Game over: Havana through the eyes of two food vendors

Jose and Leo ply the streets of Havana with a vegetable cart in a daily game of urban hide-and-seek with the police.

My Cuba - veggie sellers
Jose bags some of the produce from his carretilla [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]

Havana, Cuba – Although it is 3:35am, Jose and Leo aren’t sleepy. They’ve had enough rest to begin a new day.

They wear the same pullovers as the day before – or perhaps clean but worn-out ones, which will become the dirty pullovers of the days to come, olive-green army trousers and boots. Jose’s are short, leather ones that cover his ankles. Leo’s are knee-high rain boots.


They open their apartment door, descend three storeys down the sinuous stairs of their colonial building in Old Havana and go out in search of the carretilla (pushcart) from which they will sell fruit and vegetables for the next 16 hours.

They look like a pair of tin soldiers walking down a desolate street. At this time, Havana is a city of sleepwalkers – a strange, deserted place. There are shadows and murmurs that come as if from nowhere.

In a few hours’ time, San Rafael Boulevard will turn into an incessant stream of people coming and going, buying and selling; but for now, it is a long, wide corridor, its cavities visible, its cracks exposed.

Just around the corner from the boulevard, a cat paws a dead chicken wrapped in a nylon bag. A police patrol surfs slowly along Prado, the street dividing Centro and Old Havana.

Jose and Leo continue for a couple of blocks until they reach the car park where a handful of pedicabs and carretillas are kept. An old man opens the gate. They hand him five pesos ($0.20) and thank him for watching their pushcart. The squeak of the rusty wheels breaks through the early-morning silence.

Everything Jose and Leo do from now on, they will do alongside their carretilla. They will eat breakfast – at the cheapest cafes – a piece of dry bread with some tasteless hash, or, at best, with a tiny slab of melted cheese. They will ask permission to use the toilet at any office they can. When they make it home at eight in the evening, having covered 6km, pushing more than 270 kilos, they will take a bath, grab some food and lay down in bed before starting all over again.

Leo, left, and Jose [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]

WATCH: My Cuba – Luis Silva: Being Panfilo 

Play: Level 1.

At 4am, Jose and Leo are walking back through Bernaza Street to the market on Egido Street where most carretilleros (pushcart vendors) load their merchandise.

The market isn’t legally authorised to sell to them, but at this time, it turns into a restless anthill of people passing around wads of money in the dark. The only lighting comes from lanterns and mobile phones.

Crowds gather around each truck. There are two policemen watching the show. And they are just that – spectators.


by ”Jose,

simply stick their heads out so as to intimidate and get a cut from time to time”]

“They simply stick their heads out so as to intimidate and get a cut from time to time,” Jose explains.

There is a little alleyway where one can walk from truck to truck; a narrow corridor filled with stevedores who make a living unloading the merchandise and carrying it to the carretillas.  

Jose, who owns the business, does the buying. Leo waits outside, watching over the carretilla and sorting the merchandise as the stevedores unload it.


In 2010, the Cuban government sanctioned a series of activities for self-employment. Among the newly legalised professions were the carretilleros or street vendors of agricultural products. Their authorisation was meant to bring foodstuffs closer to the population and make them available at any time of the day.

According to the National Office of Tax Administration, at the end of 2015 there were 1,777 carretilleros working legally on the streets of Havana. About as many work without a licence.

Jose first got his licence in 2011 so that he could work legally as an assistant to a friend whom he would ultimately abandon. “He was too much of a sleepyhead, and couldn’t take working early mornings,” he says.

He decided to start his own business and began assembling his carretilla from a few wooden sticks and strips he’d found in a carpenter’s shop and some rubber bands strapped to the old sidecar of a Soviet motorbike.

“My carretilla is one of the best you’ll see around here. I’ve been tuning it up; it has nice caterpillar track, which makes it easier to push all the weight,” he says. “Some of the ones you see around are like a walking Frankenstein.”

Leo works without a licence.

Jose is proud of the carretilla he fashioned out of wood, rubber bands and the sidecar of an old Soviet motorbike [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]
Jose is proud of the carretilla he fashioned out of wood, rubber bands and the sidecar of an old Soviet motorbike [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]


The way back to Jose’s house on Bernaza Street is a lot slower as the carretilla doesn’t move so easily any more. It takes a lot of pushing – often by two people at a time – for it to roll. Even so, this hulk of metal and wood, heavy with nearly 300 kilos of meat, vegetables and fruit, moves reluctantly.

It’s now 5am.

Jose and Leo bring the leftover produce from the day before down from the third floor, and take the produce they bought for tomorrow upstairs. They wash the merchandise, particularly the soil-covered sweet potatoes and malangas. They place the divisions on the carretilla to separate the tomatoes from the bell peppers, the guava they can sell for two pesos from those that are worth three, the plantains from the burro bananas, the eggplants from the cucumbers, the onions from the chives. They tie little nylon bags on the side of the carretilla so that the customers can buy them at a cost of one peso each.

WATCH: AJEats – Havana: Cuba’s Food Revolution

Leo doesn’t like cleaning the soil off the sweet potato. He says it dirties his pullover, and then he has to muddy it up with water to remove the soil. Jose says they must stay clean, out of respect for their customers.

The first shopper of the day comes by at 6:02am. It’s a woman in her 40s, an economist at a state-run company, who is on her way to work. She is starting a diet and buys some guavas.

As soon as the woman leaves, a bucket of grey water falls onto the street. It’s not clear which window it came from, but Old Havana is waking up.

A woman makes her purchase [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]
A woman makes her purchase [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]

READ MORE: Cuba’s combat rappers fight for the country’s youth

Level 2.

The shadows have dissipated. The sun makes its way through the old buildings. People walk in every direction, the city’s ambient sound rising little by little.

It is the start of two working days in one – 16 uninterrupted hours, with no time to rest. The morning is warm-up time. At 8:23am, after breakfast, the game really begins – the true challenge.

“You can only do this for some time, not a lot, it’s too much effort and the earnings are minimal,” Jose says.

As people walk by, immersed in their routines, they turn their necks towards the carretilla. They glance over regardless of whether they need any of what’s on display.

Cubans have been hungry long enough, and nothing is more attractive to them than food. We Cubans work to eat, live to eat and dream of food. Not a minute goes by without us thinking about how we will put food on our table.

An old man asks how much the guavas cost. Leo tells him. The old man grabs a piece that sells for three pesos, looks at it, plays with it a little, then looks up and smashes it onto the floor like a hand grenade.

“How long will this travesty last? What are you thinking?” shouts the old man, irate.

Leo steps towards him, their chests getting closer, but Jose calms him down, and the situation doesn’t escalate.

“It’s all Fidel’s fault!” shouts the old man again, as he walks away.

Cubans have been hungry long enough, and nothing is more attractive to them than food. We Cubans work to eat, live to eat and dream of food. Not a minute goes by without us thinking about how we will put food on our table.


Everyone – those who buy and those who don’t – complain to Jose and Leo about their high prices.

When I mention this, Jose tells me: “I understand where they’re coming from, really. If you compare food prices with people’s incomes, they’re very expensive, but it’s the government’s fault. I’m just an intermediary buying produce at a certain price and adding a minimal amount so as to make an earning. Everyone who is in business wants to make money, not lose it. If the government offered better deals, people wouldn’t complain to me.”

Jose is used to the vitriol. Leo not so much. He hasn’t been in the business that long. Where Jose is calm and serene, Leo is the opposite – a hyperactive man with little patience for customers.

Pushing the carretilla around Old Havana, which is popular with tourists, has helped them to develop other skills to make a living. They might charge commission for watching over a foreigner’s rental car, or get a tip from some lost tourist for suggesting a place to eat.

Jose practises his street English by saying to every foreigner walking by: “Hola, hola, hola. Where are you from?” so as to direct their attention towards his rolling shop. 

He carries coins from different countries with him: three Cuban pesos with the shiny head of Che Guevara, a 1914 Austrian bill. He tries to trade or sell them all, but it’s easiest with the Che stamped bills, which go for one peso.

A woman asks how much the tomatoes and onions cost, then embarks on a near incomprehensible rant about the importance of the kilo, why Cuba should adopt it again, how things in other countries cost 9.99 pesos and, if they don’t have change to break up cents into kilos, and if they don’t keep that in mind, they know nothing about life, they’re incompetent and they will die in a capitalist system, since no one would buy a thing from them. 

Leo begins to confront her, but Jose intervenes again. The woman turns her back and leaves.

The contents of the carretilla weigh more than 270 kilos [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]


Jose wanted to go to college, but he only graduated from high school in a vocational training school.

“I didn’t make it past there because my parents couldn’t afford a pair of shoes for me to wear to college or my expenses as a student,” he says.

Before becoming a licensed carretillero, he worked in construction as an assistant builder, and in IT, fixing computers in his neighbourhood.

Jose pays Leo four pesos a day. Leo, who grew up in Manzanillo, in the southeastern Granma province, wants something better, a more convenient job. He is tired of sleeping in Jose’s living room and waking early in the morning.

“I don’t want to feel like a slave,” he says.

READ MORE: Cuba – Remembering founder of Ladies in White movement

Leo leaves Manzanillo for six or seven months every year to make some money in Havana. When he was six months old, his parents got divorced. Leo’s father picked up the bed where his mother slept and Leo’s cot and left. Leo never saw him again.

“It was his revenge because my mother didn’t want to be with him any longer,” he says.

After a while, his mother found a new man who had a house in Havana, and they moved in with him. But when Leo turned 15, his stepfather kicked him out without his mother noticing.


by ”Leo,

is going to even look at me.”]

He had to go back to Manzanillo on his own. He got a technical degree in economics, eating only a slice of bread a day during his three years as a student. Once a week, on Sunday, he was able to eat a full meal, thanks to a generous neighbour. After school, he would work carrying sand or debris, to earn enough money for the bus back to school and the next day’s slice of bread.

Leo remembers how “on graduation day, all my classmates were there with their parents, looking all happy. I got an award as the third-best student, and when they called my name to give me my degree, only the dean greeted and congratulated me – none of my relatives were there”.

He then worked as a security guard, after which he tried his luck making gravestones with a friend, and then got a job as a gardener before going back to Havana to start over again.

“I have to do this, the salary one gets from the government isn’t enough for anyone to live on,” he says.

Leo confesses that he has thought about committing suicide. He says he would like to take something strong and painless, which would help him close his eyes and put an end to his “disgraceful life”, but he says he doesn’t have the guts to do it.

He recently had to undergo emergency surgery because he had a hernia and appendicitis, both in the same week.

“I can’t really flex my muscles, but I have to – I need the money.”

But that’s not what bothers him the most. What he really can’t stand is the indignity of spending the whole day covered in dirt.

“Looking like this, no habanera [woman from Havana] is going to even look at me.”

Even so, he catcalls every woman who walks by.

Jose and his carretilla [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]
Jose and his carretilla [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]


As the number of shoppers dwindles close to noon, Jose begins to draw on his salesman’s repertoire to try to seduce them.

“Look, miss, these tomaticos are exquisite, Calvino [Manuel Angel Calvino ValdesFauly, a renowned Cuban intellectual and psychologist and host of a popular television show] says it’s worth buying it. Come on, old man, take what you want, the customer is always right. How is it going, babe? How are Gente de Zona [a popular Havana reggaeton and merengue band] doing?”

The best strategy is to find a crowded area. Before lunchtime, they find themselves parked across the street from the house where Manuel Sanguily, a hero from the war of independence in the 19th century, once lived.

IN PICTURES: The changing face of Cuba

Level 3.

The carretilleros operate under crossfire from government inspectors.

Every corner, every alley, becomes a battlefield.

The carretilleros, a small link on one end of the food chain, have become scapegoats, blamed for the shortages and high prices at food markets. 

Last December, as parliament was running through one of its last debate sessions, Raúl Castro addressed Economics and Planning Minister Marino Murillo, exhorting him to “put an end to the problem posed by [high] food prices and middlemen”. Murillo replied: “Mr President, we will begin solving all those issues after New Year’s, as soon as January 4.” (Murillo was sacked in July this year)

And so as the new year came, the skies turned black for the carretilleros.

This is an Atari game - even if you are fully complying with the law, they can make something up as a pretext for fining you.

by Jose, carretillero

The government decided not to grant any more licences. By raising the monthly fee to keep the existing ones from 70 to 150 pesos, it turned the carretilleros’ daily existence into a nightmare. Policemen and inspectors seem to team up to crack down on them. All over town, carretillas and produce are confiscated.

It all resembles a video game – good versus evil; inspectors chasing carretilleros.

“This is an Atari game – even if you are fully complying with the law they can make something up as a pretext for fining you,” says Jose, who was recently stopped by the police three times in one day.

“It’s unbelievable that maintaining a licence is not enough, that you have to go hide behind corners just to be able to do business. It’s as if you were playing a game in which you lose your lives if you get caught – though in this case, it’s your money.

“They took me to the station to see if I owed any fines. It’s nonsense,” he says. “The government should be there to make your life easier, and instead, it keeps beating you up, tiring you down, so you give up. A lot of the old guard folk have quit, just out of sheer exhaustion.”

A & B

A and B are married. They were once carretilleros and would rather not reveal their real names. These days, they just sell a bit of produce, in a clandestine way, by their doorstep so as to keep a house for A’s mother, who is missing a kidney, and her husband, A’s stepfather, who is unable to get out of bed. A and B gave up carretilleando (slang for this line of work) after getting fined more than 1,000 pesos twice for selling produce while being parked in one spot rather than working on the road.

“The way the inspectors treat us is awful. They have a mob, those who work without a licence get the same fines as those who have one. They charge illegal taxes and get little boxes full of stuff and money from the carretilleros, who just want to be left alone,” shouts B as he waves his hands theatrically.

Jose makes a sale [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera] 
Jose makes a sale [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera] 


On the intersection of Sol Street and Cuba Street, next door to a bodybuilders’ gym, is the headquarters of the town’s police inspectors and superintendents. It is a dark place, even at the brightest hour of the day. To the left, on a narrow patio, lie dozens of confiscated carretillas, their contents rotting. To the right, inspectors sit at their desks.

The woman I speak to at the headquarters has a gold tooth. She gives her name as Yeney but prefers not to reveal her last name.

Every month we have fining quotas to meet and thus work accordingly. If we don't meet those quotas, we don't get our monthly bonus.

by Miguel Sanchez, policeman

That was all I could ascertain. The police wouldn’t give me their statistics on fines, or discuss their treatment of carretilleros, or the confiscated carretillas which listened to our conversation from across the hall. They just wouldn’t speak.

But Inspector Miguel Sanchez would speak.

Sitting on the pavement on Boulevard San Rafael, he explains that, “every month we have fining quotas to meet and thus work accordingly. If we don’t meet those quotas, we don’t get our monthly bonus”.

About the “crusade” against the carretilleros, he says: “At the start of the year, we received instructions to finish up the carretilleros, no matter if they had a licence or not. The order came and we followed it – the problem is that 50 percent of carretilleros work without a licence.”

Inspectors work in pairs and are assigned different neighbourhoods every week, so as to avoid corruption. At the end of each month, they change partners.

“Some of my colleagues don’t do their jobs properly, but I can’t really talk about corruption. I speak for myself only,” Sanchez says.

Jose pushes his carretilla [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]
Jose pushes his carretilla [El Estornudo/Al Jazeera]


Late in the afternoon, Jose and Leo cross paths with another carretillero. He’s a peculiar street vendor, a very particular one who wears no boots and has no dirt on him, nor does he carry much produce on his carretilla. He wears a rapper’s hat which sits perfectly on his head, gigantic dark glasses covering his face and steal chains around his neck.

Answering my questions about the inspectors, he says: “My business is that of a carretilla pimp. I sell the Yumas [slang for Americans] little bananas for one or two fulas [a colloquial term for US dollars]. My pitch is the historic town, where there are no inspectors, which belongs to the Yumas and nobody else.”


Alfredo Wilson is a Peruvian man who has lived in Havana since 1991. He works at a food cooperative in the town of Caimito and opposes the carretilleros‘ right to operate.

He says they don’t care about the quality of their produce, and are only in it for the money, which is why they often sell rotten goods. Last year, during the avocado season, Wilson spent three months feeding his pigs the avocado he produced. He would rather do that than sell bad-quality produce to middlemen. 

Wilson, a farmer, is the one making the least amount of money in the whole food system.


by ”Alfredo

there is sells for astronomical prices. This is a medieval system”]

“I sell tomatoes at two and three pesos and then go for a walk around town and find them for sale at 10,” says Wilson, who first wanted to start his co-op in Mali, but had to give up after war broke out there. From afar, he thought Cuba had the perfect legal structure for developing a business like his, but he was wrong.

“There is a rupture between rural and urban areas. Food can’t go directly into the city without reaching the country, which is, after all, where it’s produced. People grow oranges but then can’t have orange juice. That’s why people don’t want to produce, and what little there is sells for astronomical prices. This is a medieval system,” he says.

Wilson worked for the UN as an election monitor. He has been to Libya, Syria, Nicaragua, France and Mali, among other countries. But he didn’t come to Cuba to analyse elections; he came to start his own business. Wilson also spent some time in Miami, where he lived next door to the relatives of Elián Gonzalez – the migrant who was famously returned to Cuba as a teenager in 2000 after his father claimed guardianship from relatives in Florida.

Level 4.

Around dusk, Jose and Leo catch a breath, sitting on top of their carretilla. It’s been almost 16 hours since their work day started. They’ve seen the same people come and go on the same streets every day. They’ve watched as Old Havana has snored, woken up, conversed, and gone back into its laconic state.

They’ve played hide-and-seek with the police and beat them. They’ve sold a lot of fruit, some vegetables and a bit of meat. Their day comes to an end as the sun hides behind the port.

By 7:47pm the jugglers and mime artists are gone, and so are the picturesque black women who smoke cigarettes in their long colourful dresses. The pigeons have left the squares and now sit, side by side, on the cornices of churches and ruined buildings. 

Jose and Leo’s feet drag as they push their cart, which is probably half the weight it was but somehow feels twice as heavy as when the day began. They are on their way back home. The wheels shriek like a wounded animal and, far away, the cry mixes with the legendary son* music which three old men play inside an elaborate touristy bar.

*Traditional Cuban music, which became popular in the 1930s and combines elements of Spanish music with Afro-Cuban percussion and rhythm. 

Translated from Spanish to English by Alvaro Guzman Bastida. The original story was first published in El Estornudo, a Havana-based online magazine, and can be read here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera