Self-employed Work in Cuba (Part II)

Yusimi Rodriguez

Street vendor. Foto: Ihosvanny

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.

Glasses repair stand. Photo: Elio Delgado

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.

Retiree now shining shoes. Photo: Caridad

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.

3 thoughts on “Self-employed Work in Cuba (Part II)

  • Actually, walking is probably better for Pepe than the more sedentary night watchman’s position. It exercises the cardiac, as well as other muscles, and increases metabolism. My friend’s father, who runs a “ponchero” business out of his carport on Avenida 51 in San Augustin, does a lot of walking (we once offered him a ride, when we passed by in my rental car, but he preferred to continue walking the remaining 2 km. home). He is 88 and still going strong, no doubt from working (he opens up his ponchero shop at dawn) and walking! To keep one step ahead of the competition, and also to diversify people’s street-food diet, Pepe should try to come up with a novel, but tasty, “comfort food” item for his cart. But what? Maybe something Oriental? or Mayan? or…?

  • Pepe’s story should be instructive to us all. What will surely be seen in Cuba is what can be seen in every capitalist country. Whenever a market for any product or service is proved by anyone, others will rush in and try to be successful satisfying it. Cuba is in for a lot of competitive struggle, and it may not be pretty, at all.

    This does not mean that the entrepreneurial spirit is negative or evil. Inherently, it is neither. What is needed is adroit use of entrepreneurial spirit and genius by the socialist leadership to keep it in healthy channels. In this way socialism can be built up.

    There was never any inherent contradiction between the entrepreneur and socialist construction. But Marxism, in order to divert the nascent socialist movement away from worker-owned cooperative entrepreneurialism, had to attack private property, the trading market and material incentives.

    Perhaps Cuba can undo enough of the Marxian stupidity to save Pepe and the Cuban people, and also socialist state power.

  • Interesting – thanks for the story. ‘Pepe`s’ experiences sound about par for the course, wherever you are LOL, I hear Spain is a nightmare for setting up a business and here in Australia there is the dreaded BAS tax-form, but people seem to manage, somehow ! All the best 🙂

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