14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 20 September 2018 — Until recently, elderly people have commonly been heard outside the agricultural markets calling out “plastic bags,” which they sold to supplement their low pensions. The resellers buy the products at 50 centavos each (about 2 cents US) and sell them for one Cuban peso, an enterprise that the authorities have proposed to eliminate. Hence the “raids” unleashed in recent weeks.
An avalanche of inspectors, armed with fine booklets and intentions to cleanse Havana’s markets of the plastic bag sellers, have spread out for more than a month across all the neighborhoods where these busy markets are located, such as the one on San Rafael Street administered by the Youth Labor Army (EJT).
As a result, customers now have fewer options for carrying away the merchandise from the stands, if they forget to bring a bag from home, or they have to stand in long lines to buy the bags from the state stands. However, there is always some “bag seller” who manages to get around the barricades and hawk, in a near whisper, their merchandise, although the risks are high and they could end up at the police station with 1,500 Cuban peso fine (roughly $60 US… the equivalent of more than half a year’s average old age pension).
“This will go on for a few more days and everything will calm down,” says Veronica, a retiree of 78 who sells plastic bags at the 17th and K Street market in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. “We have experienced this type of offensive at other times and in the end they shut it down,” confides the woman. However, “Every day that I can’t sell plastic bags is a day that things get worse and I’m at risk of not being able to pay my electricity bill and I have to walk everywhere because I can’t pay for a shared taxi.”
The plastic bag — called a jaba or jabita— is an important part of the Cuban universe and has as many uses as circumstance require. They are useful for stopping a leak in a water pipe, storing food, or protecting the head and covering shoes when engaged in some dirty task. It is rare to find someone who walks the streets without carrying a folded one in their wallet or pocket.
The high consumption of the product has created a high demand and it’s common at the state stands where they are sold to limit purchases to 20 bags per person. The authorities argue that the regulation is intended to stop “the hoarders.”
Self-employed workers, who are forbidden to sell the bags to customers but sometimes have to dispense merchandise in them, complain that the official outlets don’t give them a receipt when they buy they bags, but later officials demand proof that they came by them legally.
Jabitas are scarce where they are most needed, such as in the hard currency stores, from which thousands are stolen every day to end up in the black market. A good part of the bags that are sold outside the agricultural markets come from this “diversion of state resources” — that is employee theft.
While the rest of the world is trying to limit or penalize the consumption of plastic bags, in Cuba they are still considered an essential product, with a significant shortage that forces citizens to travel long distances to find food. Cuban comics have even come to describe the Cuban anatomy as head, trunk, extremities… plus a jabita. Lately this structure is incomplete.
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