Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

Nov. 26, 1999, Cuba Free Press.


HAVANA - East across the Bay of Havana, close to Don Giovanni's restaurant, the San Carlos Seminary, the Jose de la Luz y Caballero Park and the police station at the corner of Cuba and Tacon streets there is an open space, about 200 square meters (440 square yards), where more than 100 painters and artisans (mixed in with dozens of illegal traders) ply their trade.

It is lunch time and those providing assistance to the self-employed vendors move about warily "keeping one eye to their fronts and the other to their backs..."

"There is a guard every 15 meters," warns Gregorio, an ex-technician trainee, currently an agent representing a young painter. A graduate of San Alejandro, Gregorio, 27, has held many different jobs, from night guard at an import goods warehouse to a plumber's assistant, from repairing electric appliances to selling paintings in Old Havana. This last job has kept him busy since February of 1998 to the present.

Gregorio tends to skip over some words, some of his phrases half finished, at times monosyllabic. Every so often he looks towards the roof of the "oil building" next to Don Giovanni's. There, according to the artisans and painters, agents of the Office of State Security (OSS) keeps an eye on them day and night, some times even filming them.

I ask Gregorio about the "business." How does your employer pay you, for each painting sold? "Usually," he says, "the painters pay 20 percent to their representatives or agents. This may vary according to the circumstances. There are days with many sales and some painters will pay an agent a bit more.

"There are days when nothing is sold and you draw a blank. In addition you spend a lot in food and drink here. The heat and the anxiety level both are often high."

What is the average daily sale?

"A couple of paintings a day," Gregorio says. "Before they kicked us out of the Cathedral area it used to be much more. The Cathedral had a different atmosphere and we contributed to it!"

What is the average sales price of a painting? "Oh, that is unpredictable. Tourists are a fairly stingy lot. I have seen paintings sell for $300 and others for just $3. There are the factors of quality, size, if painted on cardboard vs cloth, etc."

Who pays for the space you work in? "In my case there are two people; the painter who hires me and has the permit to sell here plus another painter who pays for half of the space and occasionally sneaks in one of his landscapes; they sell with some regularity."

Isn't that illegal? "Well, one has to live, no?"

What do you earn in a month? "Between $100 and $150 if you discount the money I spend here," Gregorio says. "You tend to spend a lot here. It is hard to resist temptation. The black-market vendors will approach you with a pair of jeans or a shirt selling at half the price you would pay for them at the 'divisas' (hard-currency stores). You have no choice but to buy them. You may find a used pull-over, like new, selling for $2 or maybe a good lighter selling for three Cuban pesos."

How does the State tax the independent vendors? "Not all the painters here are independent. There are some working for the state galleries; they pay a lot less in taxes than the independent painters. With the independents the state has gone overboard. On top of the permits to sell, the monthly rental of space, they must pay a tax on each painting sold. Each painting must have a voucher which the new owner will need to show so as to take the painting out of the country. For the self-employed independents each voucher costs $2; for the gallery painters it's just 50 cents. At times, when the tourist does not ask for a play dumb."

But that is trickery! "Well, as I said, one has to live."

A tall tourist with a thick blonde mustache stops next to us, with a young African Cuban woman in tow. He seems interested in some of the paintings. Gregorio approaches them, exchanges a few words. A woman in charge of their lunch comes by to take the empty canteen away.

Next to the statue of Don Jose de la Luz y Caballero a few of the independent vendors have organized a domino game; loud voices and jokes are heard. "They are awful players, but one must while away the time in some fashion," says Gregorio.

Has prostitution decreased in this area? "Oh sure; you still see the 'jineteras' (prostitutes) with their tourists but they are no longer stalking them. I wonder where they hook up with each other? One hears that some officials allow the black-market operators some latitude, say the cigar vendors, because they are getting a piece of the action."

Is this true? "Well, I don't know for a fact. I have never seen that kind of a 'pass.' But I have heard those stories told and 'when the river makes a noise, it must be carrying stones.'"

Has there been a return of the clandestine vendors after the Ibero-American Summit? "Well, the people here will sell anything they have: clothes, food, sex, painting supplies. I have often thought many of those here might be policemen, agents for the DTI (secret intelligence); they may be informers."

Is that building across from us the one where someone watches? "Yes, there are two guys you can always see, one on top of the 'oil building,' the other on top of the police station at Cuba and Chacon. I wonder if they are filming us? They may have heard you were interviewing me. What is that, an interview you say?"

At the spoken thought, Gregorio starts to move nervously from side to side, then says, "You said those things; I've not opened my mouth!"

Armando Anel, Cuba Free Press.

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