Street Vendors or Walkers / Yoani Sánchez

Private B&B operators trying to attract tourists.

“I want a donut with meringue,” says the kid in his red and white school uniform to a vendor who never stops walking back and forth. A wide band of cloth around his shoulders supports the wooden and acrylic box filled with cakes, cookies and pastries. Tony is the most famous baker in the neighborhood. He opened his first dessert kiosk over a decade ago and has passed through all the stages of the emerging private sector in Cuba: enthusiasm, annoyance, the numbers not adding up, and even turning in his license. Now he lives in a time of revival along with 346,000 self-employed workers who — especially in the last year — are prominent on the streets of the whole country.

This time Tony didn’t want to keep the little shack outside the Tulipan train station where he sold so many peanut candies. The high price of leasing a space from the State made him give up his old post amid the bustle of the avenue and the whistles of the locomotives. Cleverly, he noticed that the license for street vendor has much lower taxes and decided to devote himself to walking the street corners outside schools. He figured that this way he wouldn’t have to pay for electricity or securing his kiosk with half a dozen locks so it wouldn’t be robbed in the night, much less have to feed the cops for free from his tiny counter. Giving up a fixed location for the mobility of his two legs seemed to offer only advantages.

In the fine print of the “street vendor” license, however, it is unclear how long Tony can stand in one place. Each inspector interprets in his own way how long these “nomadic dessert sellers” can occupy the same site. With the result that, so far this month, our neighborhood entrepreneur has spent so much in fines and free muffins to these implacable supervisors that the high costs of his previous license look like peanuts. Now, Tony has a line of children following behind him asking for a donut here and an empanada there, and he can’t stop. He walks from Boyeros Street to tony 26th Avenue and asks himself why this emerging sector has to be plagued with so many absurdities, so many limitations. A decision is taking shape in his mind: to become part of the 25% of the self-employed who have permanently cancelled their licenses.

16 November 2011