‘You Have to Take Advantage of Everything’
HAVANA TIMES, Sept 5 — Last Wednesday when I was walking to the La Puntilla (a small mall in Havana, Cuba), I saw a couple dancing on the sidewalk to a song playing on the radio. I stopped when I recognized the young woman: It was Yenisey, who I met in 2005 when she worked with my friend Michel in a state-run ceramics workshop.
The lives of both of them had changed since then. He had published his first book and put on two individual art exhibits…but ended up “redundant” in the workshop where he worked. Right now he’s unemployed.
She now has a two-year-old boy and has also stopped working for the government. She showed me the table where she displays crafts that she sells, now as a self-employed worker.
HT: How’s your business doing? Are you able to pay the taxes?
Yenisey: The taxes are sky high. Just imagine, I have to pay 300 pesos a month for my license, 87 pesos a month for Social Security, 30 pesos a day to sell in this spot, in addition 10 percent of my daily profit. It’s a lot.
HT: But you’re located in a good place (Calle 1 in Miramar, a half block from the mall)
Yenisey: Don’t believe it. Sometimes I leave here with 1 CUC (a little more than $1 USD) in my pocket, or without anything.
HT: So were you doing better when you worked for the government? Your monthly pay was fixed and didn’t you have to pay any taxes.
Yenisey: Are you nuts? What the government paid me wasn’t enough for anything. There often weren’t any materials to work with so they’d send us home for periods with 60 percent of our pay, which was already nothing. With what I earn here, I can go to the Cinecita Pizzeria at 23rd and 10th in Vedado from time to time. The other day I went to the aquarium with my son and we spent a good bit of money. Recently they were selling sandals at the store for 5 CUCs (about $5 USD) and I bought a pair [5 CUCs equals almost half of the monthly wage at the government ceramics workshop]. I’ve been able to buy clothes and shoes for my kid.
What I make here isn’t enough to buy a car, go to a hotel or afford any other luxuries, but I do get a chance to live and from time to time to treat myself to a little pleasure. Also, I don’t have the pressure of a boss looking over my shoulder. I don’t punch a time clock. I come here at ten in the morning and I can leave now I want. [It was 3:10 in the afternoon]
HT: So the taxes aren’t so high then…
Yenisey: They’re sky high. I’m only able to make this work because I spend very little on the materials for the merchandise, which are crafts that I make myself.
It was hard for me to believe her because on her table were many wooden pieces, bracelets, earrings, necklaces and pieces in tin, in addition to other things made out of plastic. Although I knew she made all of it herself, I was sure that she had to invest something in the materials, but Yenisey surprised me.
Yenisey: Do you see these flowers? They’re made with corn silk and stalks. They throw all that away in the markets after selling the ground corn to make tamales. I go and salvage them out of the garbage dumpsters. The stem I make with the thick part of the stalk of palms leaves or coconut trees. How much money did I invest? [While we were speaking a young man bought one of the flowers and several people came up to her stand to admire the merchandise and ask about the prices].
That’s not everything. The bracelets and earrings that I thought were made from wood had been crafted from coconut bark.
Yenisey: They throw those away in the markets too, after taking out all the “meat” to sell it. People buy coconuts to make sweets or to get the milk out of it. Nobody in my house likes them, but some coconuts I do have to buy to remove their two tips, take out the meat and work them until that pulp comes out, which then leaves what seems to be made of lathed wood. Each coconut costs five Cuban pesos, meaning 0.25 CUC.
I was thinking that the petals of the small flowers had been made from some type of plastic, but they’re made of glass.
Yenisey: Yeah, they’re from the broken bottles and pieces of glass that people throw out. I collect them and I shape them into designs. For the shafts I use pieces of telephone wires and the base is made from leftover wood I got from a carpenter’s shop. I also use that wood for some of the bracelets too. It’s always recovered wood, I don’t buy it. The tin I use for making these figures, which can be in human or animal forms. I get it at dairies. At some they sell it, but I almost always get it free.
You have to take advantage of everything. People take the luxury of throwing lots of things away. When you invest little, you can sell things cheaper than the competition. Sometimes people don’t understand that things have higher prices because more is spent on buying the materials.
If I had to invest money on materials or buy crafts made by someone else to sell it here, it would be very difficult. This way I’m able to come up with the money for the taxes and my profit, though I have to work pretty hard. I need time to make the crafts, to take care of my house, attend to my son (who’s only two and goes to daycare), and to also come here from Monday to Saturday. My only free day is Sunday.
HT: How long have you been working for yourself?
Yenisey: Since June, and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been doing this for three months and so far it’s been working out Ok. I don’t aspire to have luxuries, just to be able to buy what I need, and with my old wages it wasn’t enough. I hope I don’t have to go back to working for the state again.