A Culture of Work and Illegality

Yenisel Rodriguez

Snack Seller. Photo: Caridad

There exist jobs that have remained outside the self-employment legalization process that the Cuban government is now implementing.  Many of these positions are related to food production and most of them require raw materials that cannot be acquired on the domestic Cuban market.

This situation prevents producers from obtaining essential raw materials through legal means. Nor can they use the argument of their product’s existence on the official market as serving to camouflage purchases of inputs made on the black market.

In this situation we can find the producers of carbonated soda.  This drink is in great demand in the country, just as it is in a large part of the world.  In Cuba there exists a homemade variety that is sold on the black market and costs less than a third of the commercial soda sold on the hard currency market for $1.50 CUC (almost $2 USD) for a liter and a half.

The technology behind homemade carbonated beverages is exceedingly ingenious.  It is sustained by an efficient network of collaboration and is highly adaptive.   To get their mini-industry going, a refresquero (the soda producer) needs a few essential items: an airtight metal tank, a refrigeration or cooling system, and a centrifuge or “burro” to take care of the mixing.

The tanks used to prepare the mixture are beer barrels that workers from the City of Havana Soda and Soft Drink Factory sell under the table for around 600 pesos each (about $30 USD).  So that these tanks can produce soda, they require the involvement of a plumbing expert, who assembles the pressure gauge, safety valves and taps.

Then, if the producer possesses enough capital, they can hire a cooling system technician to install the refrigeration coil.  Otherwise the producer will have to outfit a refrigerator to make ice or buy it from the government or back-alley icemakers, though there are those who also buy ice from their neighbors.  The centrifuges and the “burros” are made by blacksmiths.  Both accessories speed up the chemical reaction that gives the drink its fizz.

When we buy a carbonated soda in the neighborhood, we’re including ourselves in a socio-production chain in which all these people and professions enter.  Our ten pesos allow them to reproduce an extremely complex occupational and commercial structure, and it is one of such self-sufficiency that it guarantees that in a single neighborhood more than a thousand 1.5 liter bottles of soda can be consumed daily.

The refresqueros, by not being included in the legal self-employment possibilities, are seeing the economic potential of their work being limited even more.  Their culture of work will remain deformed, especially in its ethical aspect, a basic component of someone being satisfied with what they do for a living.

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