The Self-Employed: Unemployed or Illegal / Odelin Alfonso Torna

HAVANA, Cuba — January offers to close its curtains with 100 empty stands in the country’s markets, self-employed who hope for job relocation, government fines  shielded in absurd justifications and the promise of a wholesale market that does not arrive.

While the print and television press emphasize new regulations for the private sector in 2014, the so-called “small businessmen” line up in municipal offices of the Tax Administration (ONAT) in order to turn in their licenses.

Rosa Maria, resident of Washington Street and Bejucal in the Havana township of Arroyo Naranjo, is one of those who delivered her license recently.  As a seller of ice cream and slushes, Rosa received innumerable visits from inspectors:

“The last fines were 50 and 500 pesos (2 and 20 dollars at current exchange), both from Public Health.  The 50 was because of my long nails and the 500 because there was dust on the counter of the cafeteria; now I’m tired!” she exclaimed.

La Cuevita Market before its closure

According to the Ministry of Work and Social Security, at the close of February 2013, 450,000 individuals worked for themselves.  An official economist, Ariel Terrero Font, said on television that judging by growth in the first months, it would not be possible to reach “half a million self-employed workers” by the close of that same year.

Nevertheless, after the prohibition on the sale of imported clothes and hardware items bought on the retail market, the body of licenses awarded by the ONAT for private work, say food vendors, cabbies (we call them “boatmen”), clothing and hardware sellers, decreased sharply.

The tsunami that passed through Havana

Hundreds of tarps lie empty in the capital’s markets.  It is said unofficially that at a national level, a mid-range of 62,000 individuals have frozen or turned in their licenses.

In the Electrico neighborhood market, located at Camilo Cienfuegos and Calzada de Managua, Arroyo Naranjo township, 17 stands have closed since the beginning of January and only two operate with the sale of pirated CDs and handicrafts.  The market located on Porvenir Avenue, between San Gregorio and Georgia, in the same township, closed totally: more than 70 stands offered clothes and imported shoes, including four cafeterias that used to serve the self-employed.

Self-employed market after closure by authorities

In one of the best attended markets of Arroyo Naranjo, sandwiched between Atlanta and Diez de Octubre, 43 stands have remained empty since January 6. The occupied stands, a total of 32, offer tailored clothes, handmade shoes, and costume jewelry.  In Central Havana, another of the leading markets in supply and demand, located at Angeles and Reina, barely keeps 3 or 4 stands active out of approximately 60 mini-kiosks.

Nevertheless, while in the main the extermination of taxpayers is visible, others give the impression of recovery. That is the case at the Virgen del Camino Market, situated on San Miguel and B Street, San Miguel del Padron township. This market, which reopened at the beginning of January, has 55 abandoned sales stands and 63 in service, above all with the sale of shoes and leather items.  This township is characterized for being the greatest producer of handmade shoes.

For Natividad Jimenez, a specialist in physical planning for the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT) in the capital township of Arroyo Naranjo, the taxpayers who used to sell imported clothes were never unemployed because some have accepted relocation and others have not.

“No place has been closed. They (the sellers) were alerted since last year, nothing has been done outside of the law. Many of the sellers from La Cuevita (Havana’s most prolific market) were illegal, that’s why they haven’t done anything, they haven’t complained and they have remained quiet,” Natividad pointed out.

Unemployment:  A secret tax?

Three-D theaters were the first required to close

At the close of 2011, the Office of National Statistics (ONE) published its last report about the numbers of taxpayers enrolled at the ONAT, a total of 391 thousand self-employed workers.  Nevertheless, statistics published in the official press reflect, until that date, a mid-range of 444,109 individuals registered with the ONAT.

Given the growing number of taxpayers cancelled in the ONAT, the municipal and provincial offices close ranks when it comes time to offer information.

The black market as a solution

Maybe the ONAT, charged with receiving the liquidation of taxes for private workers who seek cancellation, does not register in its data base the number of licenses turned in?

Judging by the official statistics, since December 2011 to date, only 54,000 Cubans have sought a license in the offices of ONAT. This tells us that the private sector remains at the bottom of the sewer, in spite of the grandiloquent displays of “transparency and timely information.”

Cubanet, January 30, 2014, 

Translated by mlk.