Self-Employed Worker in Cuba (Part III)

Yusimi Rodriguez

Havana street vendor. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, July 8 — I went to find Pepe after not having seen him for three months. In April he was able to start up his business selling fast food in the street from a shopping cart.

That very same week that he started, a competitor set up another cart less than three yards away from Pepe’s and this person began selling the same things: French fries, croquettes and stuffed potatoes with bread. As fate would have it the competitor’s cart caught on fire, leaving Pepe to breathe a sigh of relief…for a while.

I ran into Pepe in the Diez de Octubre neighborhood the other day, where he was sitting on a park bench. I wasn’t surprised to find him there at eleven o’clock in the morning, because I know he likes that place. I figured that he had have left someone in charge of the business while he went looking for supplies, and that he had then decided to relax for a few minutes.

He smiled when he saw me, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “My push cart caught on fire,” he told me. At first I thought he was kidding, because fate certainly couldn’t have been that cruel. But it seems that it can be even worse.

He shrugged his shoulders when I asked if it could be fixed. And when I asked him what he planned to do next, he said: “I have a bunch of ideas, a bunch; I know a lot about…food services.”

He didn’t look me but at the people who were walking along the avenue. Yet he continued saying, “But I don’t have the energy anymore. They gave me a medical certification for high blood pressure and my blood-sugar level has gone up too. I should have decided to set up the business ten years ago. Now it’s just too much for me.”

I didn’t want to remind him that ten years ago it probably wouldn’t have been possible. After the ‘90s, when it became necessary to open Cuba up to the private sector to boost the country’s economy, the granting of licenses for carrying out self-employed work was put on hold for a long time. But remembering that wouldn’t have made him feel any better.

I never imagined his story would end up like this. I remember when I met Pepe two years ago. He was about to turn sixty but he was full of energy. A few months ago, when people were still in shock over the announcement of impending government layoffs and new opportunities that would be offered in the private sector, he saw a chance to prosper.

Now he’ll have to settle for retirement. His won’t be the smallest; he had worked since even before he was twenty. But I’m well aware what you can and can’t buy with a retirement check.

8 thoughts on “Self-Employed Worker in Cuba (Part III)

  • Julio, I’ll try not to misinterpret your words. But I am passionate about social transformation and saving our nation and world. It frustrates me that a thinking, caring person like you, a person who purports to care about democracy and the environment, is so maddeningly impractical as to what he believes needs to be done.

    It’s like we, our children and grandchildren are on a bus, headed toward a precipice and certain death. I’m waving my arms, crying out that a socialist cooperative republican has to take over the driver’s seat and turn the bus away from the precipice, and onto a road that will lead to a secure and happy future. You, by contrast, are waving your arms, saying no, let’s not let such a driver take over because the old regime is basically a good driver; it just needs a better road map, and a less monopolistic, more scenic route toward the precipice.

    You say, “We just have to pick those solutions that are best.” This is silly. How are we to pick best solutions if we are not in the driver’s seat? The two major political parties that share power in this country are owned and controlled by the monopoly banks and the capitalist/landlord cabal. How are we supposed to pick best solutions when the powers that be have chosen short-term profits over prosperity and long-term sustainability?

    What is needed, Julio, is a socialist Cooperative Republic, with a detailed tweaking of the Constitution, and a National Plan of cooperative transformation, environmental repair, demilitarization and social reorganization. As long as caring people like you allow the monopoly capitalist money-grubber to remain in the driver’s seat, we will continue toward a catastrophic doom.

  • Grady please do not interpret my words the wrong way.
    What I am saying is that people should be able to organized themselves in any economical entity they like to organize. Be capitalistic or mondragon type or any other invented. There should not be a limit as to the way to organize people economically and let the market decide. If it can survive competition is good. If it does not it is bad. This is very simple. Let people do what they like to do. Do not force them into a paternalistic society that tells them this is allow and this is not from the economic view point.
    As for the environment I think I care the same as many people. And I am aware of the problems but I think socialism as a type of capitalism is as much to blame as any other economical system. Just look at the environmental disasters in Russia. Or even Cuba in a minor scale because it is small country.
    You can solve the environmental issue without resorting to limit economical enterprising in such a way. There could be many different solutions to the environmental issue. We just have to pick those solutions that are best. How do we define “best”?
    Those solutions that have less of an economical impact on nations but that still solve the environmental issues. For example maybe we will like to say no to a rule about “No carbon emission from cars” for now or any other pollutant because by doing so the whole economy will go down the tube. We can not stop the whole economy. So by placing scale reductions on carbon emission we have time to adjust to the new rules and for the corresponding research on how to solve the issues to develop.

  • Yes, Julio, we agree that monopoly is negative and dysfunctional. Whether it’s by the international banks, capitalists and militarists, or by well-meaning socialist leaders in a particular country, such as Cuba or North Korea, it’s negative and dysfunctional.

    And yes, I am vitally concerned with the world environment. Almost the entire scientific community of the world is telling us every day that we are on the verge of destroying the oceans, over-warming the climate through too much coal and oil burning, deforesting and poisoning the lands and fresh waters, and all sorts of other catastrophes that will mean and end to human civilization within a few short decades.

    Why would I not be concerned with the environment? Why would not any sane person–any sane person who is not deluded by the monopoly capitalist mass media campaigns of the coal and oil industries to protect monopoly profits in the short term–be concerned?

    Let me ask you a direct question. Monopoly is destroying the world environment and with it the futures of all our children and grandchildren. Aren’t you concerned?

    I am urgently concerned with achieving a US socialist cooperative republic within the next decade, and hopefully a world network of such cooperative republics, to stop and reverse environmental damage. But I’m also vitally concerned with other things about which we need to talk.

    You ask me, Julio, about the problem I’m trying to solve. Besides stopping and reversing extinction-level environmental damage, I’m trying to solve the problem of the monopoly banks that–in cahoots with the industrial and commercial multinational corporations, militarists and military-industrialist, and landlords of all sizes–keep the flesh-and-blood nations of the world in poverty and servitude.

    You apparently do not share my view of national and world non-democracy led by the banks and their fellow travelers. You apparently think the entire Universe is the self-obsessed, bureaucratic regime in Havana with all its negative aspects. You apparently are stuck in a trance-like mentality where Socialism is Hell, and Capitalism is Heaven.

    Let me submit proof of your narrow, superficial analysis of reality. You say private property is good, yet you take exception when it’s the workers who reach out and use these rights to form their own corporations, compete in the marketplace and achieve enormous benefits of prosperity, workplace democracy and social advancement. You project all sorts of negatives into these worker coops and assume that they are making heinous rules from wall to wall. All seems good to you about private property, except when it’s the workers who own it.

    I must conclude that you do not know real democracy, even when it is presented right in your face. I must conclude that you identify with capitalists and landlords, not your productive sisters and brothers .

    The only reason monopoly capitalism, led by the monopoly banks, has been able to survive for the past century-and-a-half is because Marxism penetrated into the socialist movement, re-defined socialism from cooperative to state ownership, and diverted the anti-capitalist Left into a kind of religious cult where common sense and experimentation could not function. My struggle on the Left is to swim against the current and tell these sectarians that Marxism is the biggest con-job in history.

    I challenge you, Julio, to understand the lessons of Mondragon and worker-owned cooperative corporations. If you identify with capitalists and landlords however, and dream starry-eyed of being one someday, then go your own way and forget about the people and humanity’s future.

  • Grady, let me ask you a direct question.

    What is the problem that you are trying to solve for what you believe a Mondragon type enterprise is the solution?

    We seem to agree on something.
    Monopoly is really bad economical practice. Because everyone even the state ends up loosing. Even if the state is the monopoly itself like the case of Cuba.

    From what I read that you write it seems that the problem you are trying to solve is about the environment. Because you think that free capitalism (capitalism that does not set limits on economical enterprising) can be harmful. You also seem to think that some part of competitive practice is harmful too.

    Then you mentioned above that to keep things going on an economic Mondragon type entity there will be some rules people will agree and follow.

    Here is my take on that. Rules are usually not follow. If you let each economic entity set their own rules of the game. Then it is back again to dog eat dog you mentioned.

    I think the solution is a lot simpler. Corporations can not go over a certain size (measure in profit) . If they do then the state should tax them heavily to disincentivize huge conglomerates from forming.
    Huge economical conglomerates in a small country are not a good thing because they tent to monopolize the system. Imagine like a biological ecosystem where there is only a big predator as oppose to a bunch of small ones. It is better the diversification and the penalization of anything that smell like monopoly.

    The difference on your approach is that you are counting on people to follow some rules per economic entity. While the other approach I am describing is just natural. There is no need for rules but just to keep them from becoming a monopoly something you may also have to do . And you do not even have to put a rule against monopoly. Just put huge taxes for companies that go over a certain amount. (That amount should be adjusted gradually as society becomes richer)

  • Julio, Thanks for your well expressed response. I only wish the socialists out there would engage in a principled discussion regarding socialist theory and the profound questions of modern day. Alas, they are too paralyzed by sectarianism to see what is before their eyes and cannot employ a scientific technique of analysis.

    You comments are a bit jumbled, but let us examine them as best we can. First of all, the workers in Mondragon would not and do not tolerate a co-worker/co-owner who might under-produce or produce substandard products or services. Not only do they have effective statues that allow them to deal with any such problems that might emerge, but because workers have the entrepreneurial pride of ownership usually available only to individual enterprise owners, they tend to manage themselves and their workplaces superbly, and tend not to develop shabby or lazy work habits. This is a major reason worker-owned coops are consistently twice as productive, efficient and profitable as similar, capitalist-owned enterprises.

    You must remember something important, Julio. The people who do the work of society are society itself. They are the living, flesh and blood nation. They have a natural right to the dignity and prosperity of their noble productive lives, and only direct ownership of the instruments of production can fulfill this right. Whether a productive person is a small or medium entrepreneurial owner, or a cooperative co-owner on the Mondragon model, it is private property ownership that is the key to prosperity, democracy, happiness and social nobility.

    Private property itself was never the enemy of the workers or of socialism. Its concentration in too few hands was and is the enemy.

    I hope you will come to understand that modern cooperative socialism is fundamentally different from the bureaucratic monster that is produced by Marxian statism. As you so sagely pointed out many months ago, Marxism is monopoly ownership by the state, and…. . . monopoly is negative, dysfunctional and anti-patriotic, whether it is capitalist of statist socialism.

    With regard to your affectionate view of competition, I think you may be hurling thunderbolts at the bureaucratic monstrosity that the Cuban socialist state has become. When in 1968 they nationalized almost all enterprise–small, medium and large–they effectively destroyed the historically-evolved institutions of private productive property rights and the trading, competitive market. This was a profound mistake, but they were dutifully following the absurd recipe for socialism laid down my Marx and Engels a century earlier.

    The concomitant idea was that competition is an evil, negative thing. Historical experience has shown how erroneous this view was and is, but still there is a grain of truth in it . . . But only a grain.

    Lastly, you are right that people must be able to think and say what they wish. And they must be able to pioneer new, healthy business enterprise. And private property rights are necessary for all this. But the world you project is not such a world, but a capitalist, dog-eat-dog society that kills the human spirit and reduces human kind to the level of beasts.

    Competition is like fire. It can be a very beneficial, constructive thing. It can also be a very destructive, non-beneficial, environment degrading thing. It is all how it is utilized and conditioned by society and the political leadership of society. Through enlightened, non-Marxian socialist leadership, it can be utilized to get rid of both bureaucracy and political absolutism, and literally save an endangered world.

    Your view unfortunately only sees competition through the lens of Libertarian capitalist philosophy, which means that you are out of touch with the monopoly times in which we live. Competition leads to monopoly, and all historical experience bears this out. Good luck, Julio.

  • Ok Grady let me play with the flow here. Let us assume that Pepe can look at the Mondragon cooperative experience in Spain. And a group of people do decide to form a cooperative. And let us even say that the cooperative is allowed by the Cuban government.
    The only difference between that and Pepe going all by himself is the communal aspect of the cooperative. Where some individuals may contribute maybe a little more than others on the cooperative. While for the individual entrepreneur it is all his own doing. I do not think one form of production is superior to the other. As for competition. I think it is good. It drives people to do better. If Pepe joints into a cooperative of people selling french fries. Because of the cooperative nature of it they all may end up producing the same substandard product without any competition. And because they may be able to control the market they could take innovators out of the market. Again turning society economic into stagnant and not productive affair.

    Grady, Competition is a good thing . It happens all over in nature. It is survival of the fittest. The same way it should happen in business. those that are good and successful should be rewarded. The function of the state should be into limiting the size of corporations so that there is enough variety of them in their ecosystem. Economy becomes dysfunctional when there is no competing offers. When there is no choice but one. It is a good thing to have multiple choices. Not just one. Just the same as for political ideas!
    Freedom! Not only economical but political.
    Let people do and think what they want.

    I think freedom should exist to allow for Mondragon type projects but society should never put breaks on the freedom of people to create their own economical entity that deviate from cooperative. What make you think that having cooperative alone will do good to any economy? I think is still monopoly in disguise. Mondragon in Spain maybe successful because it is part of a bigger ecosystem of companies that are not themselves Mondragon type companies.
    Grady, will love as always, listening to your opinion.

  • This is just ridiculous. Pepe and other entrepreneurial workers need to cooperate with each other for their mutual protection and advancement. This mentality of prospering individually is a hoax of capitalism. Only a few can ever accomplish it, and in the meantime most such workers will crash and burn, by one route or another.

    Pepe needs to look at the Mondragon, Spain cooperative experience. Worker-owned industrial and commercial coops may not make workers rich, but they can and will make them economically secure, and give them an adequate living plus pride of ownership.

    Pepe could buck up and get over his bourgeois dream of being a successful individual entrepreneur. It’s a dead end. Also, if he and workers like him succeed with a cooperative, there is nothing keeping them from pursuing an individual enterprise, if that continues to be the starry-eyed dream.

    Addendum: The crying need, in Cuba and in every country, is for “cooperative entrepreneurs.” Activists who wish to supplant capitalism with socialism need to harness their entrepreneurial talents and bring about worker-owned enterprise.

    Cooperative entrepreneurial leadership, rather than sectarian bluster, is the key to a just and sustainable future.

  • Yusimi,

    I do enjoy your articles a lot but in the interest of many readers of Havana Times and my own could you please tell us what the average Cuban retiree can buy with their pension?
    I think this “I’m well aware what you can and can’t buy with a retirement check” deserves an article by itself.
    Or maybe can you interview some retiree’s and let us know how is their live? How do they manage or do not manage to sustain themselves?

    Many do have family outside that can afford to send remittances others do not could you do some investigative reporting on that?

    Great reporting Yusimi. Love reading you.
    Best to you.

    Here is another idea that it will be nice. Can you guys interview each other? Or let us ask questions to each of you? For example we read what each of you write but know little about the background for each. For example like you can interview Erasmo. Erasmo can interview Dmitri. Dmitri interview Isbel and on and on. While you all work for the same place I think each of you express many of your own opinions and that is a good thing. It is better to listen to what a real person feels that what is dictated by someone in command.

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