The Criminalization of Trades in Cuba

Yenisel Rodriguez

Restoration workers. Photo: Caridad

Marcos is an electrician and a Jehovah’s Witness.  On his own, he learned a trade that today benefits from the “energy revolution” (the national campaign to conserve energy).

The government has employed thousands of electricians to put in place the maintenance infrastructure for high-efficiency electric home appliances that have been distributed over the last few years.

Marcos is also a businessman.  He’s able to provide constant and quality service six days a week.  He fixed my Russian fan while he gave direction to an 18 year-old pupil who was checking the coil on a Korean fan.  Marco’s porch is a veritable educational institution.

Before I paid for the repair of my fan, Marcos received a module of electronic components worth 1,300 pesos (about $65 USD).  During the time I was waiting for the repair of my appliance, around 350 pesos ($17.50) must have come into the workshop – and for here that’s doing business.!

This guy really impressed me. He has mastered his trade, and his friendly and courteous manner pleases his customers.

For the Cuban State, however, a trade is an attempt at behavioral reform through forced labor. In polytechnic schools, trades such as auto mechanics and carpentry have been reserved for students who are considered “difficult”.  Electronics, however, has had greater prestige, do to it being considered work that involves a higher intellectual level.

The criminalization of trades has resulted in the true culture of trades being found outside of polytechnic schools.  Though deteriorated, fragmented and dispersed, people have maintained a knowledge and a basic culture of trades, just like in any modern society.

On the porch of a private home, in the backyard of a warehouse, or in the garage of a building, the entrepreneur spirit of the Cuban worker flourishes.  It possesses a force and determination that can only be neutralized by the Cuban government’s tenacious anti-capitalist paranoia.

That’s why when some young person admits to me that they want to learn some trade, I advise them to go beyond the polytechnics, and that they avoid the pessimistic and aberrant atmosphere that persists in their broken-down classrooms.

“Hit the streets!” I tell them.

“Check out those who work under the table, or on top of it.  What’s important is that you work with motivation and enthusiasm.”

Yenisel Rodriguez

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez: I have lived in Cuba my entire life, except for several months in 2013 when I was in Miami with my father. Despite the 90 miles that separate Havana and Miami, I find profound reasons in both for political and community activism. My encounter with socio-cultural anthropology eight years ago prepared me for a commitment of love for cultural diversity.

5 thoughts on “The Criminalization of Trades in Cuba

  • The hierarchy of trades is somewhat different up here in the States. Now that the housing bubble has burst, many electricians and carpenters are “crying in the wilderness, ” whereas auto mechanics, especially good ones, are in high demand. (especially because most people, fearful of being laid off, are holding onto their old cars and having them repaired, rather than just trading them in every few years. Several years back, during the height of the housing boom, I tried to get an elctrician to come to my house, but all the electrical contractors in town were too busy working on condos and second/vacation homes. I finally had to recruit an uncertified apprentice to complete the work. Now it is a different story. In all trades there are incompetents–and downright crooks–but there are always those who are good at what they do and are honest (both qualities seem to go hand-in-hand). My auto mechanic originally received a Ph.D. in philosophy! Gradually, however, his avocation for fixing cars became his vocation, and now his reputation for excellence and honesty is known so far-and-wide that his customers have to book their repairs and tune-ups more than a month in advance (though he’s always willing to fit in emergencies). He also makes high demands on the skills and integrity of those he employs in his shop. Independent trades seem to be the de facto reality in Cuba, and have been so for some time. The government needs to recongize this fact and readjust the laws accordingly; otherwise, intertia just encourages contempt for the law.

  • It is encouraging to hear that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. I traded art while I was on Cuba, I depended on other skilled colleagues to restore porcelain and other pieces that I use to sell to foreigners along with authentic original pieces. On a way I was a “tombraider” looking for small treasures in the ancient ruins of Havana but also a business person trying to barter, and deal my way. I cannot tell you how many times I had to run to avoid been caught. My only crime was having American money, which was illegal at that time.
    I am proud to hear that the “black” REAL market is alive. We will need those people in order to rebuilt that great place we all call home

  • grok: May I ask you as a sincere socialist to trace the origin of the “state monopoly” of all the instruments of production to its original and still fundamental source: the Communist Manifesto of 1848. This document was drafted twice by the functioning capitalist intern Engels.

    Marx, a bourgeois intellectual from a rich family and with a rich wife, added his input and signature to the third and final draft.

    On the next to the last page of the second chapter is stipulates clearly that socialism should and would “concentrate all the instruments of production in the hands of the state.”

    This stipulation was counter to the cooperative concept of socialism that directly threatened the property of people like Engels, the banks and landlords. The cooperative concept envisioned retention of private property, but called for the direct ownership of the instruments of production by those who worked: cooperative industrial and commercial workers, peasants and small tradespersons.

    It’s true that you and I disagree on many things, but you have a moral and intellectual responsibility to review the Manifesto and this fundamental Marxian “principle.”

    State monopoly socialism comes directly from Engels and Marx. Stalin and others merely implemented and continued their stipulation. Please review the Manifesto and stop blaming Stalin for the core idea of Engels and Marx.

  • Yenisel: Modern cooperative socialism is at one with your praise of the “entrepreneur spirit of the Cuban worker.” It is tragic that a bourgeois moralistic form of socialism has dominated the socialist movement for a century-and-a-half that equates this spirit with capitalist exploitation. The entrepreneurial spirit can result in capitalist exploitation, but it also can be used to build a workable and prosperous socialist society.

    We believe in this spirit, and our concept of real, workable socialism is based upon it. We call modern cooperative socialism both “natural” and “entrepreneurial” socialism.

    In our view there are two forms of socialism:(1) state monopoly, based on the core stipulation of Marxism; and (2) modern cooperative, based on the failure of the state monopoly form and the success of the employee-owned cooperative corporations that began in Mondragon, Spain in 1956.

    We hope that someone in Cuba–perhaps someone like you–will organize a loyal reform movement to bring about cooperative reform and, at the same time, preserve socialist state power.

    Good luck.

  • You are right about the complete stupidity of this oafish and class-ridden, elitist stalinist approach to petit-bourgeois entrepreneurship — but you are completely wrong to intimate that this is an inherent defect of socialism itself. In a true socialist revolution, the victorious workers would have made common cause with the greater part of the downtrodden petit-bourgeoisie, and continued to allow the petty trades to fill in, where socialist organization of common work had not yet penetrated. The Cuban Revolution started out this way, apparently — even moreso (alliance with petit-bourgeois forces and far less implementing of socialist organization). But under the malign influence of the ‘Soviet’ stalinists, the Castros and the PCC made the huge strategic error of nationalizing everything in sight (in effect to control all possibility of imperialist infiltration and sabotage, etc.)

    You give us an example of the perfect tradesman — a man who apparently rejects socialism and the Revolution wholesale — but it appears that you yourself do not or no longer accept that there exists the potential for a far higher state of social organization where the inefficiencies of petty trade work can be transcended, and all of society benefit thereby. But of course, Cuba is a very poor and isolated island state, with little objective basis for socialism anytime soon. And so cubans will simply have to grin and bear it for a while longer — because the alternative really is the return of the Miami Mafia and some sort of ‘deathsquad Democracy’ on the model of Guatemala or El Salvador or somesuch. However, the ongoing slow-motion train-wreck of the entire World capitalist system should give hope to cubans that out of the chaos of economic collapse and World war will come the World Revolution which many of us hope for and expect — now sooner, rather than later.

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