Transforming Identities

An Ethnography of Change in a Cuban Market

by | Jul 27, 2000

Tony with tourists, Malecon crafts market

I tell Alejandro that between the two of us he is by far the more experienced anthropologist. From behind his small, crowded table in the Malecón tourist crafts market in Havana, Alejandro has developed an effective radar for his customers’ national idiosyncrasies. The Spanish, he says, are his biggest buyers. Attracted by bright colors and cheap prices, they are savvy shoppers – far more so than the growing number of visiting Americans who are eager to buy at any price. Then there are the Italians who gesticulate wildly and love a bargain, even when they know Alejandro is just playing along. The Russians, according to Alejandro, have no such sense of humor, but are known to bargain hard for the ugliest products. The pink-faced Northern Europeans and Canadian retirees, on the other hand, share the habit of peering quietly at the table, humming and hawing, often circulating through the rest of the market before coming to a decision – and then buying one or two small souvenirs.

Originally a high-school gym teacher, Alejandro is one of a new group of trabajadores por cuentapropia, self-employed workers, or literally, “workers for private profit.” We met in 1998 while I was studying at the University of Havana. I chose to look at cuentapropismo as a lens onto how Cubans are negotiating the profound economic and political changes sparked by the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent near-collapse of the Cuban economy. Trabajo por cuentapropia was authorized by the Cuban government in 1993 in such limited areas as taxi driving, car repair, street-food vendors and craftsmanship. Although they number fewer than 200,000, cuentapropistas are the first Cubans to shift from state-salaried employment in Cuban pesos to self-employment in dollars. For this reason, some have seen cuentapropistas as a kind of capitalist vanguard, a focal point of discussion surrounding Cuba’s transition to a market economy.

In 1990, at the beginning of the “special period in time of peace” when Cuba suffered from an almost complete lack of consumer goods, Alejandro and his brother made leather shoes and belts to be sold por la calle (in the black market). This lasted until shoes returned to the stores and the need for homemade shoes diminished. Alejandro’s brother eventually emigrated to the United States; Alejandro shifted his energies to establishing himself as a self-employed artisan. Alejandro’s ability to respond quickly and with ingenuity to changing economic circumstances is, Cubans boast, something of a national characteristic. Resolver is the operative verb, describing the combination of ingenuity, creativity and energy required to “resolve” or supply daily necessities such as meat, medicine, car parts, train tickets and children’s shoes. What Alejandro and other cuentapropistas (not to mention black market wheelers and dealers) have learned, however, is how to make a substantial living by resolving other peoples needs, whether it be by supplying shoes or tourist knick-knacks.

Despite the obvious skill and business acumen that go into being a successful cuentapropista, Alejandro rejected my attempts to construct some general profile of the cuentapropista. “There’s no defined type,” he insisted. ” There are university graduates, professionals, workers, housewives, those who have never worked. There are all kinds, all kinds.” Alejandro rejected the term “businessman” as descriptive of cuentapropistas, but rather described cuentapropistaseither according to their past profession – teacher, doctor, engineer – or to their current status as, for example, artisan. Alejandro calls himself an artisan rather than a businessman in spite of the fact that he is constantly dreaming up future schemes involving self-employment in the private sector such as opening up a private health club. Thus, while displaying interest and enthusiasm for entrepreneurial ventures, Alejandro resists identifying such activities as part of his profession, and therefore as part of his self-image.

Indeed, the whole notion of a business transaction as legitimate work seems unformed for Alejandro. He carefully emphasizes the difference between cuentapropistas who produce their own merchandise and those who are solely vendors. Asked about a cuentapropista’s essential qualities, Alejandro responded, “There are two types of cuentapropistas, you know. In the case of the artisan he should also be the one who produces what he sells, because there shouldn’t be an intermediary. There is also the kind who only sells, who doesn’t produce. But this type doesn’t do anything, the only thing he does is sell and that’s it. The two types are different.”

Alejandro’s emphasis on production can be attributed to a variety of factors, the most obvious of which is that is illegal for cuentapropistas to sell products which are not their own. It is therefore clearly in Alejandro’s legal interests to identify himself with the production side of cuentapropia. Beyond these more practical concerns, however, Alejandro’s distinction becomes even more significant when one understands that in Spanish, Alejandro uses the verb “to work” rather than “to produce.” A more literal translation of his statement would therefore be “In the case of the artisan he should also be the onewho works what he sells. There is also the kind who only sells, who doesn’t work it” (emphasis added). The vendor, then, is not “working” but is rather a parasitic figure operating off of the work of others. This resonates with the stereotype of the sinister and exploitative capitalist intermediary who makes a profit through the alienation of the worker from his product. In this sense the occupation of “artisan” is far more positive and even romantic than cuentapropista since it entails working with one’s hands to produce something of beauty and utility. Clearly while Alejandro may engage daily in mercantile activities, socialist concepts of legitimate work remain significant for him and he seeks to distance himself from negative associations with capitalist work methods.

In fact Alejandro forcefully rejects the label of “capitalist,” citing Cuban cultural idiosyncrasies such as sociability and spontaneity which, he argues, are incompatible with capitalist work habits and social relations. Other market vendors also repeatedly emphasised these differences; capitalism signified materialistic, competitive, self-absorbed workaholics who had little time for family or friends. Indeed, Alejandro sees his relaxed attitude towards work and turning a profit as clear proof of his non-capitalist tendencies. I eventually got into the habit of dropping by Alejandro’s house to confirm that he had indeed gone to work before I made the long walk to meet him at the marketplace. On the many occasions when I found him comfortably ensconced on the sofa watching television or playing with his young son, Alejandro would joke – perhaps ironically turning my own words back on me – “Maybe tomorrow I’ll turn capitalist; today I’m staying home!”

Yet on several occasions, Alejandro referred to the formation of a cuentapropista “class,” intriguing me with his open discussion of class formation. “Yes, I believe it’s a class” said Alejandro. ” Although it’s not fully formed as it is, but it’s a class that has money, that has power, that has things other people don’t have.” However, while the economic status and business practices of trabajadores por cuentapropia do indeed resemble a kind of vanguard of a petit bourgeoisie, the resemblance is far from complete. First, as Alejandro’s emphasis on being an active producer demonstrates, a fundamental difference remains between the way legitimate “work” is conceived of by many cuentapropistas from a more capitalist conception, and this does not include purely financial business transactions. Second, cuentapropistas may enjoy increased economic status and consumer power, but they are indistinguishable in this sense from the growing number of black and gray marketers, as well as from those who receive remittances from family members abroad, who are able to maintain the same living standard as cuentapropistas. Alejandro commented, “[My daughter] Rachel is the only girl in her class whose parents arecuentapropistas, and yet every child in her class has brand new sneakers and back-packs. And not cheap sneakers – the kind you buy in the (shopping center).” Income alone cannot define cuentapropistas. Furthermore, when questioned on the subject of professionalism and secondary education, the vendors almost universally agreed that their children would be better off pursuing post-secondary education and professional careers. Cuentapropistas are not, then, a social group that is likely to reproduce itself.

Even if they do not represent the frontlines of capitalism in Cuba, cuentapropistas are beginning to define a new kind of work culture on the island, characterized principally by a qualitatively different kind of relationship between the individual and the state. State regulation of trabajo por cuentapropia remains, of course, a strongly felt presence, from one’s initial attempt to obtain a permit to the monthly licensing fees and frequent inspections. However, fundamental to cuentapropismo is the relative independence enjoyed by individuals from the official state system. It is both a source of pride and of bitterness as cuentapropistas reconcile themselves to a higher than average income, but little social security.

As Mariela, another market vendor, commented, “Before, the state provided you with the necessities of life. Now, the trabajador por cuentapropia can acquire things, and we control ourselves. The state doesn’t interest us, because it doesn’t do anything for us. We even have to pay to do our work. [The government] realizes that they are losing control of trabajo por cuentapropia. And so it seems to me that that’s what the government fears, not that we have a capitalist mentality, but that we don’t depend on the state for anything, nothing more than to pay our $163 a month.”

Winter 2000


Emma Phillips (’00) spent a semester in Havana in 1998-99 and has since returned three times. She is writing her senior thesis in Social Anthropology on the effect of Cuba’s economic transition on changing notions of personhood amongst self-employed workers.

Related Articles

RFK Professor Roberto Schwarz

RFK Professor Roberto Schwarz

Roberto Schwarz, Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor this past semester, is one of the foremost Latin American intellectuals whose critical work spans 25 years. Students who took his Romance…

Resistance and Reform

Resistance and Reform

A university chemistry professor in Havana quietly mixes chemicals-paid for by the state- for a local photographer. The photographer in turn sells some of his pictures to a Spanish tourist…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email