Over the past several years there has been tremendous change in Cuba. The five cooperatives I am working with were among the first non-agricultural cooperatives to incorporate following Raul Castro’s introduction of a series of economic reforms after Barack Obama’s re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba. These cooperatives reveal a unique side to the changes transforming Cuba - one that transcends tourism and showcases an emerging economy built by the Cuban people. Their stories show how Cubans are leveraging their unique skill sets to empower themselves and each other; how regardless of your job, it is possible to improve your working conditions. As the Cuban economy continues to change, there is increased pressure from Cubans to lead that change, in particular through the development of private enterprises and cooperatives. These new regulations along with the surge of tourism have brought unprecedented change to the economy.
In Havana I photographed cooperatives that offer an alternative route for economic development – one that honors revolutionary ideals of collectivity while also embracing the individuality that is essential to human creativity. The cooperative movement in Cuba is wrought with challenges but ripe with the potential to empower Cubans and provide upward mobility.
Nothing is easy in Cuba, but it is my hope that through this project, I can show the perseverance, ingenuity, and solidarity of Cubans – a people who have shown me that a small island is in no way indicative of a small spirit.
*This project would not have been possible without the generous support of MCW Global and the Alumni Ventures Fund. MCW has provided me and many others an opportunity to live our dreams. The most important part of MCW is what we learn from each other – it is the stories we share, the cultural differences we celebrate, and the vision plans we build to make our communities better, more loving, and nurturing spaces.
The Cayo Hueso Market has dramatically changed since becoming a cooperative. Their sales are much higher, customers report greater satisfaction and quality, and most importantly their wages have increased. For many workers this is the main incentive to make the change over to a cooperative. Eriberto, 64, sits in the back room that serves as the office for Cayo Hueso. Many offices in Cuba are decorated with old posters from the revolution - but in this case the juxtaposition showcases a new wave of economic growth in Cuba - one driven in part by cooperative development.
Jesus de X has spent three years working at Cayo Hueso, two years ago the vice president retired and other members nominated Jesus de X to fill the position. Jesus de X explains that it is a lot of responsibility but you learn about people and how to solve problems. Like many other Cubans, Jesus believes that change in Cuba is slow, “poco a poco” things will change.
Pupy, 59, holds a handful of organic onions sold at Cayo Hueso, a newly created and privately operated cooperative market. Workers at Cayo Hueso are motivated by the high profits, making up to five times more than they did before. All of the produce sold at the market is organic and comes from nearby farms but before becoming a cooperative the market struggled with financing food deliveries. Now with their new revenues they are looking to purchase a truck and have been able to put a tin roof over the market.
Cuban cigars are famous around the world, due to a combination of the rich history of tobacco growing and the dedication of expert workers like Jesus. Tobacco farming and cigar making is a grueling process but Cuban farmers are treated with dignity and respect, and ought to merit a serious reflection on how the rest of the world treats agricultural laborers.
The tobacco growing region of Pinar del Río is full of state-run cooperatives such as the ones photographed. These farmers may work at cooperatives, but in actuality there is no democratic organization of the workers and the state supervises all activities. Recent economic changes put forward by Raul Castro has allowed the creation of non-agricultural cooperatives where workers now make up to five times what they did before. These changes have created a surge in cooperative growth in the private sector but one that is centered around individual profit as opposed to more democratic ideals and ownership. The guidelines put forth by Raul Castro for such enterprises has not resulted in new laws or a Ministry of Cooperatives, heavily limiting the progress of the cooperative movement in Cuba. Cuban academics lead the cooperative movement, performing research that they hope the state will respond to through concrete support of cooperative development, education in Cuba, and new laws.
Pablo worked in a state run bakery before transitioning to this privately run Auto Repair Shop.
Maria, 64, classifies all the clothing that comes through DAJO before and after it is cleaned. She has been working at DAJO for 22 years and says that everything has changed for the better since it has become a cooperative, better attention, service, and of course salary.
Cigarettes and coffee sustain the DAJO General Meeting which begins with members individual monthly salaries being read aloud and met with applause. DAJO is a non-agricultural laundry cooperative in Havana, Cuba, that incorporated as a part of economic regulations put in place by Raul Castro in 2015. Over the next two hours Joel, 48, leads the meeting discussing the importance of being a cooperative and how work here is built around a family spirit and total transparency between all members. The meeting culminates in the planning of a party to celebrate the successes of the cooperative thus far. Cubans are uplifting themselves from poverty by leveraging their ingenuity.
Disnay, 35, has worked at the DAJO Cooperative for a little over two years. Prior to her job at DAJO she worked at another laundromat and describes an acute difference. With a contagious smile she explains, “At DAJO we feel like a family.”
Jauka, president of Co-op de Pasejo, is in charge of seven other employees, one of whom is her daughter Yailin, financial supervisor of the co-op. Many cooperatives in Cuba are family run, especially those that incorporated as new businesses and cooperatives at the same time.
Jauka, Yailin, and the staff secretary discuss operations for the following week. This female run cooperative, fixes scales used for weighing trains and in factories throughout Havana and surrounding provinces. During the time of this meeting the four technicians were on jobs throughout Havana province. Conditions have improved since incorporating as a cooperative, now Co-op de Pasejo has an air conditioning unit, tables to work from, and computers. Still the women explain that it is very difficult to get modern equipment because of the US embargo on Cuba.
Model was once a government controlled clothing factory specializing in traditional Guayabera’s. Soon after the new economic regulations were put in place, Model made the transition into a democratically owned and operated cooperative.
Julia, 54, is sewing a judge’s uniform at the Confecciones Model Cooperative, a clothing cooperative that specializes in traditional guayabera shirts. Model made the transition into a cooperative almost four years ago and since then workers have seen their salaries multiply by five. As with many new cooperatives in Cuba, members still aren’t prepared to embrace the democratic ideals essential to cooperatives. For most members, money, and good money at that, remains the central reason for working at a cooperative.
Lidia, 61, has been working at Model for four months. Prior to her job at the Model she worked as a seamstress for 20 years in another factory. She has yet to see a difference in work at the cooperative, “No hay differences en otro trabajos, es igual. En Cuba todos tradbajos son unidos.” Thought leaders in the cooperative movement would argue that while workers rights are a pillar to the Cuban economic system - it is only through cooperatives that workers can truly be empowered. Many Cubans are drawn to cooperatives because of the high pay as opposed to the democratic ideals. Model is working with partners to help educate their worker members about cooperative values.
Miguelina, 58, is a co-founder of the cooperative, whose grandson Dalien, 5, regularly visits the cooperative on his way home from school and is treated like a close relative by everyone of the seamstresses. From within the walls of the cooperative, all the women are quick to tell me how much they love their jobs, and most importantly how salaries have increased five times since incorporating as a cooperative.
When their shifts finish the women from Model pull out bags full of clothing that need be hemmed, zippers that need to fixed, buttons that need to be replaced. Here Miguelina’s grandson Dalien sits at her sewing chair.
Miguelina has little food to offer me, especially for a vegetarian, but like all of the Cubans I’ve met, she is willing to offer me everything she has. While Miguelina takes care to prepare me a bag of plantains and potatoes to take home, her daughter Lien and I talk about the effects of tourism. “En el restaurante se puede comprar langosta, camarones, calamares, pero en la tienda no hay nada.” We are sitting on their balcony as Dalien runs between us playing as the sun sets on el Malécon.