Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Havana Hustling

Havana Hustling / Ivan Garcia
Posted on February 25, 2014

This time the phone call came in the middle of the night and the message
was grim.

Edania, a retired teacher who has set up a small business of making
phone calls and taking messages for the neighborhood, hurried to give
the bad news to a family that lives two doors down from her house, in
the rundown neighborhood of La Cuevita in San Miguel del Padrón, in the
northern part of Havana.

"The thing is taking off like wildfire," says Edania. "The retired
people can't afford it, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that
I'm one of the few people with a phone in the neighborhood. I started
charging one Cuban peso to pass on messages and two pesos for local
calls in Havana. If the call is outside the city, I charge 3 pesos per
minute. Many people are providing this service, which is one of the
officially recognized self-employment businesses, but I have no
intention signing up at the tax office. I only get 150 or 200 Cuban
pesos per month [$6-8 USD], which barely supplements my meager pension.
I don't charge for funeral news."

In the interior of the island as well as in the capital it has become
common for neighbors who have telephones to charge for calls. Richard, a
retired resident of the Diez de Octubre district of Havana, has a small
money box next to his phone with a list of the various call charges.

"I also sell mobile phone cards. I buy them for 10 CUCs [about $11 USD]
and sell them for 11; the ones that cost 5 I resell for 6. But
apparently someone in the neighborhood has been talking, because the
state inspectors have visited me, demanding that I legalize the
business. I told them to go to government offices and demand better
pensions for the old people, and then come back and see me," says Richard.

After the vaunted economic reforms in Cuba—an exotic blend of wildly
exploitative state capitalism mixed with Marxist speeches and slogans by
Fidel Castro—a torrent of quirky trades flooded the Havana neighborhoods.

The elderly are the losers in this wild mixture of everything from
sidewalk pastry vendors to high-quality eateries. In the world of
self-employment, everything is available.

From people who offer pirated DVDs of Oscar-nominated movies for 25
Cuban pesos, to elderly public-restroom attendants.

In this spectrum of emerging trades, you find "experts" in umbrella
repair, button-covering, funeral cosmetology, matchbox-refilling, and
shoe repair. For 50 Cuban pesos they'll carry buckets of water and fill
your 60-gallon tank.

Havana is a tropical bazaar. A hive of hustlers. On the avenue that
encircles the old port of Havana, a diverse group of citizens converges
to try to earn a living.

Right next to Maestranza children's playground, Delia, decked out in a
floral costume, works as an itinerant fortune teller. "I charge ten
Cuban pesos for each card-reading. If you want an in-depth session then
the price goes up to 25. It's even more expensive for foreigners, who
can afford more."

Several tourist buses stop at Avenida del Puerto. As the visitors take
photos of the Bay and the Christ of Casablanca statue, street musicians
sing old boleros and guarachas, trying to attract their attention.

Leonel is one of them. "For 20 years I've devoted myself to making soup
(singing while the customers ate). There have been good and bad days.
But I've always made more than the wages the state paid. When no one in
Cuba remembered Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, or Pio Leyva, God rest
their souls, they also had to work as lunchtime entertainers, and to
sing in seedy bars. They were lucky that a producer like Ry Cooder
lifted them out of poverty," Leonel said, playing a ranchera as he
approached some Mexican tourists, hoping to pass the hat.

A dilapidated port-a-potty, serving as a urinal for the customers of
three bayfront bars, is looked after by two rickety old men.

They charge one peso to urinate, three to defecate. "It's because the
toilet is clogged. We have to carry a greater quantity of water," they
say. They get the water for flushing right out of the bay, with a can
tied to a rope.

"It's hard work. We're here up to twelve hours. But when I get home with
10 or 15 CUCs, I ask the Lord to give me strength to live a few more
years so I can help my wife, who's bedridden after a stroke," says one
of the old men.

The buses are now gone. A quartet of street musicians, all elderly, lean
against the sea wall, waiting for new tourists.

"It's been a long journey to return to the beginning. Before the
Revolution I was already a soup peddler. For me nothing has changed.
Except that life is more expensive and I'm older," says the singer and
guitarist. His dream is that on some tourist bus, a guy like Ry Cooder
will come and rescue him from oblivion.

Iván García

Photo: In central areas of Santiago de Cuba, which like Old Havana are
usually frequented by tourists, musicians also look for a living in
streets and parks. Taken from Martí News.

Translated by Tomás A.

17 February 2014

Source: Havana Hustling / Ivan Garcia | Translating Cuba -

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