'It's the only way I can survive': Why Cubans take on black-market second jobs

Many Cubans must take on other work to supplement their meagre incomes from government jobs. That means selling goods on the black market, or even prostitution.

Cuba has planned economy, where most are employed by the government but many are forced to do other work

In Cuba, low government wages force many people to take on second jobs, including selling black market items on the street. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

Five days a week, 22-year-old Daniela heads off to school in Havana, where she instructs six- and seven-year-olds on the basics of math and Spanish.

The work may be rewarding, but the pay leaves something to be desired.

And so at least three nights out of the week, the young schoolteacher and mother of two puts on a short, tight-fitting dress, goes out into the city very late and tries to sell herself to tourists for sex.

"It's the only way I can survive and help my kids," she said.

Daniela is not her real name, and she did not want to be photographed. The fact that she must turn to the streets for money bothers her "a lot," she says, sitting in the bar of a quiet, clean-looking Havana hotel that offers rooms for some prostitutes and their clients.

"Hopefully, something happens in the future, [like] the government raises the salaries," she says.

Daniela's been a sex worker for about a year, and she says the majority of her friends are also in the trade.

She refuses to say what she earns moonlighting, but it's a safe bet that even during slow weeks, it's more than the 20 Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) — roughly $25 — a month she makes as a teacher.

Planned economy

The average monthly wage for Cubans is around 20 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) — roughly 25 Canadian dollars. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Like so many Cubans, Daniela must take on other work to supplement her meagre income from government jobs.

In the communist state established by the late Fidel Castro, who died last week, health care and education are free and some food and rent is subsidized. But low wages still make it challenging for Cubans to make ends meet.

The average monthly wage for Cubans is around 20 to 25 CUCs, and 40 to 50 CUCs for professionals.

Cuba has what is known as a planned economy. Most industries are state-run, which means most people working are actually employed by the government.

The Cuban government controls about 90 per cent of the official economy, says Jorge Salazar-Carrillio, director of the Center of Economic Research at Florida International University in Miami.

All around the country, it's a hand-to-mouth type of situation.- Jorge Salazar-Carrillio, economist, Florida International University in Miami

But the official economy "is nothing compared to the unofficial economy," said Salazar-Carrillio.

The unofficial economy is the so-called black market, where all sorts of items can be bought and sold, often for cheaper prices — in part because some of the products have been stolen.

Many Cubans rely on remittances from friends and family members abroad, which total about $7.3 billion US a year. But the government also takes a cut, Salazar-Carrillio says.

"That's how people make it," he said. "All around the country, it's a hand-to-mouth type of situation."

'You cannot live with your own salary'

Arturo, like Daniela, is an instructor, teaching English to junior high school students. But the 20 CUCs he makes a month is hardly enough to support his wife and two kids.

He was sitting at the same hotel bar as Daniela, sipping on rum. Like Daniela, he provided a false name for fear of attracting the attention of authorities.

Arturo said he does a little bit of everything on the side — some of it legal and some of it not. He speaks English fluently, so he works as a translator. He's also a tourist guide, taking visitors to different places and getting a commission.

"I have to do a lot of extra," he said. "You cannot live with your own salary."

Asked whether things are better since Raul Castro took over leadership of the country from his brother Fidel in 2008, the 58-year-old Arturo scoffs.

"It's about the same. Don't believe the hype."

Making ends meet

That's why Pedro, who also didn't want to be identified by his real name, refuses to take a government job.

'Pedro,' a 24-year-old Cuban who didn't want to give his real name, studied graphic design at a university while selling blackmarket cigars on the side. Now, his side gig is his full-time job. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Sitting in a Havana park late at night, the 24-year-old says he had been attending university to study graphic design but was forced to stop because he found it difficult to balance school and his job.

Pedro was selling cigars illegally on the black market, something he now does full-time.

The profit margin is pretty good, especially since he doesn't have to actually pay for the inventory. His uncle works in a cigar-making factory and, on occasion, "takes" some of them home.

"'Steal' is a very ugly word," Pedro said.

He's not married and has no kids and yet is only barely able to sustain himself.

"I have enough for everything, but sometimes it's a little bit tight," he said. 

'It's not fair at all'

For those same reasons, Luena Cardenas isn't eager to return to the government payroll. She currently works for a non-profit organization in Havana that promotes co-operation between U.S. and Cuban artists.

She makes, at minimum, around 300 CUCs a month — more than 10 times the salary she received as an employee of the government.

But it's bittersweet, she says, because she really loved being a doctor.

"It's not fair at all, because I spent a great part of my life to be a good doctor, and I can't work as a doctor because I have to pay for a lot of things," she said. "[A doctor's salary] is not enough to raise a family."

Ricky Rodriguez was a math professor in Cuba, but quit his government job because he says he was making peanuts. Now he sells them, and is earning a much better living. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Cardenas was actually a specialist, working as an obstetrician. Her specialty earned her a few more CUCs than a general doctor, who at the time made about 20 to 30 CUCs a month. (It has since gone up to 40.) But it was certainly not enough to live on, she said.

"Now, I know the difference between working for the state and working for myself, and I want to work for myself," she said.

Ricky Rodriguez knows that story all too well. He was a math professor, but he quit because he says he was making peanuts.

Now, he's selling them, as snacks, and making 10 times as much as he did before.

Standing at a square in central Havana, where dozens of taxi drivers look for passengers, Ricky explains the quirks of his job. He's allowed to sell his snacks, but he cannot "be static in one place."

"It's the law. I must be walking."

He hopes some "smarter person" will remove the laws that stifle business.

"Fidel's thoughts were to change what should be changed. Maybe some of these laws could be changed, and we can [improve] our way of life."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.