Alarm Bells on the Route of the Illegal Market / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Informal vendors of glasses, a product that comes into Cuba mostly through mules. (14ymedio)
Informal vendors of glasses, a product that comes into Cuba mostly through mules. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 27 November 2015 – Children’s clothes and sneakers were a part of the goods being called out by an illegal vendor this Thursday on Galiano Street in Havana. Although it is just four days until the migratory restrictions on Cubans announced by Ecuador take effect, alarm has already spread among merchants and “mules.”

The news of the new visa requirement for Cubans, starting on December 1, has fallen like a bucket of cold water, and not just among those who were planning to leave with Quito being the first step to their final destination: the United States. The bad news also affects a wide network in importing, distribution and sale of illegal goods that range from cleaning supplies to sophisticated appliances.

This Friday, when there are still no tangible effects of the change, the vendors already anticipate a drastic fall in their merchandise and customers fear the loss of variety in clothing and footwear now available on the illegal market. On the street, many speculate that the probability that prices will rise in the coming days and will trigger sales, especially so close to Christmas.

The mules who arrive in Havana on the Taca flight that landed shortly after five in the afternoon on Thursday felt fortunate. Coming from Quito, after a stop in San Salvador, the Cubans felt like shipwreck survivors and were received with relief by their families outside the airport.

The luggage belt was full of the so-called bolas – suitcases full of clothes, shoes and home appliances, wrapped in nylon in the airport of origin. The customs dispatch the bolas first and the passengers with suitcases have to wait behind the priority of the obvious freight traffic. Despite strict legislation approved in September 2014 on non-commercial imports, a whole network of corruption guarantees that the merchandise passes through the controls without major incidents.

A young man of 32, who asked to remain anonymous, was one of the fortunate ones who ended his trip to Ecuador without legal holdups. “We arrived just in time,” he told 14ymedio on his arrival at Terminal 3 at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, where he heard about the announcement of the new restrictions on Cuban nationals entering Ecuador. “There was a rumor there that they were going to close the door soon, but we never imagined it would be so soon,” he added.

The boy’s luggage contained everything from Christmas wreaths to a carpenter’s saw. “I should have risked bringing more stuff, because now I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel,” he lamented while his cousin helped him to push two carts full of bolas and boxes between which a flat screen TV also peeked out.

From now on Ecuador will apply the same restrictions as Panama, Mexico and the other nearby nations, which already require Cubans to have a visa to enter the country. Instead, holders of Spanish passports or Cubans with five-year visas to the United States will be able to travel freely, as before, to all those countries, including Ecuador. For informal traders, this path was a safe route despite the high ticket prices, which in the high season can exceed $1,000 US.

The buyers have also benefited from the use of this Ecuadorian trade route. The high prices of products in state sores push many families to buy their clothes and shoes in the illegal market, following an unwritten maxim often shared on this island: priority to individuals, rather than the State.

A pair of sneakers, which in the hard currency stores cost around 45 convertible pesos (roughly $45 US), can but got for half the price and of better quality. “You see these Adidas? You can’t find them here,” says Victor Manuel, a high school student who says he lives for clothes. “That’s what matters most to me,” he says.

The official press published a note this Friday on the new immigration rules for Cubans going to Ecuador. In the same issue, an article criticized the preference for foreign products among Cuban children and youth. The main reproach is directed directly to backpacks and accessories with the faces of Barbie dolls which are some of the products the mules import from Ecuador.

Despite the fears, some traders seem confident that the situation will be resolved. “We’ll find another way, we always have done,” assured the young man who arrived on the Taca flight. The bolas that he brought on his last trip from Ecuador barely fit in the family car that came to pick him up at the airport.