Scraping to survive: Cubans forced to defy government to eke out existence

Across from Havana's famed Malecon seawall, a crumbling old home stands next to one refurbished as a privately-owned restaurant and hotel.
(Robert Dominguez / New York Daily News)
New York Daily News

HAVANA — This is definitely not what Fidel pictured.

Sixty years after Castro overthrew Cuba’s notoriously corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista, one of the world’s last remaining Communist strongholds has become a hotbed of capitalism.

In Havana, where crumbling Colonial-era buildings stand in near-ruin alongside shiny new hotels and restaurants owned by private citizens — and where American cars from the 1950s are now tourist taxis that use the Plaza de la Revolución as a parking lot — long-suffering Cubans have been forced to become crafty capitalists in order to survive under the Socialist state’s eternally ineffective economy.

Here, in the second of a two-part series, the Daily News takes a look at a cross-section of Havana residents — an illegal taxi driver, an unlicensed street vendor, a fortune teller and a young prostitute among them — who are doing whatever it takes to make ends meet in modern-day Cuba.


‘I refuse to pay’

It’s lunchtime on a sunny day on La Rampa, Havana’s busiest street in the city’s Vedado district, and Frank is doing brisk business selling his homemade pastries to Cubans looking for a cheap, sweet dessert.

Sitting on a low wall outside an office building with an open cardboard box on his lap, Frank, 48, offers hungry Habaneros a 2-x-4-inch custom concoction made with dried fruit topped with custard icing for five Cuban pesos, or about 20 cents.

A street vendor in Havana selling homemade pastries.
(Robert Dominguez / New York Daily News)

Frank, who bakes the pastries at home with the help of a friend, says he can sell anywhere from 50 to 75 pastries on a good day — $10 to $15, not a bad haul by Cuba’s standards.

“There are good days and bad days, but I make a decent living, so I’m out here every day,” says Frank, who lives with his elderly mother.

Like any small independent businessman, he worries about the means of production, especially under an economy known for constant shortages, not to mention quality control.

Flour for baking is currently in short supply, and the kind available on the black market makes his pastries too crumbly.

“People don’t like it as much,” he says.

Like other self-employed entrepreneurs working without a license, Frank also has to constantly deal with state inspectors looking to crack down on street vendors.

Though he does have a unique way of avoiding fines.

“They know me, and they know I refuse to pay,” he says. “So they usually don’t bother me.”

One hacked-off cabbie

He doesn’t sport Travis Bickle’s Mohawk, green army jacket or arsenal of handguns. But get Miguel talking about conditions in Cuba, and it’s obvious he’s one ticked-off taxi driver.

The thirtysomething Havana native, who doesn’t have a license to use his car as a taxi, makes a living proudly defying the state’s strict controls on the industry, which he calls ridiculous, corrupt and just another way to steal more money from the people.

“Why should I give (the government) anything more than I have to?” he tells a foreign fare in the back seat of his car while driving along Havana’s narrow streets. “Life here is hard enough.”

With Havana’s bus service notoriously undependable, many Cuban commuters opt for inexpensive, privately-owned licensed taxis to get around town called almendrones, in which they share rides with strangers for about 50 cents.

Tourists usually see the sights in state-run yellow cabs or the ubiquitous, classic American cars from the ’50s that can cost up $50 an hour.

Drivers like Miguel, who owns a mid-1980s Russian Lada left over from when Cuba was a Soviet satellite, provide a cheaper option. Hanging around near the hotels, they’ll mostly ferry tourists — which is illegal without a license and can cost him a hefty $40 fine, or about a month-and-a-half’s salary for the average Cuban.

But driving what is essentially a Havana-style gypsy cab lets Miguel avoid paying license fees and taxes — as well as having to buy expensive fuel at state-owned gas stations, like licensed hacks are supposed to do.

Gasoline has long been one of the more popular commodities sold on the black market. But government workers who drive official vehicles like trucks, buses or even ambulances have long made money on the side by stealing gas from their allocated quotas and selling it to taxi drivers, licensed or not, and private car owners.

Besides, being his own boss is a way of sticking it to a government Miguel says is as crooked as any black marketeer.

“What I don’t understand is how we have let these people stay in power,” he says, his voice rising. “We are 11 million and we cannot defeat a few hundred?”

All in the family

She didn’t see it coming, but Teresita Rios is ready to take over the family fortune-telling business.

Rios and her mother, Juana Rios, have been fixtures at the Plaza de la Catedral in the historic Old Havana section of the capital city for years, reading Tarot cards for tourists at an outdoor table and posing for kitschy pictures holding super-sized cigars.

Dressed in traditional white Santeria gowns and headdresses, Teresita and Juana are state-sanctioned street performers who have become as much of a stereotypical symbol of Cuban culture as the ‘50s-era Chevys that still rumble around the city.

Teresita Rios, a Santera who tells fortunes at Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana.
(Robert Dominguez / New York Daily News)

Not that they’re complaining. Each reading, during which Teresita or Juana invariably impart a feel-good forecast for a subject’s health, wealth or love life, earns them at least $10, which can multiply quickly when the Colonial-era plaza buzzes with tourists.

“I always try to help people and transmit positive energy,” says Teresita, a 52-year-old mother of three who professes psychic powers. “I help them see that all is possible if they believe in themselves.”

What she didn’t foresee was that her 78-year-old mother, known as Juana la Cubana, would get sick early last year after working at the plaza for the past 32 years, leaving Teresita to go it alone for now.

“My mother is a historic figure and it’s possible she may not come back,” says Teresita, who started working with Juana 10 years ago. “I can’t be like her, but I am hoping we can continue.”

Taking it to an art form

When boyhood pals Mario Echevarria and Nelson Labrada decided to leave steady jobs in construction in their hometown of Holguin and move more than 400 miles away to start over in Havana, their families thought they were making a mistake.

Nobody, everyone said, should put much faith in the Cuban economy. Especially when both men were in their early 40s.

But when the friends said their plan was to become professional artists, everyone just thought they were crazy.

Three years later, it looks like Echevarria and Labrada got the last laugh.

The men, who had worked at a variety of jobs including as carpenters and locksmiths, had always been talented artists. They were lucky to move to Havana just as the tourist boom, helped by the normalization of relations with the U.S. under former President Barack Obama, hit the city like a Caribbean storm.

Artists Mario Echevarria (l) and Nelson Labrada.
(Robert Dominguez / New York Daily News)

Suddenly, the paintings they sold from the tiny room they rented by day — an eating area in a cramped apartment overlooking a narrow street in Old Havana — were in hot demand by tourists looking for a relatively inexpensive piece of authentic Cuban art.

“People like it,” says Labrada, 45, of their artwork, which is mostly colorful, clichéd images of classic cars, rural vistas and scenes along the Malecón, Havana’s famed seawall.

The paintings, all on soft canvas and some done with small metal palettes rather than brushes, come in various sizes and sell for $10 to $200.

“After we pay for rent, taxes, our pensions and licenses, we are able to make a decent living,” says Echevarria, 48.

But the artists do face some risks. Good art materials are in short supply in Cuba, especially oil and acrylic paints, and the men refuse to lower their standards and use house paint like some other artists do.

Then there’s the cyclical dearth of customers — tourism tends to drag during the summer months and the early fall.

“We were able to save a little money for a while, but right now it’s a little tough,” Echevarria says. “We’re waiting for things to pick up with the tourists,” he adds. “Cubans, unfortunately, don’t buy art.”

Turning tricks her only option

With her bleached blond hair, tight stylish jeans and cell phone jammed in her rear pocket, she could be a student, an officer worker or just one of the many seemingly careless teens ambling along the Malecón on a hot Havana afternoon.

Except Lara represents Cuba’s dirty little secret. Decades after Castro vowed to stamp out the rampant prostitution of the bad old Batista days when Havana was America’s adults-only playground, the world’s oldest profession is still going strong.

A young prostitute in Havana.
(Robert Dominguez / New York Daily News)

While streetwalkers are rare in Havana, or at least not out in the open, Lara is what’s known as a jinitera – women young and old, single and married, who sell their bodies for a quick buck just to survive in Cuba’s harsh economy.

Or in some cases, lucky enough to latch onto a randy tourist for the duration of his stay and enjoy gifts, free meals and cash in exchange for the jinitera’s company.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this my whole life,” says Lara, who says she’s 18. “I do it because there’s nothing else I can do. I didn’t go to school and I don’t have a job, so this is it.”

Lara, who blames an alcoholic mother and an absent father for drifting into the life, says she makes up to $50 for a quick trick, usually tourists she solicits along the Malecón.

She’ll take the client back to the small room she rents from a woman who Lara says is fine with how she makes a living.

“A lot of my friends do this,” she says in a soft voice.

Most nights, Lara will troll Havana’s many discos and clubs for tourists looking for a good time, who she can hopefully charge a lot more for overnight stays.

With a world-weariness that belies her age, she’s resigned to the fact that despite the harsh penalties for prostitutes — prison terms are not uncommon — she sees no way out right now.

“This is Cuba,” she says quietly. “You do what you can.”