‘Skinny’: From the underground to self-employment

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Changes can be more effective than the police

HAVANA – Some days after finishing my previous article (See my blog: “Underground economy: Job market for the jobless”), I climbed into my car and drove into deep Havana.

I stopped on a street at random and parked the car. I wanted to stroll down the street, see people, walk alongside them, inhale the low-income neighborhoods where the odor of fried garlic and onions hangs in the air, listen to the chatter of housewives standing on the balconies of adjacent buildings defeated by time and indolence, and hear the oh-so-Cuban invitation: “Say, neighbor, would you like a thimble of coffee?”

Ah, the barrios. The country is the barrio where you grew up and live. You don’t need a passport of a visa because you’re a native.

I wanted to enjoy the spectacle of bed sheets dancing a bolero on a clothesline, with ladies’ bloomers and men’s shorts dancing cheek to cheek to the rhythm of a slight breeze. I also wanted to sink into the thick environment of those who expect nothing but survive as best they can.

Also, (why not?) to find windows that were open to hope. As I pondered that, while crossing a street, I heard a persistent ringing that warned me that I might be run over.

The ringing came from a bell mounted on the handlebars of a pedicab ridden by a young man.

“Take me,” I said. “Where to?” My answer was clear: “Just ride around; I’ll direct you.”

And he pedaled on, under the bright sun and the heat of summer, which in the capital, despite the breeze, can reach 89 degrees (in the east, 93). Hot diggety. Pedaling eight to ten hours a day, not for sport but for work. Hot diggety again.

Still, “I’m a pedicab driver,” he said, as he climbed up elevated streets or avoided potholes that seemed to be recorded in the GPS of his brain. Except for the new ones.

“This is my job,” he responds to my question, with a sweaty smile. He’s 23 years old and likes to be called ‘Skinny,’ a fitting nickname. He’s all bone and muscles, especially the calf muscles, which look like inflated spaghetti.

As a pedicab driver, 'Skinny,' a Cuban version of the rickshaw runner in Asia makes a living pumping his legs for hire.
As a pedicab driver, ‘Skinny,’ a Cuban version of the rickshaw runner in Asia makes a living pumping his legs for hire.

As a pedicab driver, ‘Skinny,’ a Cuban version of the rickshaw runner in Asia – a region where they’ve practically disappeared – makes a living pumping his legs for hire.

He has a license as a self-employed worker and pays his taxes, which “are not very high, 60 Cuban pesos a month, because I’m signed up for midtown Havana. If I worked in Old Havana, I’d have to pay 100.”

In addition, “every quarter I must pay 262.50 Cuban pesos for social security.”

I ask him how much he makes. He hesitates at first, but responds: “Between 1,500 and 2,500 Cuban pesos a month.” He says he’s had seasons when he made 3,000 Cuban pesos a month, the equivalent of 125 convertible pesos. [*] “It depends on the distance and who hires me.”

The “who” are the “Yumas,” a word that describes Canadian or U.S. tourists or Cuban-Americans visiting their homeland.

“All of them give me 5 and even 10 CUCs [convertible pesos]. Today, I didn’t have any Yumas, but by 10:30 a.m. I had earned 135 Cuban pesos.” [*]

In the past, ‘Skinny’ didn’t work, but “I invented,” he says. In street language, “to invent” is to make a living any which way. It’s a synonym for “trapicheo,” [peddling] in which he engaged for much of his early youth.

“I resold anything I could get my hands on. I didn’t ask where it came from or how,” he says, without shame or ethical misgivings, because “one has to live and things were tough.”

“You didn’t ask where the stuff came from?” I asked. Without slowing down, he turns his head back, stares at me and likely thinks: “This guy must be an idiot.”

“If I asked, I would be left out of the trade and suspected,” he answers. “They might think anything about me. I never asked from where or how. My job was to resell and make a few pesos, because I had to live.”

‘Skinny’ was a black-market pirate, specializing in selling clothing stolen from clotheslines by the “descuideros” – burglars looking for citizens who don’t pay attention to their property or live in apartments with accessible balconies.

He also resold cell phones that were either “pinched” or stolen forcibly. Or items pilfered from stores, sometimes on the spur of the moment, other times in complicity with store employees “whom we had to ‘touch,'” a word meaning to bribe.

He worked so openly that he offered his merchandise right on the street, “not willy-nilly,” he stressed, because he observed the characteristics of the possible buyers.

He did so until one day that, “seeing what was happening to others [they were arrested] and because I’m afraid of the ‘tank’ [prison], I went off the air [I retired.]” As he stops at a corner to let a car pass by, he adds: “When the new laws were passed, I saw a chance, a way out.”

His cousin had a broken down bicycle and gave it to him. ‘Skinny’ spoke with some mechanics friends of his, who adapted it into a pedicab for two passengers. “It cost me a bundle, but I paid in installments,” he says. “Now, I owe nothing. Everything I earn is mine.”

I was impressed by the force of that statement. The sound of his words reflected pride, and emotional pride at that.

Two years ago, ‘Skinny’ was a jobless young man, a number among the 1 million Cubans who don’t look for work. And he lacked an employment history, except for his experience in the illegal market. Now he is one of 296,712 independent workers who have no other job, a figure that represents 68 percent of the 436,342 self-employed workers officially reported.

How many of the 43,634 self-employed workers who engage in transportation (pedicabs fall under this classification) carry on their pedicabs, cars or trucks similar stories or similar experiences?

Their lives don’t necessarily approach or belong to the world of illegality. Most likely, they could represent interesting experiences in the changes that have occurred in the human factor and their impact on society.

After listening to ‘Skinny’s’ story, I thought hard about it. The key aspect (I’m copying from my notebook) is that the reforms implemented with greater or lesser speed – this is not the time to analyze speed – and zigzagging in their implementation began to legalize operations that for decades were ridiculously outside the law, such as the sale of cars or houses, or the paladares [restaurants] hidden for a long time, or the exploitation of private cars as taxis but in secret.

Those measures, aside from reducing the distance between the official world and societal practices – a gap that must be narrowed even more – have kept many of our compatriots from landing in jail.

Police action is unavoidable, but what’s essential is the economic-social project that opens spaces and facilitates them without collateral measures that might paralyze their effects, bringing to the mind of citizens the famous sentence atop the gate of Hell: “Abandon all hope.”

[*] Translator’s Note: One convertible peso is the equivalent of one U.S. dollar. One Cuban peso is the equivalent of 4 U.S. cents.

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