By Osmel Almaguer
HAVANA TIMES, June 26 – Yasser Gonzalez Prieto (a baker by profession) is 36 years old and lives in the Alamar community, on the outskirts of Havana. This is also where he works, though in a way that is somewhat atypical. He has been on the payroll of one of the bakeries in this neighborhood for about a year.
In Cuba, all bakeries are state-owned, because bread —as well as symbolizing food in many religions— represents the government’s concern that citizens don’t go hungry. That is why, flour is considered a sensitive rung official policy, and is not sold to any private entity or to cuentapropistas (self-employed workers) for the making of this basic food item or any derivative of it.
Yasser, what’s your job in the bakery where you work?
Well, that’s kind of a difficult question to begin with. The fact is, I don’t work in the bakery. I’m only listed on the payroll and receive a wage. The work is actually done by someone else. What I do in it is to buy and sell products on the side, under the table.
Is that legal?
Of course not. It’s an arrangement with the bakery’s manager. He looks the other way and assumes the risk. But just imagine what type of risk it is be when he’s seen stealing sacks of cookies in the neighborhood police cruiser. They have a clan. The police themselves sometimes work making bread, and he pays them. They do it on and off their normal work hours.
And with what money are they paid?
With the day’s income. Each establishment has two shifts of workers that each work 12 hours every other day. Each shift has a boss who is the master baker. He distributes the money. The first cut goes to the manager, who gets something like five hundred pesos (about $25 USD, or over the average monthly wage in Cuba) from each shift daily. The workers come next; each gets between 150 and 300 pesos ($7.50-$15 USD) every day.
But where does that money come from?
From taking a little of each ingredient that’s used for making bread. This is how they end up with sacks of flour, yeast, salt and sugar that they sell under the table to clandestine bakeries, to those who make fried food and to other people who use those ingredients.
But you didn’t mention cooking oil…
What oil? That’s a bunch of crap. They stopped assigning us oil a long time ago. We have to make the bread with what they give us, and from that try to skim our money from off the top.
I’ve heard it said that the State often provides the ingredients necessary for selling bread of the highest quality…
I don’t know about other bakeries, but not in ours. Sometimes the ingredients are even delivered at less than the weight indicated on the invoice, but when we ask about this to La Empresa (the company that supplies the ingredients), they tell us that it comes that way “from above.”
Is your bakery ever inspected, audited, etc.?
Like I said, it’s a clan. So if even if the police themselves are involved —the same ones who spend the day asking to see people’s IDs for whatever reason and checking the bags of folks walking down the street— what do you expect from the rest of them?
The father of the manager of my bakery is also a manager of another bakery. This guy has stolen so much, according to what they tell me, that he went into a restaurant in Old Havana with his friends, paid manager a hundred CUCs ($100 USD) to “get rid” of the customers, and then they started eating like they were foreigners.
To tell you the truth, our manager, who’s a little crazy, is possibly one of the most inoffensive around. He has “ripped off” bakeries and gotten caught maybe ten times and he always gets another position, for example, the one he has now. Once they kicked him out of a bakery because he dropped two concrete blocks in a tank of oil so he could steal the difference in weight. Can you imagine?
There is something that we didn’t clarify at the beginning. What need does the manager have for another person working in your place while you collect their money without working?
It’s because the person who works in my place is his nephew, who isn’t a certified baker or anything. So my miserable wage doesn’t matter to him if he can hustle in one day what I get paid in one month.
But aren’t you looked down on by the other bakers for getting paid without working?
Like I said, what they’re interested in is the “hustle.” Of course, since I’m not around them a lot, there’s not much chance of bumping heads with them. I can tell you, I know that the life there inside isn’t easy, like in any place where there’s “hustling.” There’s temptation, envy, gossip, and a “get rid of him for me” attitude that’s not at all easy.
How is it inside a bakery?
Man, I’m even embarrassed to tell you about it. It’s a good thing that it’s required that the bread goes in the oven. Because I swear, if it didn’t, I wouldn’t eat it. There’s no hygiene there – none! There’s always a lot of heat; people sweat a lot and no matter how much they want, it always ends up getting into the bread. Plus a lot of them are “pigs”; sometimes they do things like working when they have a cold, and on and on.
If you had to define Cuban bread in a few words, what would you say?
They are two kinds of bread: bread that is sold in hard currency and is relatively good, and bread that’s supplied in domestic currency and is terrible.
The bread sold in domestic currency can be divided into two kinds. One kind is sold by the pound, and is long, hard or soft. It costs five pesos (25 cents USD). The other kind is provided through one’s ration book and is subsidized down to a price of only five centavos (a fraction of a penny) a piece; these are round, small, hard or soft or crumbled, without a marked flavor, and sometimes have things inside, like a chicken feather or a piece of coal, etc.
People buy all of them. I don’t know of a people who are greater bread consumers than Cubans, not even the tourists.
Ah, another thing, to talk about Cuban bread you also have to mention La Empresa (the State management). I think that with the sole word “corruption,” I wouldn’t run the risk of overlooking any of its characteristics.
So how do you feel about being a part of the Cuban bread industry?
Look, the fact is that I’m taking care of my problem. If I start thinking about everybody else’s, I’d go crazy. So it’s better to just “close your eyes” and keep on keeping on. Now if they gave me the opportunity to work in a better place, a clean one with the appropriate conditions and a descent wage, I wouldn’t think twice about leaving this place. The thing is that right now it allows me to feed my three kids.