HAVANA TIMES, May 14 – Despite poor eyesight since birth, Jorge Felix Naranjo Fernandez (Havana, 1966) graduated as a technician in computer science in 1984. As a graduate he worked at a high school as a teacher of his field of study.
From 1986 to 1990 he worked in a radio assembly plant. Later, when the state authorized “self-employment,” he quickly obtained a license to sell fresh juices, something that wasn’t easy for most people, as his disability was taken into account. In this way he was able to provide for his wife and son in the difficult years of the Special Period economic crisis in the 1990s. His son inherited the same disorder.
What it’s like to have visual challenges in today’s Cuba?
It’s brought some inconveniences, but also certain advantages. For example, in terms of impediments I can include the discrimination I’ve sometimes been the object of. In the factory where I worked, I was ignored when it came time to assign tasks of responsibility, even after I had worked so hard to get into that company.
The time I went there looking for work at the Ministry of Labor they wrote me off, though in a subtle way. They offered me positions that were in no way related to the level of my training or capacity. Sure, they couldn’t tell me no straight out, because that would have been open discrimination against a person who is disabled.
Among the advantages, I would include the possibility of selling in the streets without anyone harassing or prohibiting me. For someone who doesn’t have a license, this is almost impossible, at least not without getting pressured by the police or inspectors, who are almost always looking for money.
Another advantage has been being able to acquire this apartment (which is quite large and in good condition in a building in Alamar). We obtained it owing to my son’s condition and of course my own. The government assigned it to us through the Municipal Housing Office. Also, people on the street tend to be supportive of other people who are disabled.
As a self-employed worker, is your effort rewarded?
Of course. The money I earn myself is enough to buy and do things that are impossible for a wage worker. I’m not rich, but I do feel privileged; I mentioned that it’s very difficult to get one of these licenses? The worse thing is the stress that we’re sometimes subjected to due to the contradictions of this type of work.
What contradictions are you referring to?
Although it might seem like everything is rose colored for the self-employed, it’s not like that. The condition the state puts us in has us up against a wall almost all the time. In this sense, I can tell you that we are obligated to buy the raw materials for our products from the state – and in hard currency! Can you imagine? And then we have to sell our products in domestic currency, because though we might be allowed to sell them in hard currency, few would buy them from us because Cubans aren’t paid in hard currency.
This absurdity forces us to remain constantly outside the law. We have to buy on the informal market so that our businesses are profitable, and then we have to arrange things so that the inspectors don’t exploit us. Often a simple bribe is enough, but other times it’s more complicated; we have to falsify invoices of purchases in hard currency and make the inspectors think that these correspond to the products we work with.
There isn’t a single night in which I can lay my head down on my pillow feeling I have something sure. And if I lost this that I have, I don’t know what would become of us, because at my age it wouldn’t be easy to begin working for 300 pesos [$12 USD] a month.
And your family, what role do they play in all this?
My mother and father staff the business. We buy large quantities of oranges and sell the juice. Me, since I have this apartment here in Alamar, I can’t be there. They live in Altahabana, about 20 kilometers (13 miles) from here. I get along great with my mother, while the relationship with my father is a little tense, but we love each other just the same.
My wife and son are the reasons for my existence. Without them none of this would make sense; they’re my purpose.
Though you’re no longer devoted professionally to computers, how much of your time do you dedicate to them?
I spend two or three hours a day in front of the machine. For me it’s exciting, but my disability prevents me from giving my body and soul to the computer. I use it to study English, to keep myself informed, to help my best friends with their computers. I also learn about it, how it operates, because I love enigmas, and logic plays a fundamental role in this. Each problem that’s presented implies the analysis of an enigma. I have a great time with computers, and I can connect myself with the rest of society.
What virtues do you consider indispensable for any human being and which defect do you dislike most?
As a virtue, the first one that comes to mind is the thirst for knowledge. That curiosity, the power of questioning, to not accept the appearances of initial information, because there’s always something behind each thing we discover.
Among the defects I hate most is hypocrisy; it’s an attitude that affects me a lot because people who treat me with hypocrisy are feigning feelings and showing false emotions.
If you were asked to identify those things you haven’t done in life, your unrealized dreams and objectives, what would you mention?
I’m not a person with great ambitions, but I would like those things that the great majority of Cubans are prohibited from enjoying given the weakness of our economy.
I would like to know my country, to travel around it, to go to Varadero and other beautiful places that I know exist but that I’ve never been able to visit. I’d like to eat in a restaurant whenever I want. I’m not talking about traveling abroad, because that’s even farther removed. After twenty years of marriage, I haven’t been able to do these things with my wife and son.
I also want to continue learning, to study a lot, not to be mistreated socially, neither as someone with a disability nor as a person. We know that only foreigners are treated well here, and not even them all the time, while Cubans always get the short end.
I would like to live to 70 and be healthy, or at least acceptably healthy. Wealth doesn’t interest me; my spiritual interests are well above that. I would want my eyesight not to continue deteriorating. I believe that these simple things, which a lot of people fail to value, are the essences that fill me as a person.