Going it alone, and other weeds

Gonzalo Vidal and Jonathan Curry-Machado today begin a new venture together, writing and photographing about present day Cuba and its people.

In ‘Por cuenta propia y otras hierbas’ (‘Going it alone, and other weeds’), we will explore through words and images the everyday lives and experiences of those who have opted for the precarious independence of working on their own account, as a means of survival free from the constraints of formal employment.

Over the coming months, The White Maroon will publish these real life stories. Although the tales we will tell all come from a single community in East Havana, Cuba, throughout the world there are many who in a multitude of ways seek to provide for themselves and their families through their own exertions, their own creativity and inventiveness, and their own free and independent attitude to life. 

Before Cuba fell into the economic crisis euphemistically known as ‘Special Period’, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the State took charge of organising and directing all services, as well as controlling almost all the means and forms of production, distribution and sale. Only a few agricultural smallholders remained working indendently, and even then within considerable constraints asserted by the State. But from the mid-1990s – partly as a spontaneous social response to the considerable difficulties the island and its people were facing, partly as a result of the timid political and economic reforms – a new social being emerged in Cuba: the ‘cuentapropista’, self-employed. As the 21st century proceeds, such forms of work are now a formally accepted and expanding part of everyday life and survival in the island.

This series of photographic stories will develop around these people, who live through a variety of trades and services that have become a regular part of life in the East Havana neighbourhood of Alamar. While many of these are now recognised by the State, we will also look at those who continue to operate in no-man’s-land, outside the law – for example, the informal fishermen, the woman who sells cheese and homemade yoghurt from door-to-door.

Every day the cries can be heard in the streets of the neighbourhood: “cremita de leche, queso fresco, la barra de guayaba” (cream, cheese, guava jelly), “compro cualquier pedacito de oro” (I’ll buy any small piece of gold), “el buen aromatizante, el cloro de Santa Clara” (room fresheners, bleach from Santa Clara), “se repara colchones” (mattresses repaired), “el biscocho” (cake), and so on interminably.

Whether they are locals, or whether they have travelled with considerable sacrifice to acquire their goods and bring them here to sell, these people are in the ‘lucha’, the daily struggle to sustain themselves and their families, and attempt to make a living that might enable them to do more than just survive. Since the crisis of the 1990s, Cubans have been ‘inventing’ their survival in a wide variety of ways.

Urban smallholdings began to appear, taking advantage of the disused communal lands throughout the city. When the crisis hit, Alamar was still in the process of construction, and contains many spaces originally intended for other eventual uses – more blocks of flats, children’s parks, social facilities, places of employment. But when construction ground to a halt, frozen by the lack of resources, the neighbourhood was left with large gaps, quickly filling with wild vegetation. Even if the soils were not the best for agriculture, need and perseverance by some members of the community resulted in them succeeding in the miracle of making this land fertile.

With these appeared plots of fruits and vegetables, small kiosks sprang up where these new farmers could sell their produce directly to their neighbours. And thanks to these local experiments, it began to be possible to obtain more food, and healthier. Fresh vegetables, free from chemical fertilisers and coming from natural seeds. It also brought a diversification and enriching of the diet that most Cubans had become used to prior to the crisis, and then official food shortages and rationing pushed into a sparse monotoneity.

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Coming soon: The octopus hunter

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