14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillen, Candelaria, Cuba, 13 March 2017 — Apples, disposable diapers and fried foods are some of the products on display on the stands of the traveling fairs that make the rounds of Cuban towns. Nomadic caravans that recall the circuses of the olden days, but without the jugglers or wild beasts.
Rosario González is 47 years old and lives in Los Palacios, Pinar del Río. For a decade he was employed at a state coffee shop, but a few years ago he decided to have his own business. Now he dedicates himself to preparing and selling snacks in a nomadic fair that travels throughout the west of the Island.
Rosario’s competition is strong, and he must add new options and products to make his offerings more attractive. At the end of February there were some 539,952 people with self-employment licenses. Of these, 59,700 are engaged in preparing and selling food.
The group keeps tabs on patron saint parties, carnivals or any local festival. They arrive at the place and set up their improvised stands
The license to engage in this occupation allows the seller to move from one municipality to another and also between provinces. “I had some neighbors who were involved in this business and I realized that it was worth it. So I threw myself into it,” Rosario tells 14ymedio.
This man from Pinar del Rio is part of a group that keeps tabs on patron saint parties, carnivals, or any kind of local festival. They arrive at the place and set up their improvised stands, made out of the same metal cots they sleep on at night.
The merchants go from here to there and spend the greatest part of their time on the highways, roads and public plazas. Some of them don’t even have homes and choose the traveling business without ties to any place they can return to. They are this century’s nomads, in a country that has a housing deficit of 600,000 units.
“At the beginning it was a little complicated, because my previous life was so peaceful,” says Rosario. The state café where he worked was known as “the king of the flies” because it had very few products and even fewer customers. He then took a risky step and now he is used to the “festive atmosphere and the crowds of people.”
In a nearby timbiriche – the Cuban word for a tiny commercial stand – is Yaumara, a jewelry seller born in Bahia Honda. She displays necklaces, rings for all sizes, and jewelry made from surgical steel, very popular among those who can’t afford gold or silver.
“I always liked a party,” the merchant confesses, so her current job “is easier” for her.
When the swarm of vendors arrive in a town they register at the municipal Physical Planning Office. They rent a space for their flea market and show their licenses from the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT), which allows them to engage in activities ranging from the sale of good to the management of children’s games.
They take care of each other and warn of possible police controls. When an inspector demands they report on a colleague, everyone remains silent
Among the sellers bonds of friendship and family are created. In the caravan there are several married couples and some have even found love along the road. They take care of each other and warn of possible police controls. When an inspector demands they report on a colleague, everyone remains silent.
Despite the restrictions on selling imported merchandise, many products sold at the fairs come from Panama, Russia or the United States. What they display openly is only a small part of what they have on offer. “Here we have something for every taste and pocketbook,” says a home-appliance salesman who also offers light hardware.
Another part of the merchandise comes from the network of hard currency stores managed by the State. In towns where shortages are a much more chronic problem than in provincial capitals, resale has become a widespread practice. The merchants supply sponges for scrubbing, pens, flip-flops and belts.
“We sell at retail and that’s good because there are people who can’t afford a packet of detergent but can buy the small bags we repackage it into,” says Maurilio, who has spent at least five years “in these comings and goings.”
The group evaluates how long to stay in each village. “We see how things are, the atmosphere of partying and how sales go on the first day, then we decide whether to stay or not,” clarifies the entrepreneur.
Most of the inhabitants of the hamlets and settlements welcome them. “I look forward to the fair because it is an opportunity to buy things for the house and also my children love it,” says a resident of Candelaria. However, some residents closer to the points of sale complain that the travelers sleep on porches or take care of their personal needs in the street.
Some residents closer to the points of sale complain that the travelers sleep on the porches or take care of their ‘personal needs’ in the street
Ernesto and Uvisneido have solved that problem. Coming from the distant city of Guantánamo, they entered the business with a supply of toy cars. With the profits they bought a small trailer with three bunk beds and a bathroom. “So we do not have to sleep outdoors,” says Ernesto.
“We also have a dragon toy, a small inflatable jumping structure and a swinging chair carnival-type ride,” he adds. His customers are children who pay about 5 Cuban pesos for each turn on the ride or for a few minutes of jumping on the inflatable.
“There is always some inspector who spoils the party, but with this work we make out,” says Ernesto. Traders who have not managed to get a trailer to sleep in at night, set up their cots anywhere and pay a guard to patrol the vicinity.
With the first rays of the sun, they need to begin to proclaim their products or undertake the journey to the next town. Trade nomads know that their business only works if they travel everywhere.