14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, May 19, 2020 — A lone motorcycle makes its way along Cerro Road in Havana. Behind the driver is a brightly colored box displaying the logo of a home delivery service, one of the few private businesses that seems to be thriving in a city paralyzed by COVID-19. Classified ad sites are full of announcements by people looking for or offering their services as couriers. Anyone with transportation and willingness is a good candidate.
“I started at the beginning of May and I already think of myself as an experienced courier because I have done it all,” says Ricky, a 22-year-old unemployed waiter who was working at a small place on Reina Street when restaurants and cafes were ordered to close. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to find work until the pandemic was over but instead I am earning more.”
Ricky took a few photos of his motorcycle, which his father helped him buy a year ago, and posted an announcement on the island’s most important classified ad sites. In it he describes himself as “serious, punctual, friendly and able to deliver to any area of the city, except eastern Havana, with a smile.” Three hours after the ad appeared, he started getting calls.
At first Ricky began making home deliveries for a pizza and pasta place but soon got a more tempting offer from an agency that handles orders from overseas to local restaurants, pastry shops and other businesses. Businesses like Mandao, which makes home deliveries of food prepared by private individuals, have flourished since the start of quarantine.
I might deliver a cake, soft drinks, flowers or a Mother’s Day dinner,” explains Ricky. “Besides the fee I get for every delivery, most customers give me a tip.” He works seven days a week, from 10 AM to 8 PM. “Once a policeman stopped me but I explained what I was doing and he let me go because I was wearing my face mask.”
Making deliveries is among the hundred or so legal occupations allowed under the island’s laws governing self-employment. A few years ago this was restricted to deliveries from markets where goods were rationed to customers’ homes, with limited ability to deliver purchases from farmers’ markets or hard-currency stores. But this has changed.
The explosion in home delivery services on the island is due not only to the pandemic but also to the growing sales in recent years of electric motorcycles, a lightweight form of transportation that requires neither registration nor a license to operate. Imported motorinas have become one of the top-selling items in the hard currency stores which the government opened last year.
“I have a crew of twelve couriers,” says the manager of one of these services, which has found a very comfortable niche since confinement due to coronavirus began. “We provide the same delivery service to families that we provide to private businesses,” he points out. “Everyone who works on this team has an electric motorcycle, looks good and is serious.”
“Your order will arrive in forty-five minutes,” says a female voice on the WhatsApp message sent to a customer who has just ordered a chocolate cake through one of these couriers, who will then have to seek out the item at a privately owned bakery on San Rafael Street. The courier calls when he has reached the destination. There are smiles, a tip and an electronic message thanking the customer for the purchase: “We hope you call to request our services again soon. Thank you very much.”
The efficiency of these drivers contrasts with the problems of distribution of the state-run TuEnvio service, whose delays in many cases can inconvenience customers for as much as three weeks. “The state could learn a lot from us and we would like to partner with them on the distribution side but that’s not possible under their current rules,” say the courier service manager.
The “rules” to which he refers are clearly the salaries and working conditions for state employees in the distribution sector. “There are guys who work here who make as much in a week as a doctor makes in a month. No one wants to go work for the state to earn less money and have less independence,” he explains to 14ymedio. “What the state should do is contract with us and agree to our prices.”
But the drivers do not just deliver products from private businesses to homes. They also serve as links between families separated by the pandemic. “Some people called me from Playa asking me transport some cleaning supplies and food items from their house to their relatives’ house in Cerro,” says Karelia, a courier who until March was studying English in hopes of fulfilling her dream to emigrate.
“This whole situation has really surprised me. Because my brother had a motorcycle, we began offering courier services and it has worked out very well. We have some families who call us several times a week.” When asked what the most unusual item she has had to deliver, she smiles. “I had to transport a cocker spaniel puppy from Old Havana to Santiago de Las Vegas. It was difficult because the puppy was very restless.”
And the most common? Food, diapers, hard drives with the paquete* (weekly packet) and medicines,” adds Karelia. “This bike has seen it all. This is how the city works now. I hope it stays this way because then I will have a job for a long time.”
*Translator’s note: a compendium of pirated weekly entertainment and news programming from overseas, distributed clandestinely.
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