Going shopping or simply browsing through Havana’s large stores is a popular hobby for many of the capital’s residents. But few of them can afford to buy anything without first looking at the scandalous prices of the merchandise, which is levied with taxes ranging from 240% to 300%.
Most buy just the essentials: a liter of cooking oil, two bars of bath soap, a box of tomato puree or a 250 gram bag of detergent. Others visit the stores to look at the display window mannequins dressed in brand-name clothes or the widescreen TVs they can never afford.
Since 2006, when General Raúl Castro took up the presidential baton after being hand-picked by his brother Fidel, the military regime has eliminated ridiculous regulations and autocratic prohibitions which had reduced average Cubans to the status of fourth-class citizens in their own country.
Property rights in Cuba were merely a semantic nicety. Legally, people could not sell houses, works of art or cars obtained after 1959 (though they were sold anyway on the very efficient black market). In 2011 Castro II legalized what for a long had been taking place under the table.
After the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Communism, blank checks, canned fruit and petroleum from the Caucuses stopped arriving in Cuba.
Fidel Castro encouraged a do-or-die resistance. When he proposed at a women’s conference in 1991 that the attendees hold onto their clothes because they would be in short supply for the foreseeable future, some thought he was joking.
The man was not kidding. The ration book for manufactured goods vanished, leaving only the one for food. The island reverted to a state of destitution, devastated by hunger, exotic illnesses and run-away inflation.
After dollars were allowed to circulate legally in 1993, the gaps and differences in a society designed to make everyone on the low-end equal became apparent.
Those who had dollars lived better than state workers, who earned poverty-level wages. Getting dressed meant spending the equivalent of six-months’ salary.
In a nation where advertising barely existed and the state’s hard-currency monopoly was fierce, shirts, blouses, pants, shoes and other goods had to be purchased in a chain of stores operated by military businessmen.
And the prices! Clothes of the poorest quality bought in bulk from China, from small-scale suppliers in the Panama Canal zone or from Brazilian wholesale markets were sold in Cuban stores. Jeans with a counterfeit label, mediocre quality footwear and a Brazilian shirt could well cost a hundred dollars. Few could afford it.
Getting dressed in Cuba is an odyssey. Rather than money, those who have relatives overseas prefer they send clothing and footwear. Cubans who work with foreigners routinely ask that they leave behind their clothes when they return home.
Since late 1980s, at least in Havana, there have been people who make their living selling clothing, footwear and costume jewelry surreptitiously. They would acquire large amounts of dollars when it was still illegal and, through contacts with young foreigners studying in Cuba or tourists on vacation, would make large purchases of cheap merchandise in stores reserved for diplomats and foreign technical workers. They would later resell the items on the underground market.
Formal wear has always been a profitable business in Cuba. With the legalization of the dollar and the opening of thousands of state-run stores selling it for hard currency, vendors had to make business adjustments.
They began offering it at prices lower than at state-run stores. In 2010 dressmakers and tailors were authorized to sell their wares legally. Thousands of casas-shoppings (home markets) or trapi-shoppings (“rag” markets) opened throughout the country.
The items for sale came from the other side of the Florida Straits, from Cubans working in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, or from illegal transactions by employees working in the big consumer goods stores.
Right alongside the Carlos III shopping mall in Central Havana is a thriving private market. Alica, a professor, often frequents these types of private stores.
“The prices are much lower than in the official stores,” she says, “which are not only very expensive but also sell a lot of very unfashionable junk.
Last weekend the authorities gave the new private stores a deadline. The regime’s ultimatum was highlighted in a newspaper article from Sancti Spiritus province.
“The deadline is intended to restore of the function of self-employed dressmakers and tailors to the function originally intended. By September 1 there should be not a single casa-shopping operating in either Sancti Spiritus or in Cuba,” reports Escambray, a Villa Clara newspaper.
Diario de Las Américas interviewed an inspector from the national tax office who said, “It has been shown that a significant amount of merchandise in these private stores enters Cuba surreptitiously, including some things that are known to have been stolen.”
This tightening of the screws on private stores is nothing new. In 2012 the Customs Service of the Republic restricted inexpensive merchandise entering the island. In the aftermath of this offensive, owners of private stores said that the government had used a slew of restrictions in order to raise sales in their own stores, which had suffered a decline of almost 30%.
“It’s a treacherous form of competition. They use repressive laws to try to recapture their lost clientele,” says one disgruntled private vendor.
The owner of a store in the Tenth of October neighborhood believes that, “even if they prohibit them, one way or another people will still buy clothing under the table because of the poor quality and high prices at the state stores.”
“We only have to change the way we operate. If we can no longer sell things legally in the entryways of our houses,” she says, “we will just go back to doing things the way we did in the 1980s.”
We Cubans are used to the black market. It is our normal way of operating.
Photo from Redada contra las trapishoppings
8 September 2013