In these April days while the communists of the government party met for four days in the Palace of Conventions, to the west of Havana, newspaper vendors had a party.
Bartolo, a nearly blind old man, doubled sales of Granma that he offers every morning in the dirty doorways of the Calzada 10 de Octubre. Azucena, a thin lady with frog eyes, also is smiling again. He sold some 150 newspapers a day, three times what she usually sells.
The paper selling business offers meager profits. All these old people get up at 4:30 in the morning, just as the prostitutes and pimps start going to bed. After standing in line for three hours, they buy fifty Granmas and an equal number of Rebel Youth.
They buy them at 20 cents and sell them for a peso (a nickel on the U.S. dollar). They usually have clients who pay 40 or 50 pesos a week (almost two dollars), for them to put the morning papers under their doors.
That’s not the end of their suffering. Under a blazing sun, they walk daily between 5 and 10 kilometers to sell 100 copies of the boring local news. If they sell them all, at the end of the day will have earned 70 to 75 pesos. And believe me, they have to work miracles.
The Cuban press is pure lead. A pamphlet in the style of Pyongyang. Therefore, to sell a hundred papers every day they have to call on their ingenuity. In bad times, when baseball and news of interest is distinguished by its absence, these old men put all their skills into it.
In July 2010, when Raul Castro negotiated the release of political prisoners with the Catholic Church and the then Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, the vendors cried: “Hey, the abuse ended. The political prisoners aren’t going home. They’re off to Madrid.”
In their effort to boost sales that even invent news. Many people on the island do not read newspapers and they just buy Granma to read the TV schedule or the sports page.The sheets also are used to wrap garbage or for toilet paper.
So to call out a striking headling is the hook so people don’t pass by without putting a paper under their arm. And the news of the Sixth Congress was a good excuse to increase sales.
On Sunday, April 17, there was no way to find a paper in all of Havana. Some vendors were offering them at three pesos. They loudly announced, “Elections are coming to Cuba, within ten years,” or “Elections for president every 5 years,” or “Starting tomorrow, sales of houses and cars.”
Bartolo prefered to shout a more complete title: “Don’t wait to hear it from others, find out for yourself, elections in Cuba, Raul Castro retires in 2021. The Yankees have nothing for us to envy.”
People flocked to buy Granma. At the bus stop, readers wondered if the ten years that the General announced as a maximum time to stay in power started in 2008, when he took over the country, or at end of the VI Congress. It did not matter.
The important thing for all these poor elderly Cubans was not the ‘good news’ they hawked, it was the winning streak they were one over the four days the Congress lasted.
The first day of the event, Bartolo ‘went to bed’ early. After 12 hours of walking and shouting out newspapers, he eats, for 20 pesos, a boxed meal with rice and black beans, yucca and pork steak and drinks almost two liters of rum bully. When it got dark, he prepared cartons that serve as his bed in a doorway of Calzada de 10 de Octubre. Until tomorrow. Good night and good luck.
April 22 2011