After legalization of private businesses in Cuba three years ago, carts with farm products appeared in Cuban streets, to a huge relief of Cuban cooks; for many young people with lack of motivation to continue their studies, cart business constituted a new source of employment. As a result, Cuban streets were soon flooded with all types of carts made of various materials. Carts could be seen anywhere and the trade license for cart business became the third most commonly granted license.
The law governing this trading activity stipulates that the cart can never stay static in one place – it “must be constantly moved around”. However, the regulation has been disregarded by cart drivers due to the fact that their movable stores made of iron chassis and wooden planks, laden with heavy products, are very difficult to move.
For instance, Yanquiel, one of the oldest cart drivers from Jaimanitas, constructed a “beast of a cart” fitted with railings that allows him to transport even more goods. “It’s impossible to keep it moving, as the trading license dictates, because it’s very heavy. But can’t be any smaller. If you invest money in the cart, you can’t go around selling just four pumpkins and a half sack of bananas like country people do. It’s not profitable.”
Each day early in the morning, cart owners drive their carts heavily laden with goods to a busy point in a town or a village, where they remain until dusk. Then they get back home again. The law imposes a duty to move the cart around and a failure to observe it became the most common reason of fines collected by inspectors in 2016. High prices were the second reason.
“The State has banished contractors – instead, it has taken on the role of a contractor itself. As a consequence of the lack of stable supplies and high wholesale prices, we can’t sell at affordable prices. It’s the State’s inability to ensure the supply of products and the demand for such products that makes people pay as much as they do,” says Yúnior, a young owner of a cart as big as Yanquiel’s, which he keeps parked at a very busy place.
Since April 2015, the National Tax Administration Office hasn’t been granting new cart business licenses, nor has it been renewing the existing ones. For this reason, cart business has become almost illegal in Cuba – one more reason for the inspectors to scourge cart drivers. Due to the excessive pressure exerted on cart business owners, their number has plummeted. For example, only one of eight cart businesses in Jaimanitas has survived. I asked its owner, Silvio Benítez, how the business was going. He scratched his head and told me:
“Well, it’s going… I can’t say much more. People used to criticize us for the prices, which were sky-rocketing, but now, when many carts have been forced to leave the streets, there are suddenly no supplies and people have finally realized they need us. They pray for my cart not to break, they wouldn’t know what to do without me.”
Other trades have also seen a decline in private business activities in 2016 as a consequence of bureaucratic obstacles, suspension of granting of new licenses and renewal of the existing ones, as well as due to the conduct of inspectors. A huge negative impact has been felt by private restaurants, “paladares”, and bike taxi drivers. Yet, the hardest blow has been suffered by common people who no longer have access to agricultural products brought on carts by cart drivers.