HAVANA TIMES, April 11 — At the end of this past December, when I wrote “Attempting Self-employed Work in Cuba,” Pepe was convinced that he could begin selling fried snacks by the end of January.
I frankly doubted it but I didn’t want to dampen his hopes. He’s an older man, and he still had to do a lot more all-night guard shift in the middle of our chilly winter to save up the money he needed to invest in his business.
Added to that, every time he went to one of the offices where he needed to file the paperwork for a self-employed food service worker’s license, as well as get approval for the place where he planned to prepare food, and hand in all of the required permits, either the person who was supposed to attend to him wasn’t there or they told him that he needed a new document, an additional stamp or another signature.
He had already made a considerable investment in the push cart that he would use to sell on the street. “But you’re not in any condition to keep walking so much,” his wife would tell him. “Sell the pushcart and forget about that business,” she insisted.
And do what? – More nighttime guard duty? That was killing him too. Maybe he could retire…and end up dying sooner. The primary problem is that he has been working as a guard since he was nine and doesn’t know how to do anything else.
And secondly, he knows that retirement would pay him exactly enough to die of hunger (keeping in mind how they’re changing everything around in the country and that though the ration book won’t disappear, they’re continually excluding just about everything that can be bought with it).
Today, almost four months after that article, I have to give it to him – Pepe did indeed achieve his dream. Well…almost. His business couldn’t begin in January, but at the end of March he was able to hit the streets selling stuffed potatoes and croquettes from his pushcart for the first time. When he first set out, his wife waited anxiously for him to return in the late afternoon.
Four months later… the first days selling
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Well, it’s the first day, but people do buy,” he replied. “You’ll see…we’re going to get ahead with this.”
However, he had already come to realize that he needed to buy cheaper oil than what they sell at the dollar store. Plus he’d have to bake the potatoes in breadcrumbs so they would turn golden when frying them, because if they are not golden, people wouldn’t buy them. He’d also saw he needs an assistant who could take charge of selling things when he had to run to get supplies, which meant he would have to pay the assistant. Then too he realized that so much walking was killing him.
Pressure was mounting because in ten days he would have to pay four hundred pesos in taxes and he didn’t have it. And just as things can always get worse, yesterday someone showed up with a pushcart similar to his located a couple of yards from him and selling the exact same things.
Pepe is not religious, but it was time to pray. And it seemed God heard him. His competitor’s pushcart caught on fire, and all the poor man could manage to do was leave running. It’s sad to be happy over other people’s misfortune, but Pepe had no other alternative than to rejoice.
Later he found out that the man had invested 83 convertible pesos (93 USD) in the pushcart that caught on fire. It’s a shame, but pity is a luxury Pepe can’t afford right now. The misfortune of some means relief for others.
Relief is all that Pepe can feel for the time being, and now he’s feeling just that. Meanwhile he’s trying to scrape up the four hundred Cuban pesos and find a way to put his business in the black.