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.