticed in order to make the most of the few opportunities the system gives you, in the state-led or private sector. Likewise, you need money in order to make the most of the opportunities the US Government gives you to support the struggle for democracy, mainly emigrating through the new channels open, online businesses that the US uses as a bridge or trying to get a visa to travel to this country or others, which as an opposition member you won’t be able to do if you are prohibited to travel.  

Even the refugee program was suspended and solidarity of fellow Cubans in the North is being sold for gold, on the social media stock market. In short, there isn’t any real loophole for a member of the opposition, an independent journalist or civil society activist, who is much more tired and needs to escape more than those who haven’t dared to do this and are able to use this migration route without any drama.

Diaz-Canel is calling for “creative resistance” from his followers to keep the system afloat, but you need a lot more to be in this battle for a new Cuba and not pass out, be crushed, or lose heart in the process.

Holding your head high, finding solutions, understanding that the battle is longer than what a human might endure, and even waiting, even for these shortcomings, and not letting yourself be manipulated by the Tyrians or Trojans, is the path I feel is the most noble. Finding a balance to survival without giving up on your ideals and your duty to the Homeland. Still working for a better Cuba without neglecting your family, with the faith that things will be different one day in the not-too-distant future. 

Read more from Osmel Ramirez here.

Osmel Ramirez

I'm from Mayari, a little village in Holguín. I was born on the same day that the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. A good omen, since I identify myself as a pacifist. I am a biologist but I am passionate about politics, history and political philosophy. Writing about these topics, I got to journalism, precisely here on Havana Times. I consider myself a democratic socialist and my main motivation is to try to be useful to the positive change that Cuba needs.