HAVANA TIMES — Jorge is 70 years old. He only has his dog Valiente at home to keep him company, as his three children have already married and have their own families, two of whom live in the capital. His wife of over 50 years passed away a while ago and solitude thought it could haunt him, but it couldn’t. He continues to fight to live because he knows that death is a sure thing.
After retiring, Jorge has done all kinds of jobs to support himself (because his pensioner’s cheque doesn’t pay for anything), from selling all kinds of things on the street, to working in the fields, a widely available job in his municipality.
However, this old man isn’t the only retired Cuban who watches his pension slip through his fingers as if by magic. Many pensioners don’t have any relatives to help support them and are forced to do a job here and there, depending on their possibilities and physical condition, to meet their very basic needs.
Some sell roasted peanuts or cigarettes, others work as guards, sometimes they are the neighborhood’s errand boys or girls, or they just continue to work in the same job they did when they retired (but now on their own terms and at their own pace, for example, farmers, builders, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, welders and a lot of other professions which people never really retire from) and this is how they get a few more pesos in their pocket which are always handy.
Ramon, Monguito, is someone else who fights for their survival. He dedicated 45 years of his life to Education, but as his pension has nothing to do with the great sacrifice he had to make working in the public sector for such a long time, he is now forced to sell agricultural products. His commitment to the education sector has left him with dozens of students turned professionals who lend him a hand where he would least expect it, but that that isn’t enough to put food on the table. After years of waking up at the crack of dawn, dealing with all kinds of children and parents, with different principals with their new education plans and sometimes ridiculous ideas, he now needs to continue on fighting for his survival because he no longer has the patience or wish to teach anymore, even though he has been approached many a time to join the ranks again.
Viviana is a housewife and even though she has never worked for the State, because she dedicated her life to raising her three children, she has always financially contributed to the family household. While her husband sweats blood and tears as a builder, she sews clothes for the street, she is also a manicurist and when she has some spare time, she makes coconut or milk turron to sell. If it wasn’t for her important contribution, sustaining their three children would be even harder and their needs increase as they grow and become more independent in a world that is becoming more and more material.
Edilberto is only 16 years old and his hands should be soft as those of any student, but, his hands are full of blisters and are sometimes unbearably painful. Even though he has devoted parents, he has to help them however he can as living is extremely expensive and to also give himself a little luxury here and there, without affecting the basic needs of the household, so he works as a builder’s assistant. This implies a great sacrifice and he knows this full well, just like his parents do, but he has no choice. On the weekend, he goes with an uncle to mix concrete, carry sand, stone or any other hard task that many builders have to do.
His friend Tonito, whose parents are also workers, who sacrifice themselves and are dedicated 100% to their family, also struggle for their money, but his work is much easier. His job involves rounding up people who want to top up their mobile phones every month (with top-ups from abroad which ETECSA offers) and he gets 1 or 2 CUC for every top-up made. Sometimes, he can get up to 40 people together and this brings him a greater reward than what his mother earns working 24 days per month for 24 CUC per month.
Raulito is another young man from the block who tries to earn a living without leaving school, as he would never do this to his parents, who only ask him to graduate from 12th grade, even if he doesn’t want to go on to study further education. In his case, his job is 100% outside of the Law; he just has to count money and keep accounts with his family’s banker friend, which doesn’t stand in the way of him studying at all, as he works nights and plus this gives him more money than any average worker’s salary.
There is also Nancy, a primary school teacher who has worked as such for over 30 years. She loves her job, but this love and dedication haven’t been enough for her to raise her three children and help them out with their own families now, which is why she has been forced to sell candies and other kinds of sweets to her own students and students in other classes in order to make up for her low wages. She has had more than one scare when a new school principal has come in and threatened to fire her from the school if they catch her selling. However, nothing happens in the end, even principals are aware that nobody can live off 700 pesos (27 USD) per month in this country, not even someone without children.
Angela is a specialist in General Comprehensive Medicine. She was lucky like many others in her field to go on an international mission as soon as she graduated, and after working three years in Venezuela, she could buy a comfortable home, but she didn’t have enough money to buy electrical appliances, so she used some money she had left over from the mission (plus a little loan she had) to travel abroad and buy clothes to resell in Cuba. Thanks to this activity (which is currently one of the most lucrative in Cuba), she was not only able to buy everything you need to live, but along with her medical career (which is currently the best paid profession), she lives quite a comfortable lifestyle.
There are many things that ordinary Cubans do all over the island in order to survive in a country where wages are purely symbolic. I can name many other examples off of the top of my head: the person who sells clothes at their workplace, rum in the neighborhood or any other product in their home in the afternoons or weekend.
There are also those who bring in produce from the countryside which they buy for a low price and then resell them in the neighborhood and, of course, there are those who work with resources: read here, bodega ration store workers, butchers, waiters, administrators, store assistants… the list is very long, who just invent or adulterate prices and scales, stealing a little bit from everyone so they can have a little bit.
I hope these examples clear up a Canadian friend of mine’s doubt who has asked me on more than occasion: “How do Cubans get by?”