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Capitalism's on the sly in Cuba
Orlando Sentinel ^ | March 19, 2002 | Maya Bell | Sentinel Staff Writer

Posted on 03/19/2002 1:34:03 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife

HAVANA -- As night falls on the Cuban capital, a woman named Mileyvis sits at an old desk in front of her squalid apartment and sells shots of coffee to passers-by.

On a good night, she pours 100 measures of the dark brew from a couple of dented thermoses, dropping 100 pesos into her change drawer. Starbucks it ain't, but Mileyvis is running her own business -- illicitly, guardedly and profitably.

Like many Cubans, she is surviving the economic hardships of this hemisphere's last communist stronghold by practicing capitalism with a refrain that trumps the national motto of socialismo o muerte -- socialism or death.

The new slogan: No es fácil. "It's not easy."

Driven by black marketers who steal coffee, cigars, cheese, detergent -- you name it -- from state-controlled companies, factories and warehouses, Cuba's version of free enterprise is as warped as it is omnipotent, conducted in whispers and in fear.

From the one-time baker who now burns the hottest new compact discs to the former teacher who peddles washing powder on the street, budding entrepreneurs are everywhere. Like Mileyvis, most operate illegally, which is why they are being identified only by their first names.

Many are motivated by the constant quest for U.S. dollars, which, despite the 4-decade-old U.S. trade embargo, are the coin of the realm. With greenbacks, almost anything from Brussels sprouts to treadmills can be had. Without dollars, even milk is scarce.

Budding capitalists

Walk down just about any street in Havana. Listen and watch, and you'll see the capitalists at work.

In one office building in Old Havana, a middle-aged woman delivers home-cooked meals to foreign office workers at lunch time. Each day, she takes orders for the next. She's happy because her customers pay in dollars. They're happy because, at $1.50 a plate, the price can't be beat.

On a corner not far from the ornate national theater, a woman spends the dusk hour raising and lowering a frayed woven basket from her second-story balcony. Tied to a rope, the basket goes up bearing change from workers heading home for the day. It comes down with the familiar white pack of Popular cigarettes that Cubans receive as part of their meager rations.

Who knows whether the woman is selling her own allotment or cigarettes stolen from a factory. No matter -- business is brisk. The basket goes up and down, up and down, up and down.

In the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, a young man knocks on the door of a once-stately home, taking orders for shrimp. A single dollar changes hands, and, less than an hour later, he returns to deliver a pound of the shellfish lined up in a narrow plastic pouch. A matronly revolutionary with an old Soviet Lata in the driveway stows the package in the freezer with a smile.

Officially, the Cuban government says about 153,000 people, or 4 percent of the island's work force, are employed in the private sector, an opening allowed after the socialist camp collapsed and left Cuba without the vital Soviet subsidies that kept the economy afloat in the 1980s.

But that number includes only the entrepreneurs licensed to operate -- and who often break the rules with the familiar lament: No es fácil.

Cubans lucky enough to live in spacious houses, for example, can rent out a bedroom to tourists for $20 or $30 a night but must pay the government hefty taxes -- as much as $250 a month -- for the privilege. Some, of course, rent out two rooms, keeping one off the books.

Breaking away

Government statistics don't measure the untold numbers of people such as Miguel who have abandoned government-controlled jobs for more-lucrative work in the bolsa negra, or black market.

A soft-spoken man with a gift for language, Miguel used to work in his neighborhood bakery, producing bread for daily rations. Now he makes bootleg copies of the latest CDs on a borrowed computer, selling them for $3 apiece. By way of explanation for his illicit trade, he holds up his right hand and says, "Look at this."

His thumb and two adjacent fingers are missing.

Six years ago, Miguel caught his wrist in the bakery mixer, badly mangling it. A month later, his fingers were amputated because he could not afford the three pills needed daily to induce circulation. They cost $1 apiece, and, at the time, he was paid in bread -- six loaves a day.

Miguel, now 31, eventually returned to the bakery and was in charge of distributing bread to local schools and other institutions. But it was an impossible job, he said. Other employees left the bakery bare, taking home oil, flour and sugar. He didn't blame them because, "No es fácil. Everyone is in need." But when the government inspectors came, he was held accountable and fined.

"I earned 120 pesos a month, and the fine was 100 pesos. Incredible but true," Miguel said. "And why was the fine 100 pesos? Because the inspectors wanted theirs, too."

He prefers working for himself. The responsibility is less, the rewards higher. On good days, he can clear $10, more than twice what he earned at the bakery in a month.A music lover, he's also proud of the service he offers. If a customer asks for Marc Anthony, he can deliver the salsa star's latest disc in three hours.

He happily shows off the alphabetized list of CDs he has managed to borrow and load into a friend's computer. They number more than 400 and include everything from the Backstreet Boys to Barbra Streisand.

"In this situation, I have more tranquillity," Miguel said. "I am my own boss. I work when I want. I rest when I want . . . and my money is my money."

Worth the risk

Unlike Miguel, the polvo -- or powder -- man in Cerro, one of Havana's neediest neighborhoods, lives in fear of getting caught but considers his steady income worth the risk. A skilled athlete and former physical-education professor who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Roberto, he now peddles palm-sized packets of detergent for 10 pesos, or about 40 cents, apiece.

Sometimes he buys the powder in 5-pound sacks at full price, sometimes on the black market at reduced rates.

But it was a friend who worked at the soap factory who made Roberto's enterprise a success. The friend stole a roll of the plastic bags he uses to make the familiar red, yellow and blue packets that promise más espuma -- more suds.

Most days, Roberto can be found standing on the street corner, waiting for a whisper, "¿Quién tiene polvo? ¿Quién tiene polvo? [Who has powder?]"

Then he returns to the tiny apartment he shares with his mother, where he measures and cuts a rectangle from the roll, folds it in half and irons three sides shut. After pouring powder into the mouth with a tin cup, he seals the fourth seam -- and the deal.

It's not challenging work, but Roberto often makes more in a single day than the 198 pesos -- not quite $8 -- he earned monthly at the university. Now he can afford German lessons. And his customers are getting a bargain. Similar-sized packets sell for 70 cents apiece in dollars stores, which accept nothing but U.S. currency.

"It's risky. It's dangerous, but it's necessary because," Roberto said, "no es fácil."

Out in the open at her coffee stand, Mileyvis, 31, assumes far more risk, but she isn't worried. Neighborhood police are among her customers, and she knows they are struggling to survive like everybody else.

She works hard for the 100 pesos, or roughly $4, she earns most nights.

Her hands are discolored and burned from the coffee beans she roasts and grinds in the apartment she shares with her retired husband and daughter -- a single room near Chinatown she pronounces uninhabitable. A dirt pit covers part of the floor, and her legs are bruised from debris that occasionally falls from the crumbling ceiling.

Some days, she says, her family doesn't have anything to eat, but she prefers laboring for her own gain. She's thrilled she can clear more in two nights than her husband receives in his military pension each month.

And on those nights when she doesn't feel like dragging her desk downstairs and sitting under the solitary light bulb that announces she's open for business, personal incentive pushes her out the door.

"No es fácil," Mileyvis said, "but I do what I must."

Maya Bell can be reached at or 305-810-5003.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Culture/Society; Foreign Affairs; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: blackmarket; communism
By way of explanation for his illicit trade, he holds up his right hand and says, "Look at this." His thumb and two adjacent fingers are missing. Six years ago, Miguel caught his wrist in the bakery mixer, badly mangling it. A month later, his fingers were amputated because he could not afford the three pills needed daily to induce circulation. They cost $1 apiece, and, at the time, he was paid in bread -- six loaves a day.

Apparently "free" medical (and I suppose you might as well include "best eductation") gives you nothing. Gosh darn that old communist system. No medicine and no books. Give it up Castro!!

And what's with this "budding capitalists?" This is theft. But then Castro steals their labor so I suppose this is acceptable illegal supplemental income. I guess if we allow subsidized "trade" with Castro they'll have more to steal and their lives will be "better." How could the American taxpayer object to backing a loan to Castro? Just because he has outstanding IOUs around the world, that shouldn't stop us from helping the Cuban people, should it?

1 posted on 03/19/2002 1:34:03 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
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To: Cincinatus' Wife
eductation= education
2 posted on 03/19/2002 1:40:56 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
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To: All
Cuba Wages Offensive on 'Over-Sized' Houses--[Excerpt] ``The day money is the factor behind distribution of the nation's properties is the day we will be divided into social classes. We will not allow that,'' said Juan Contino, who heads the movement of Cuba's state-affiliated neighborhood groups, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR).

The CDRs are encouraged to keep a lookout for property ''irregularities'' and make denunciations where appropriate. ``We are the good neighbors, those who have to go out and warn people 'you're making a gigantic house','' Contino said.

The housing offensive has spread terror among the numerous Cubans who have in recent times carried out home extensions or ''permutas'', or used their houses for illegal purposes.

``They've destroyed my life. They say my house is 'over-sized' and I don't know where this is going to end,'' said one Cuban resident, whose repairs brought threatening inspectors' visits. ``They take my house away, I have nowhere to go.'' [End Excerpt]

3 posted on 03/19/2002 2:44:54 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
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