Havana Hustling / Ivan Garcia

oficios-de-buscavidas-620x330This 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