Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Adriana Premat


This dissertation examines evolving private sector-state relations in Cuba in the realm of food commercialization through a case study of ambulatory street food vendors known in Cuban parlance as carretilleros. The street food vendor job category, authorized by the Cuban government in 2010, is one among a number of newly legal entrepreneurial activities that have been slowly expanding since 1993 when the Cuban government began to experiment with various market reforms. While the incremental legalization of private entrepreneurial activity (or self-employment) in Cuba signals important changes to Cuban employment modalities, street food vendors in particular also suggest a significant shift away from the centralized and redistributive functions of the state as regards food provisioning.

Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2013 and 2016 in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, this research draws on data derived from participant observation, and 84 interviews with carretilleros, other food vendors,inspectors, farmers, agricultural cooperative members, agricultural and economics researchers, government bureaucrats, and consumers. This research interrogates the extent to which state policies that are reconfiguring provisioning practices, as well as new entrepreneurs operating within food commercialization (such as street vendors) reflect a shift in not only socioeconomic relations at large among the Cuban populace, but also in the moral contract between the state and citizens in the alimentary realm. Specifically, this work explores the way in which Cubans’ perceptions about carretilleros illuminate ongoing contradictions between a national morality that foregrounds the collective good and posits the socialist state as the guarantor of redistributive justice, and a market morality, which emphasizes personal (as opposed to collective) advancement and well-being and is theoretically at odds with such justice.

This work shows that carretilleros occupy a paradoxical position: they are encouraged as legitimate workers and food distributors, yet heavily restricted by state regulations, as well as publically criticized for the speculative prices they charge for food. As private entrepreneurs, carretilleros are critical of state practices that restrict their profit and freedom. They often feel unfairly persecuted by the state, whose failures, in their view, they have helped mitigate. For all the critiques Cubans in my study expressed about carretilleros much evidence suggests that despite ongoing tensions between private versus state food commercialization (and private practices and aspirations versus public and state expectations) carretilleros, akin to other “new” private entrepreneurs, have become an integral part of everyday life and discourse in Cuba.

The street vendor case study finally, provides an opportunity to explore unresolved tensions and practical challenges associated with implementing private sector reforms in the field of food commercialization, a field that continues to be of strategic importance to the Cuban socialist system.