Cuba: Beyond our personal preferences…

By Paula Henriquez

Self-employed vendor. Photo: Juan Suarez
Self-employed vendor. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES – Not working in the profession you studied for because the need to find a way to feed yourself by other means is a serious matter, at least in my opinion, because you supposedly study a career with the hope to work in that profession afterwards.

However, I have come across young, and not so young, people who have had to find alternative career paths because of financial problems. This isn’t true in my case, I work and don’t work in what I studied, luckily, it’s a simple decision I made, but that doesn’t stop me worrying about the large number of people who find themselves living in this situation and want to tell their story…

This is the first interview from a series of encounters I’ve had with young people who have graduated from university but, for financial reasons, are unable to work in their profession…

Adrian studied Architecture at CUJAE (Jose Antonio Echevarria Technical School). It’s only been four years since he graduated, but, he isn’t working in the career he studied for.

I met him a few weeks back, I was looking for an electric resistor for my shower and at the small stand which had precisely what I was looking for, was Adrian. He was the salesman.

I don’t remember how exactly, but we got to talking, we must have been talking about prices, how difficult it is to get a hold of things… anyway we ended up talking about jobs and young people who don’t always work in the profession they chose to study at university. And our conversation became an interview, of course, with the young man’s permission who happily responded to my questions.

And how did you come to study Architecture?

Adrian: I always wanted to study it. My mother says that ever since I was a little boy, I used to really pay attention to construction work, to columns in doorways, windows, etc. She also says that I used to come home from being outside and I would sit down to draw what I had seen during my walk: doorways with columns, buildings, a lot of buildings… I think it was the way that they had been built that used to fascinate me, how they managed to stay there, upright… Then, when I finished my pre-university course, I had the opportunity to choose this degree and I didn’t think twice about it.

And when you graduated, did you sign up to some kind of workplace?

Of course. You have to do social service, I had to work at the place I was designated for two years. The center wasn’t bad and the team wasn’t neither…

And why didn’t you carry on working there?

Because as you already know, the salary of a trainee is minimal, just 345 pesos roughly US $16). Afterwards, I found out that once I’d finished my social service, my wages would increase a little, but not by a great deal, I think I would have earned about 500 pesos in total, maybe a little more. I stayed there, I wanted to work in the profession I had studied for 5 years, but I also needed to resolve some problems I had at the same time at home and as I couldn’t do this with what I was earning there, well I finally decided to leave and work independently. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, because I knew that if I left and began to work as a self-employed worker, I would disconnect myself from this profession and that wasn’t what I wanted.

But you had to in the end…

Yes, I had to in the end because in order to live a decent life, I had to repair my house. My mother can’t, she’s already old and only has her pension and with my salary we couldn’t do it, because there’s eating, dressing, etc. I had to do something, I thought long and hard about it, and the solution I came up with was to become self-employed, which would give me a little more money and the chance to save a little.

Photo: Juan Suarez
Glasses repairs and filling lighters. Photo: Juan Suarez

Do you think you will ever work in your profession again one day?

I hope so. Right now, it’s out of the question. I have to stay here, I don’t know until when exactly. But yes, I hope to be able to work in my profession again one day…

This table you use to sell your goods, is it yours or do you rent it? What’s a normal working day like here?

The table is mine, but I rent the space here to be able to sell. A normal day is when I’m able to sell three things or more, the same item or different things. (Adrian has home-made water heaters, resistances for electric showers, TV antenna and electric cables, switches, extension leads, etc.). There are days where I don’t sell anything, but it’s very rare for that to happen, given the fact that people always needs something for their homes.

How much do you earn selling these products and how much do you pay to rent this space?

It depends on the sale. Sometimes I earn 100 pesos in a day, other times, I only earn half that, but then I have days where I go home with 200 or more pesos. The thing is that there are people who are renovating their homes and when they go to state-run stores where they sell these things, they don’t have them and so they come to us.

I have to pay every week to rent this space and it costs me about 150 pesos per week. Sometimes, I find myself a little “tight” for money, but, luckily, I’m able to pay this properly most of the time and still take home a little extra.

Adrian, what does your mother think about all of this?

Look, she wasn’t very happy at the beginning. My mother is old, so she has her own ways, her ideology is stuck in the past, as we say here in Cuba. I know that she has suffered because of my decision, but I also think she has finally understood why I chose to do this. She knows that I haven’t done this because I wanted to, but because I’m looking for a way for both of us to have a future.

And what about you? How do you feel about this?

It’s complicated. On the one hand, I know that I’m making an honest living. On the other hand, it isn’t what I want, but to be honest, it’s what I need right now. You can’t always do what you want to do, but rather what you need to do, a lot of the time, making decisions which go beyond your personal preferences.

13 thoughts on “Cuba: Beyond our personal preferences…

  • December 29, 2016 at 7:51 pm

    I can only really say two things in response:
    The USA did rule in Cuba.
    For half a century.
    That is why the Revolution was so popular for many.
    Secondly: It is an unfortunate fact that huge numbers of people try to get from the poorer countries to the richer countries.
    This is due to the vast inequalities that exist all over Planet Earth.
    It is not a phenomenon specific to Cuba.

  • December 29, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Let us hope that that fool of a president elect will be held in check. (although I’m not sure why you threw in that last little barb as it was not relevant to the comment at hand)
    Regardless, I take issue with your statement “….I also know that many regard these imperfections as preferable to Cuba being governed by your adopted country” It’s a bit of a red herring, don’t you think? After all, no one is suggesting (and I defy you to find a source that says otherwise) that the US wishes to “govern” Cuba. We simply want Cuban’s to have the freedom to choose.
    In the end, I believe that the many Cuban’s, who risk, and in many instances die, fleeing Cuba says more than you or I ever could.

  • December 28, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    If you wish to criticise the government of your home country, that’s fine with me.
    My point is that the government of your home country and the government of your adopted country are both imperfect.
    The government of my own country is likewise, imperfect.
    From my long experience of your home country I know that most people there would regard the governance as imperfect.
    I also know that many regard these imperfections as preferable to Cuba being governed by your adopted country.
    You may disagree.
    Again, this would be fine with me.
    What I find hard to take are comments which come from those who seem to presume to come from some sort of self-delegated superior nation that assumes the right to dictate to less powerful parts of the world.
    My country (UK) has a long history of bossing other places around.
    It is preferable, although difficult, for countries to get away from this type of habit.
    I sincerely hope that Cuba finds a better path than that which it has been on.
    And sincerely hope it can retain its hard won independence.
    As for your adopted country?
    The world watches in horror as regards what your next President may unleash.

  • December 28, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    I’m Cuban, forced to leave Cuba, and now living in my adopted homeland. I am free now to criticize Cuba which is something I could not do while in Cuba. Our criticism can be distilled into one thing, the Castro family dictatorship and the lack of chose (freedom?) therein.

    You will find few, if any, Cubans, residing within Cuba, on this site. Cubans have little access to the internet, and when they do, are, let us say, “discouraged” from visiting sites such as this.

  • December 28, 2016 at 11:23 am

    My issue is with U.S. Citizens constantantly criticising Cuba.
    My valid points regarding the USA put these criticisms into an appropriate context.

  • December 28, 2016 at 11:19 am

    You constantly criticise Cuba.
    I do not ‘defend the Castros’ as you put it.
    I merely accept that different countries have their different flaws.
    My country has it’s flaws as does Cuba.
    Your country has it’s flaws too.
    Some of your country’s flaws (flawed foreign policy, flawed democratic system) has a very negative impact on the countries of others. Specifically your country’s flaws have had a long negative effect on Cuba.
    You have suggested that I would seek in some way to do harm to your country. Quite what you mean by this is unclear.
    I can actually state that I have a good deal of respect and fascination for your country and it’s history.
    As I do for Cuba.
    Your one sided criticism of Cuba clearly implies that you presume that you and your country are coming from some kind of moral high ground in comparison to Cuba.
    Well, you ain’t.

  • December 28, 2016 at 6:20 am

    The tone of your criticism of the US implies a strong negative bias. My comment does not mention the US at all, yet your reply to my comment unnecessarily attacks the US in your attempt to defend the Castros. Yes, the US is not perfect. Far from it. So what? This is a blog about Cuba. You went out of your way to criticize the US. Hence, it is clear that you are no fan.

  • December 27, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    We’re talking about Cuba here. The site is called Havana Times. Want to complain about the USA? Fine, go to USA Today, or any other numbef of sites.

  • December 27, 2016 at 11:48 am

    Mr Patterson what on earth are you talking about?
    I fit into the category of those that would do harm to the USA??
    Like Eden Wong rightly states, it is perfectly normal for people not to work in their chosen profession.
    It happens all over the world.
    You accuse Cuba of being ‘pathetic’ because of this phenomena that occurs all across the planet.
    I merely point out that there are aspects to your country which are truly pathetic in comparison (dangerously pathetic).
    Rather than asking yourself why you persist with spouting off these subjective, one eyed, viewpoints, you prefer to suggest that I would in some way choose to do your country harm!!!
    In what way do you think I would do harm to your country?
    I am suggesting that less people should be gunned down in the street in cold blood by law enforcement officers due to their skin colour.
    How is this suggestion going to do your country harm?

  • December 27, 2016 at 6:58 am

    It occurs to me to do both. In as much as this blog is about Cuba, my comments about the failings of my own country would be inappropriate here. One more thing: I agree with you that there are no perfect countries. However, one of the aspects of the US which makes us exceptional is our willingness to self-criticize and accept the criticism of those who would do us harm if they could. It would appear that you fit in that category. The Castros self-criticize very little and refuse outside criticism altogether. Insulating oneself from criticism impedes growth. This is evident in Cuba.

  • December 26, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    Between 1959 until the inception of Cuentapropismo in Cuba, it was a clear understanding that every student upon graduation would be assigned to a workplace by the government. This changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and most Cubans on the island, have had difficulties jumping from profession into another.

    Interestingly enough, those same Cubans who arrived in droves in Miami with their financial needs in a hostile environment, lead them to forget overnight about their profession and seek any job the can get their hand on. It is therefore normal, to find a Doctor, Dentist, Pharmacist or Physicist behind a restaurant counter, driving a tractor trailer or cleaning bathrooms and a few, learning how to rip-off Medicare.

    My own experience in the 80’s when help wanted signs was everywhere, lead me into my first housekeeping job in dorms at Columbia University in New York, then into voluntary work at the Bronx Zoo and the Animal Medical Center. I was hired as an evening shift animal diagnostic laboratory supervisor dead-end job with a technician salary, which I complemented working early hours and weekend at an environmental diagnostic laboratory. As the only way of breaking this vicious cycle, I studied Environmental Health and Safety at Hunter College, New York, with which I have survived to this day.

    Cuba must remove its paternalistic cradle to grave responsibility with its students and allow them to fend for themselves and stop handicap, baby feeding most of them, who end up unprepared to work a double shift or think outside of the box to create a job or additional income for themselves.

    Work in the United States is brutal and unforgiving but it teaches everyone to be disciplined, to produce, to be creative or loss your job and starve! Nowhere else is the first rule of Genetics so vivid as in the Capitalist world, “Those unable to mutate, shall perish”.

  • December 26, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Not being able to work in your chosen profession is unfortunately normal everywhere, especially in this present day and age.

    Like the recent (utterly misguided) article posted here about, “It’s Not the Same in the Yuma” this article is also a complete non issue.

  • December 26, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Mr Patterson,
    There are no perfect countries in the world.
    Let us take your country as an example, the mighty USA:
    The public lynching of innocent people due to skin colour continued way into the thick of the 20th century….
    A man can be gunned down in the street by a cop in the present day due entirely to skin colour…..
    Also Pathetic.
    Utterly pathetic.
    Have a look at the failings of your own county prior to casting aspertions on the countries of others.
    Ever occurred to you to do that?

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