He is a Worker and Black, But He Repudiates Socialism
By all appearances, Alberto Jiménez belongs to that category of Cubans who, according to the official media, wait with open mouth for food that Daddy State sells by the ration book, established in March 1962. However, every day he leaves his home early, and sometimes returns late at night. He works in the street, freelance. Not for the government of Socialism or Death.
“See these hands, they’re not those of a slacker.” On top they are the color of black-ash, and when he turns them over, the palms are cracked and calloused. They belong to a bricklayer. Together with three friends – a carpenter, an electrician, and a plumber – Alberto has formed a brigade. They contract freely with those who need their services, to build a new home or repair one in poor shape.
“Who says that my family could live on the handouts that they give according to the ration book at the warehouse? If I didn’t work on my own, they would starve. My two sons are the appropriate height and weight for their age because I hunt for the money to buy the food they need. Their mother, at noon, takes their lunch to school, so they don’t eat the swill that they give out in the school cafeterias.”
He adds that his sons are happy. “Thanks to me, not to the Revolution, because I break my back so they don’t lack for anything.” At the beginning of each school year, on the black market, he pays 5 Cuban convertible pesos (about 125 Cuban pesos, half the average wage in the island), so that his offspring can go with new uniforms — in Cuba the uniforms are sold by ration and students are allocated a new one every two or three years.
“Yes, the education is free, but of poor quality. For my eldest son I have to pay a tutor, so he will get good grades, and when he finishes high school, he will have the required GPA to enter a computer institute, which is what he is interested in.”
It bothers Jiménez a lot that the propaganda of the official Cuban media portrays people like him as social parasites.
“Health care is supposedly free, but to get appropriate care I have to give gifts to the doctor or do needed masonry work at the physician’s home.”
And he lists the other things you have to do to survive in the country of Socialism or Death. Because he also carries the weight of his household’s economy. A responsibility that compels him to work outside the established labor system. Not being licensed to practice “on his own account” (self-employed) he is aware that he is performing an illegal economic activity, but he risks it.
“It’s not that I want to break the law, it’s a matter of necessity. I can’t afford to work for wages that don’t cover the basic needs of my family. I want my children to grow up healthy and strong.”
After explaining that it was for this that he brought them into this world, so they can live decently, he points out:
“I do not work to be useful to the State. I work for me and mine, and indirectly for the community.”
Alberto feels satisfied, because the work that his brigade does brings happiness to the people who hire them. “How can they consider conduct that benefits society as criminal, just because you do not have a paper with a permit?” he asks.
The socialist economic system is designed so that each citizen must be a proletarian. The State is the only legal employer, and if you are not in harness, you are a slacker. For Alberto, the concept of a government job is now obsolete. “Because you are not only tied to a state enterprise, you have to put in an 8-hour day and receive a wage that is not enough to live on.” And with a critical tone he asserts:
“It’s not my fault that young Cubans refuse to work today. That they drive up wages. Yes, there is laziness. I see it every day, in all these beggars that you run into on every corner, physically fit to work, but you see them playing dominoes or sitting on a corner. Hoping that you’ll give them something.
Albert recognizes that much of their work is made possible by illegality. When it’s a big job, they hire helpers and pay them 50 pesos a day, almost four times what the state pays on a workday. Something also punishable by law.
Most new construction is illegal. Repairs and upgrades are made without state approval. Usually through contacts with builders working for the state, and truckers of state-owned building materials, who at black-market prices provide the necessary resources to people like Jiménez working without permission. Materials are also available at hard-currency stores, but there the prices are exorbitant. “The cheapest are those of illicit origin,” he says.
We asked if he planned to legalize his masonry business. “I will be a taxpayer when Cubans have the same rights as the state and the foreigners to join in the economy.” He complains that taxes are very high compared with earnings received and there are too many crooks lining their pockets with all the public funds they can.
According to Alberto, everyone from the director to the worker steals on the island, and corruption has reached new levels. “I’m 47 and no one tries to get anything by me, the chief, if he’s not stealing from the business, he’s turning a blind eye in exchange for a slice.”
Cuba has a workforce of 4.9 million workers in a country of 11.2 million. The rest, the renegades, those whom the socialist state considers slackers, work at their own risk, without having the appropriate licenses. This group includes masons, carpenters, electricians, hairdressers, manicurists, tailors, shoemakers and small-appliance repairers, among others.
Low wages, a bankrupt economy, and thousands of regulatory prohibitions, force people to resort to the black market. A market that is a source of illicit resources diverted from state property, and a workforce almost always better-skilled and better-paid than that of the government. That is the reality in a country where individual economic initiative is prohibited.
By law, Cubans cannot participate in the economic affairs of their country. Therefore, in open defiance against the socialist system, and as a matter of survival, they do so illegally.
In Cuba, as in the case of Alberto Jiménez, it seems that people do not work. Yes, indeed, many do not work. But they do not work for the State. They work on their own, and at their own risk.
Translated by: Tomás A.