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The Dangerous World of Cuba’s Pushcart Vendors

The Dangerous World of Cuba’s Pushcart Vendors / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya
Posted on February 15, 2016

14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 13 February 2016 — There is a great
poster of general-president Raúl Castro on the façade of a private
building in the heart of Central Havana. In the image, he is saluting,
dressed in a military uniform, accompanied by the memorable phrase,
extracted from one of his promissory speeches he made during his era as
an imitation reformist: “Those who are committed to demonize,
criminalize and prosecute the self-employed chose a path that, in
addition to being mean, is ludicrous because of its untenable nature.
Cuba is counting on them as one of the engines of future development,
and their presence in the urban landscape is clearly here to stay.” As
it is customary to those among his caste, the general was lying, and of
those intended engines of future development only a few remain, trying
to survive with much difficulty and almost furtively.

However, under the mantra placed in the shadow of their modest Havana
trade, those mistaken sellers believe they will be protected from the
whims of a regime well versed in denying its own creations, either
because they don’t properly subordinate themselves to the interests they
were created for, or for considering them to be a potential threat to
its supremacy. Is the same simulation game that propelled thousands of
self-employed to join the apocryphal official union, which has turned a
blind eye and a deaf ear to the abuse of their members by the most
powerful boss on this island, the State-Party-Government, from which no
one is safe.

While there are fewer operations of confiscation and persecution against
the merchants in the squalid private sector, in particular the popular
vendors engaging in street selling of agricultural products, an
occasional cart starts to appear timidly, usually at dusk, when the
inspectors and heads of sectors of the uniformed police have concluded
their workday.

According to unconfirmed rumors from official sources, many of the
pushcart vendors affected by the crackdown in late 2015 and early 2016
have been informally allowed to trade again, though “quietly and low-key.”

A survey conducted in several districts of the populous municipality of
Central Havana is able to prove the effect of the bellows technique —
stretch and loosen – that the authorities usually apply, where each raid
is followed apparent tolerance, under the careful eyes of the guardians
of system, in part to control both the boom of the emerging sector
sellers who have proven to be highly competitive against the State
sector, and partly to lessen the great popular discontent triggered by
the sudden decrease in the flow of food available to feed families.

Some cell phone video images uploaded to the internet which were
recorded by ordinary citizens, witnesses of the official crusade against
pushcart vendors, have shown the public the true nature of the so-called
“Raul reforms” the people’s disdain in the face of official abuse and of
its repressive forces, and the spontaneous popular solidarity towards
the sellers. New communications technologies, even in a country as
disconnected from the web as is Cuba, make it increasingly difficult to
peddle the old discourse of “good and fair government” and “happy Cubans.”

On the threshold of the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba
nothing is more inconvenient than to implement unpopular measures,
particularly when the State is incapable of emulating, in terms of
production and food trade, even the fragile self-employed sector. To
hold such a conclave amid a starving population would be too cynical
even for the Cuban government.

For that reason, and without making much fuss, agents and government
control officials have notified several pushcart vendors that they can
once again sell their products, though they have not yet returned the
licenses to the more obstinate ones from whom they were seized.

Yasser is one of them. Although he’s only 30, he has great work
experience. He began working as a teenager, after quitting his studies
at a technological institute due to poor economic conditions at home,
where the only sources of income were his mother’s salary and his
grandmother’s pension, a story that has become extremely common in Cuba.

“First I started as bicycle repairman, but I soon discovered that it was
more profitable to buy and sell bicycles and spare parts than to be
getting my hands dirty and breaking my back repairing old clunkers.
That’s where I learned that my true calling was trade: the buying and
selling and the constant and hard cash profits. I do my best work in
trading,” he smiles, sure of what he is talking about.

When the bicycle business began to decline, he went to work with his
uncle at a State agricultural cooperative, in the countryside. “I did
not intend to work the land forever, but the agricultural trade
interested me. After I stopped working in bikes, I had managed a
vegetable stand for a while, through my uncle’s contacts, but it was
risky and the profits were low, so I decided to learn more about the
countryside and production management first hand. Meanwhile, I would
develop a good network of contacts to use later, when I could have my
own little business, which was my set idea.”

So that’s how it went. And Yasser, the young man from Havana did so well
in that State cooperative he even got a license which legally certifies
him as “delegate of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP),” a
document that allows him to stock up on products sold in his pushcart as
a self-employed person.

Now, with his peculiar charisma and his skills as a merchant, Yasser
buys directly from a private producer and ships the products home using
private transportation services. To avoid having the goods confiscated,
he uses his card as “delegate of the ANAP” and an authorization from a
bribed manager of a State co-op “that produces absolutely nothing” but
that certifies that his products were bought from that co-op and are
destined for a State Agricultural Market (MAE), or to some workplace, or
any other place. With these papers of safe passage and his getup as
producer, wearing a hat and high water galoshes up to his knees,
embedded with mud from the furrows, Yasser has managed to survive in the
dangerous world of private business.

However, he knows perfectly well that he is teetering on a tightrope. In
Cuba there is a diffuse band of tolerance between legality and crime, as
suits the authorities. Simply put, if an administrator who signs his
“passage” falls into disgrace, the chain of beneficiaries will also
fall, including Yasser. General corruption in Cuba is, at the same time,
the real support of the “economic model” and of the social balance, the
trap that standardizes all Cubans as transgressors of the law. Anyone
can end up in a dungeon.

“When this business with the pushcarts started, I thought it might be an
opportunity for me. I really believed in the premise that, this time, we
were really going to be respected as contributors, though my uncle kept
telling me that the government was going to change gears and go in
reverse, as always. I went as far as owning two carts, which my uncle
and my cousin took care of, because I am the owner and the go-between at
the same time, and I’m always going between the country and the city,
getting the products. Now I only take this one out – he points to a
simple chivichana [a rustic skateboard] loaded with the best tomatoes
around town, at 12 Cuban pesos – and I am putting out the goods
gradually. I do not want evil eyes on me, because, in the end, this
business will also go bust, it will be one more deception. As my
grandmother says, these people are a lost cause.”

It’s only been a few years since the false blessing of the
self-employment industry workers, and the very Government has taken it
upon itself to demonize, criminalize and prosecute them, belying its own
discourse. “They do not even respect themselves, that’s why nobody
believes them, nobody wants them and nobody respects them anymore.” says
Yasser with what seems more like a pessimistic old man’s view than the
words of a young 30-something. His disillusionment is, by far, the most
authentic symbol of a society which has succumbed to the fatigue of
almost 60 years of hypocrisy.

Translated by Norma Whiting

Source: The Dangerous World of Cuba’s Pushcart Vendors / 14ymedio,
Miriam Celaya | Translating Cuba –
translatingcuba.com/the-dangerous-world-of-cubas-pushcart-vendors-14ymedio-miriam-celaya/

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