Cuba: Where Bottle Caps Are Worth More Than a Medical Degree

Vicente Morin Aguado

Father and Son.

HAVANA TIMES — “My son got his medical degree twenty years ago,” Rogelio tells me. “Today, he earns 1,460 Cuban pesos a month (70 usd). Actually, they deduct 5 % for health services and 63 pesos for the Chinese fridge Fidel sold us in exchange for the one we had for years. But we empty his bank card after buying two or three steaks. We manage to make ends meet thanks to the bottle caps.”

The journalist interviewing the father and son cannot disguise his surprise: “You make a living with bottle caps?”

“The good thing,” the father says, “is that all caps are useful. They have the same, standard measurements. The best ones, of course, are from imported products: Heineken, Presidente, Bavaria, etc.”

“You mean imported bottled beer?”

“Exactly. They are more resistant and grip the bottle top better after you press them a second time, when you use them for a bottle full of tomato purée or perhaps contraband beer.”

It’s hard to believe we’re talking about an actual business. The son with the medical degree answers some questions with a bit of information:

“Look, you can buy a pound of bottle caps in Havana for 10 Cuban pesos. My dad takes them to Santa Clara, where they buy them for 30 cents the piece.”

The conclusion inevitably follows:

“There are approximately 200 bottle caps in the pound you buy in Havana. People buy these per unit in the provinces, so 200 caps times 30 cents per cap is 60 pesos, the math works for us. We make a 50 peso profit for every pound. You of course have to deduct travel expenses, but we don’t make a trip with only a few pounds of caps.”

The father and son look for people who sell the longed-for item at restaurants, bars and supermarkets that sell products in hard currency, for, even though the unit price doesn’t change, the appeal of imported products guarantees good business. Rogelio, the son, shoulders the additional burden of doing health inspections around different neighborhoods, in search of transmissible diseases that have suddenly become common in Cuba: cholera, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS. As he puts it, “sudden cases of suspicious diarrhea have become my specialty.”

Rogelio continues: “When the old man heads off with the load (which is never under 20 pounds), I go out to buy caps so as not to lose our suppliers. I can only do this at night, when they’re finishing up a day of sales.”

Buyers in Santa Clara and most other localities in the country’s interior are individual farmers, their families or cooperatives. They prepare tomato, mango, guava and other preserves and store these in glass bottles (as required by sanitary regulations). What’s funny is that the coveted bottle caps make their way back to the capital, because its two-million anxious inhabitants constitute the country’s largest preserves market.

Like a seven-year-old, I have a whole battery of “whys” prepared. “Can’t you live off a doctor’s salary?”

“I wish we could, but my son ends up with less than 1,300 pesos after all deductions. That’s about 50 dollars, which is the price of a good pair of shoes. Can you imagine trying to keep the computer or telephone running with that amount of money? Where would we end up, as the song says.”

The 20 pounds of bottle caps they sell at 30 cents the piece during every trip equal 1,200 pesos. If we calculate 200 pesos spent for personal expenses, we are left with 1,000 pesos a week. A month of selling bottle caps triples the salary earned by the medical doctor.

The unavoidable, naive questions keep coming: “But your son’s education was entirely free.”

“Well, they didn’t charge us a tuition or for the classes, but the clothing, shoes, trips, going out with friends and girls, and books (we’re talking about a future doctor, a professional), the lap-top his aunt sent him from Spain, who pays for all of that, considering prices in Cuba, wages and the two currencies?”

Rogelito, the prodigal son, the pride of the family, concludes by saying: “You can’t fit bottle caps on jars of medicine, they are forbidden by medical manufacturing regulations.”

We finish the interview with a vigorous high-five: “May you continue to prosper selling bottle caps!”

7 thoughts on “Cuba: Where Bottle Caps Are Worth More Than a Medical Degree

  • What a goofy answer. Butchers should not earn more money than surgeons.

  • Moses, Moses, Moses. In America, the surgeons earn their money by preying on their patients, milking them so that they could become rich and the patients stay poor. In Cuba the surgeon is taught about the value of the human being, the value of life and that the surgeon is a part of the human race, not a superior human being; In Cuba, the surgeon is taught that every human being, every profession is a spokes in the wheel of life. Look at the wheel of a bycicle, do you see any spoke which is bigger than the other? Yet, each plays a very vital role in the strengthening of that wheel.

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