Working Hard Just to Work in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

Sometimes there are no ingridients available.  Photo: Elio Delgado
Sometimes there are no ingridients available. Photo: Elio Delgado

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 13 – Recognized as an outstanding worker, with more than twenty years as a food service clerk who never came up short, he could only lose his job by not working.

Pepe gets up every day at five in the morning so he can use the bathroom before everyone else in the house does (three adults and a child), and he leaves before eight.  His work, a cafeteria for construction workers, is four or five bus stops from his home.  Most of the time he prefers to walk and gets to the job by nine o’clock at the latest.

The establishment is open from five in the afternoon to nine at night, but he likes to show up especially early to make sure all the cleaning is done, as well as the cutting of weeds in front of the cafeteria, the purchasing of merchandise, making and frying croquettes or whatever they’ll have to offer, and generally having everything ready for the moment they open up.  But lately there’s been nothing to sell at the small diner.

Looking for something to sell

A couple of months ago he had a similar problem: there was no bread at the business, so Pepe bought a package of salt crackers for sixty pesos – on the side and with his own money.  He was able to sell these in the cafeteria by adding cheese pasta that would have otherwise gone bad.  Before going ahead with this, he had checked with the manager of the company, who agreed to look the other way -that time- so long as no one else knew that the crackers were not from the cafeteria, because this was outside the norm.

It seems this is not an uncommon practice.  Recently I heard a guy on the bus telling his friend that he had made a deal with the cafeteria manager where he worked as a cook; he got the OK to buy some potatoes on his own, as well as borrow some oil, and to fry and sell these as part of the menu.  His aim was to make some extra money.

The manager had told him that there was no problem, since it also improved the menu. However, he too also insisted that no one else find out about it.

Many people on the bus could hear the conversation, but no one was surprised.

There are many that are done here “on the left” (under the table).  When you buy the products in the State-run corner grocery from your ration book, you’re always watchful that the grocer doesn’t short change you at the scale on any rice, sugar or crackers, etc., because that’s theft.  But a second later you might ask him if he has any rice, sugar, cookies, coffee or milk to sell “on the left.”

He will either say he does or that “they didn’t bring me any this time.”  Those who make these deliveries are not the truck drivers that bring the commodities earmarked for the community’s rationed consumption; they’re those who sell extra merchandise to grocers under the table, though it’s not directly stolen from anyone’s quota. Even people who are members of the Communist Party, presidents of the Committees for Defense of the Revolution or block watch heads acquire products “on the left.”  And if they don’t go personally to buy them, their spouses do.

Receiving a salary for nothing

Returning to Pepe, it’s now been almost fifteen days that he hasn’t had anything to sell in the cafeteria.  Not bread, nothing.  The problem with selling on the left is that it can’t be permanent, because the director of the company is taking a risk.  In any case, Pepe continues getting up at the same hour, day after day, and goes to stand guard in front of the director’s door.

Pepe makes two or three trips daily to the main office to see if it he can get something to sell, but the director routinely tells him there’s nothing.  Recently he received a visit from some inspectors, and Pepe told them how he hadn’t had anything to sell at the cafeteria for quite a while. The inspectors asked him if he was aware that the State was paying him a salary without him working, and therefore he could lose his position.

In light of that response, Pepe could only stand there with his jaw hanging.

Though it might seem contradictory to many, this is a person who believes and wants to continue believing in the Revolution.  He was involved in the “Struggle against Bandits” in the Escambray Mountains while barely more than an adolescent.  He had worked with the late Commandant Juan Almeida for several years, knew Camilo Cienfuegos personally (and was distraught over his mysterious disappearance), and above all he is a fervent admirer of former Cuban President Fidel Castro.