Ivan Garcia, 15 May 2017 — The plastic drawers holding garments for men and women give off the usual scent of things that have have been in storage for a long time. We are in a government-run store that sells used clothing on the Calzada de Monte, a busy thoroughfare lined with state-owned retail establishments, privately owned coffee shops and people clandestinely selling cheap Chinese-made merchandise.
At the back of the store, three plastic drawers of second-hand clothing lie scattered on the floor. A variety of pants and shirts hang from racks flanked by two mirrors with blackened edges.
The place is stifling. Sweat runs down the faces of employees, who try to relieve the heat by fanning themselves with covers of old magazines and pieces of cardboard.
A shirt with a dirty collar and no label costs eighty pesos, almost four dollars. It is to thrift shops and flee markets like these that people with low-incomes — typically state workers paid in the local currency and those who do not receive remittances from overseas — come to shop.
“All the used clothing here is imported. The Ministry of Domestic Trade cleans them but then the customers dirty them. They’re clothes that people from other countries have sold or donated to thrift stores. This lot came from Canada. There were better items for sale but they’re already gone. What’s left over is the stuff nobody wants,” says the manager.
Yamil, a thirty-four-year-old primary school custodian often buys second-hand clothing. “My salary of 300 pesos (the equivalent of thirteen dollars) doesn’t go far. I would like to dress more fashionably but my buying options are limited to used clothes. Occasionally, a friend will give me pants or a shirt. And a relative living in the US sends me cheap stuff, which I give to my kids,” he says.
The biggest problem in Cuba today is putting food on the table. Not everyone can afford breakfast, lunch and dinner. Maintaining a high-quality diet consumes 80% of a typical family’s income. Sometimes more. Even if you have enough money, you cannot always find the foods you want or need.
Dressing children is a huge headache. Old people, the biggest losers of Raul Castro’s timid economic reforms, also face struggles. Just ask Eusebio, an octogenarian retiree who sells magazines on Calzada del Cerro.
“At least it’s almost never cold here. Otherwise, we’d be a pile of stiffs. Most of us wear clothes that are twenty or more years old. Those with families overseas manage to do alright. So do people with children who are snappy dressers or managers with foreign companies. But the rest of us are out of luck. The worst is when shoes wear out. I use shoes that my newspaper customers give me. If they didn’t, I would be walking around in flip-flops,” says Eusebio.
A standard monthly salary of twenty-six dollars makes it impossible for the average Cuban to buy clothes. Families with children who do not receive overseas remittances have to hope for a miracle, especially if they have more than one child.
“Buying clothes and shoes is a nightmare,” says Daniel, a civil engineer. “Society is divided into those who have options and those who don’t. Students whose parents are well-off wear brand label shoes to school. Everyone else has to make-do with low-quality shoes. Other kids ridicule them. They made fun of my son because of the tennis shoes I bought him. I try to encourage him and tell him to study hard so that he’ll have a career after he graduates. But he says, ’Dad, professionals here are worse off than someone who works at a produce market.’ It’s a mess.”
In Cuba, stores cater to different markets. Those whose merchandise is priced in Cuban pesos (CUP) usually offer standard or poor quality clothing. Most stores, however, sell items of higher quality, which are priced in hard currency in the form of convertible pesos (CUC) and carry import duties of 240%.
TRD Caribe — one of a chain of businesses owned by GAESA, a conglomerate run by the Cuban military, which controls 80% of the Cuban economy — offers clothing purchased in bulk from wholesale markets in Panama Canal Zone or cheap garments acquired from China.
The prices are predatory. Jeans of mediocre quality go for between twenty and thirty CUC. “The quality of shoes and clothing is really bad. It’s a bunch of junk that they treat as though it were of the highest quality,” says a woman looking through a box of rubber flip-flops at a shop on Acosta Avenue in southern Havana’s Tenth of October neighborhood.
At one of the Palco stores or the well-known boutiques located in hotels or shopping malls, better quality goods can be found but at sky-high prices.
A pair of Converse sneakers at the boutique in the Hotel Saratoga, where the king of Morocco recently stayed, costs the equivalent of ninety dollars. A pair of Gap jeans goes for more than one-hundred twenty.
“Only musicians, hookers, owners of successful private businesses or people who get a lot of money from overseas can afford to shop in those boutiques. Everyone else is screwed,” say Luisa, a bank employee.
At the Mango store in the shopping mall of the Comodoro hotel, which is run by a daughter-in-law of the late dictator Fidel Castro, a pair of denim shorts can cost as much as ninety dollars.
For Cubans trying to dress fashionably, the underground market provides the best options. “Most people buy small items from individuals. They have better prices and a wider selection than state-run stores. They also let you pay in installments,” says Sheila, a college-prep student.
The government has prohibited sales of clothing by privately owned stores since late 2013. But almost all private businesses take advantage of the revolving door that operates between what is legal and what is not, a mechanism that operates with the precision of a Swiss watch.
Thousands of people on the island and abroad are engaged in the garment trade. Merchandise is usually purchased in Panama, Peru or Russia. In some cases it is acquired by catalogue. But whether shopping in state-owned or private businesses, getting dressed in Cuba is an expense that is five times the average Cuban’s monthly salary.
If you ask a Cuban what he sort of present he wants, he will give you one of three answers: a smart phone, a pair of comfortable shoes or a ticket out of the country.