By Frank Simon
HAVANA TIMES – “It’s hard working for a self-employed business owner, you don’t have any guarantees, the only one you do have is that you will earn more than if you work for the State,” this is what Ana tells me again, as she has gone from paladar to paladar, as well as crafts stalls in a Havana market, without her immigrant and poor status changing.
“I feel like a stranger in my own country, but I know I’m not the only one, you’ve got all those Eastern Cuban bici-taxi drivers who work illegally in the night or teenage girls, who stand on Havana’s Malecon all night long “to try their luck”, as they say, and a fuck costs 5 CUC.” This is how Ana mentions how cheap it is to sexually access one of these young Cuban girls, a job that she prefers to discard for now.
I met girl X in her doorway, on San Lazaro Street. I paid her for a soft drink as I thought she wanted to be friends or real love (I saw something in her gaze), but a few days later, I suddenly realized she had a “husband”, a guy who let her be with others in exchange for a cut from her nighttime earnings.
She is from Holguin and, like many teenagers and young people, she goes running whenever she sees the authorities heading her way. “There are women who have some kind of protection and policemen turn a blind eye, but with girls from the country’s interior, they don’t think twice, they just deport you.”
You can understand why Ana tries to hold onto her job no matter what the cost, in spite of the paladar restaurant owner always withholding a part of her pay for some reason or another, “I have never stolen a cent, but if I answer him back, I lose everything,” she says and lowers her head.
Private sector workers, especially employees (or the underemployed without a night-time contract) don’t have any labor rights. “Just imagine, the unions don’t even allow us to organize ourselves as representatives of a group in society, we don’t have anywhere to turn to,” Ana adds, who worked as a school librarian in her rural town, where wages came and went as if by black magic.
The State pays very badly, but it guarantees you don’t lose your job, while the private sector is unstable and controlled by a stratum of society that doesn’t have any business knowledge and therefore don’t know what they have to conform to in the freelance business world. “People suffer exploitation here and there and thank God I’m still young and pretty, because if I was old or black or fat, I wouldn’t be working at a paladar.”
In front of this world of survival, a few blocks away from the paladares in Central Havana, luxury hotels are being built, the Manzana Kempinski Hotel, the future Prado Hotel, the city which the poor from interior provinces won’t have access to in a short period of 4 or 5 years. This is how the last glimmer of equality is being taken apart in the city repressed by who Reinaldo Arenas called “El Fifo”, for more than half a century.
It’s a world of illusions, which is brimming with many poor young Cubans: seeking to go abroad with a yuma (foreigner). These cinderellas are waiting for a lottery game which has made Havana go back to the time of Batista, when it was considered the Caribbean’s brothel, the only difference now being that these women are healthier, younger and cheaper.
Cuba isn’t sold in this way in tourism brochures, but everyone knows that Cuba is a safe sex destination, where the police watch over the girls and medicine cures them of any venereal disease. It was Mariela Castro herself, the president’s daughter, who flirted with the idea of making the Cuban capital a Caribbean Amsterdam.
Everywhere you go, it’s the market is in its worst variety, the worst of both systems, exploiting ordinary Cubans, who don’t own large islands or appear on the payslip of one of the big families who (de)capitalize the country. Like the intellectual Juan Jose Sebreli once said in an interview on the “Aguafiestas” program on Argentinian TV, Cuba has the most atrocious aspects of both systems that really exist in the world.
As I write this article, on one of my many strolls through Havana, Ana gets ready, she puts on her best clothes, does her make-up perfectly, I don’t know whether she’s going to the paladar or whether she will go to the Malecon, anyway, it’s her decision, it’s her body. She leaves without telling me where, a friend makes a gesture; we both think the same thing. The market has put a price on everything, including Ana’s honesty.