By Alexander Londres
HAVANA TIMES — Much has been said recently about “fighting” here in Cuba. I’m talking about the kind of fighting which isn’t linked to sports, or political or military matters. It isn’t just a few people – without being scientists and experts – who theorize and give their opinions. They analyze, in a peculiar fashion, the various fronts of one of the most talked about phenomena in the country’s social framework.
Among the many street meanings linked to the term “fight” – which according to DRAE is an “effort which is made to resist a hostile force or temptation, to get by or to reach a goal” – the ones which make reference to self-employment especially stand out in popular culture. This self-employment usually functions on the fringes of legality and in certain cases involves institutions.
There’s no need to mention the fact that “fighting”, the “rotten” apple on the retail tree, has gained new meaning in the Cuban language over generations. It is not a new trend, it’s quite the opposite in fact, deeply rooted and institutionalized in national peculiarities since who-knows-when.
Its Cuban meaning has taken such deep root that before people are asked how they are, some of us sometimes reply: Ah, you know how it is, fighting along, semantically referring to the well-known struggle in the face of daily problems.
And if there’s fighting, there’s fighters. Men and women, who equally constitute the different expressions of this social phenomenon in Cuba.
Selling whatever one gets their hands on
Urban spaces are normally where different kinds of fighters – should I say entrepreneurs? – operate. The most recognized form of “fighter” is without a doubt the one which relates to buying and reselling all kinds of goods.
You can find some of these peddlars, sellers of imported goods, strategically positioned on pavements and corners of the busiest streets, hidden in broad daylight, until a pedestrian looking like a potential customer walks past and they blurt out their hushed announcement:
I’ve got jeans, shorts, t-shirts, shirts, boxer shorts… nice clothes… brand shoes… watches… the latest fashion and for a good price.
A kind of pro-sale harassment which, while overwhelming for somebody who isn’t looking for anything, can be a useful option for those who are really looking for something different to what’s being sold at the government’s hard currency stores (TRDs).
The presence of these public figures became more noticeable after a law was passed in 2013 banning private sellers from selling imported clothes and shoes, placed in doorways or inside some homes with a privileged location.
From then onwards, we can say that these self-taught sales managers – the same ones who propose, or nearly force passers-by on the street to buy their products – have found a new alternative in order to continue with their businesses. They began to operate behind closed doors, linked to those sales points that survived the ban and which have flourished as small distributors of clothes, shoes and other products which the country can import.
They are mainly young people with their fresh vitality and when pedestrians enter their zone of action, you can also hear them offering:
I have cell phones, chargers, batteries, earphones… covers and microphones… good brands and a better price…
“Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it with them. Because they sell everything, for all tastes and all budgets, while the supply in state stores is quite scarce,” Aymara Naranjo says, a young architect. “I have bought things from them more than once, but the truth is that they hassle you so much, that it really becomes annoying.”
It would be very ambitious of me to speak about exact figures, but there are surely lots of people like Aymara, who strike up commercial relations with these individuals to get what they want on a daily basis, or they have at least once.
And the fighting continues
There are many other different forms of “fighting” in this country. Among them, there’s the pensioners, elderly people who make a living off of selling newspapers, cigarettes, matches, peanuts, popcorn, plastic bags and other small essentials.
However, even though some of the most popular forms of “fighting” are taken on by the self-employed, the most infamous “fighters” are white and blue-collar workers, who work in the public sector. These are the people who “kill the dairy cow” and the ones who “tie up its legs”. These include those who get their hands dirty and those who receive sizeable financial benefits while sitting behind the desk.
They hold leading roles in the Cuban social sphere. They are extremely well-known figures that form part of an extremely long list. It’s their names which are heard every time there’s a bust; that is to say, every time there are inspections and auditors do their job as they should, without losing themselves in some part of the process.
The bodega store owner who changes readjusts the scale so it’s always in his favor, knowing that he’ll fill up a sack grain by grain; the storekeeper who diverts products so that people resort to the black market, while he fills his pockets at the same time and the builder who takes home materials from an active construction project so he can sell them. Public officials who, by receiving under-the-table payment, resolve red tape procedures and cut down the time of how long bureaucratic processes last, are able to get you tickets – to the Moon if needed – and doctor appointments without having to wait.
Furthermore, managers, administrators, butchers, workers in care facilities, salespeople in the food sector, bus drivers… All of them recognize themselves as fighters.
In spite of adverse criticism, about how negligible they are which the large majority of public opinion normally shares, these figures are becoming more and more common in today’s society and they remain entrenched in their “fight”, taking advantage of what they have within their reach.
Onel Balart, a “fighter”, claims that “fighting is something that goes far beyond what you think. Ever since the Socialist Bloc fell, Cubans began to modify their way of thinking and have had to ammend their way of living because the economic and social situation in the country forced them to. Fighting is just another of life’s paths; even the supposedly “most comfortable” have to fight and carry a plastic bag in their bag. From the ‘90s onwards, Cuban youth have grown up with this instilled in them. They learn Math, Spanish and Physics at school, but they also learn how to fight. There isn’t a Cuban on the face of this Earth who hasn’t had to fight.”
Given the fact that in the world of opinions there are as many movements as there are realities, anything can happen anywhere, there are those who applaud this “fighting” and those who reject it. This is Boris Tornes’ case, a tourism worker, who says that for him “the word “fighting” is a euphemism which in the great epistemological scheme of things stands in for that of “theft”; that is to say, that the term has been distorted so much so that we don’t openly call these individuals shameless thieves.”
According to Edilberto Juarez, a professional in the cultural sector, this classification of fighting “is part of the ethical and moral deterioration of society. We impassively watch and accept how resources assigned to State companies and institutions are lost. They are lost along this bridge between society and State which is the management apparatus for the businesses or institutions. It involves fighters who society legitimizes and applauds for their misdeeds.”
Put this way, who can put the bell on such a cat? How can we stop this from further developing and staying? How can we stop a phenomenon which, ethics aside, has been built as an alternative for survival and which, going beyond a modus operandi, has established itself as a modus vivendi?
While factors like necessity, insecurity and shortages continue to influence the Cuban landscape, it’s going to be very difficult to turn things around.