The Ups and Downs of Self-Employment in Cuba
Alejandro Rodriguez Rodriguez* (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s Comprehensive Supervision Department (DIS) seems to be repeating the refrain of an old song by Carlos Puebla: “If anyone so much as sticks their heads out, cut ‘em off!” It is almost as though it has set out to apply the record-breaking figure of one million fines before May 1st, the date in which Cubans gather at Havana’s Revolution Square to express their support and to condemn whatever they are told to support and condemn.
Many DIS fines are applied by virtue of “Urban Planning” decrees.
Urban planning has nothing to do with the forced coupling of pretty men and women or the sterilization of the ugly, the lame and the insane in an effort to purify the race. Luckily, we haven’t gone down that road. Here, we limit eugenic efforts to keeping defective ideologies at bay, by vilifying dissidents and treating non-enthusiasts as dissidents.
Hunting Down Offenders
Urban planning refers, rather, to the State institution responsible for enforcing compliance with urban regulations. In other words, it is the institution responsible for making life miserable for anyone who dares place anything outside their home, be it a ladder, an awning or an advertisement poster.
In the hunt for such offenders undertaken by the body of government inspectors under the DIS, the self-employed are the ones who stand to lose the most, for they are the most likely to operate without proper authorization and to offer the juiciest bribes.
Small, private businesses in Cuba don’t have many means of advertising themselves. What they have, rather, are many obstacles in their way. The legislation that applies to them appears to have been designed to hide the explosion of this new economic actor from the public sight.
In the country’s capital, people tend to take the risk of printing flyers and posting them on walls and electrical posts, but, in cities in Cuba’s interior, locals fear that their ads will be taken for counterrevolutionary propaganda.
There are also no walls or billboards that are rented out for the purposes of advertising. All banners are already taken up by announcements reminding people that saving is the country’s main source of income, and that the genocidal blockade prevents the import of banners that could be used to condemn the genocidal blockade.
Putting Up An Advertising Sign
The process of setting up an advertising sign at the entrance to one’s business is extremely complicated. One is required to present seals, property titles, a schematic drawing of the house in question, letters of request, an approval signed by the owner of the house, the stamp of approval from the Office of the Historian and any other bullshit required by the bureaucrat on duty. Then, you have to renew your permit every year, standing in line at the municipal Urban Planning Office, on one of the two days of the week they renew licenses on.
Supposing the officials are actually there, that you don’t show up when they’re fumigating the building, that you’ve arrived early enough and that your documents are in order, you will be allowed to post a single sign to the building’s main facade. Perpendicular signs and any kind of creativity are forbidden.
One goes away feeling that adopting a child is probably simpler.
The Yellow Page section of ETECSA’s phone book offers a space for ads, but, being an ETECSA offer, it has an ETECSA price. Those who don’t have the background should know that ETECSA, the sole telecommunications operator in Cuba, charges the equivalent of US $ 4.50 for an hour of Internet use (currently there is a 50 % discount) and sells mobile phone lines at around US $ 40.00.
The National Information Agency (AIN) recently launched an ads service for the self-employed, something which would be grandiose if it weren’t for the fact that the agency has very little impact on the public life of the country.
In this context of physical difficulties, the digital is gaining more and more ground and, today, in a Cuba deprived of Internet access, we are seeing restaurants without signs that have their own web pages and spots in the tolerated weekly film and TV series package many people buy.
* Cuban journalist residing in Camaguey. Author of the blog Alejo3399