14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, 6 October 2018 — “We deliver products from stores to your home,” reads an advertisement for one of the most popular classified ad sites in Cuba. “No work, no walking no sweating,” the text adds in a jocular tone. In a country where access to Amazon is non-existent and most stores do not offer home delivery, the novelty of consumer products arriving at a customer’s front door is becoming more common.
Marieta and Carlos, aged 23 and 28 respectively, have been working together for more than a year on what they call “specialized courier services.” They began with a friend, selling appliances and construction materials that they delivered to wherever clients wanted them. “But we later realized that it was really a business that could deliver anything at all to your home,” says the young woman.
Thus began CHL, a small business whose initials recall those of the famous courier service DHL, “but with a C for Cuba,” notes Marieta. “We transport everything, from letters to refrigerators. And if someone wants us to buy something for him and bring the product to him, we’ll do that too.” Prices vary based on distance but, within Havana, “a combination store visit and home delivery costs between three and five CUC [convertible pesos] depending on the volume.”
“For those who are very busy or for people with mobility issues, it’s a godsend,” says Carlos. “The packages and products we transport are very well protected. Our boxes and containers will prevent even an egg from getting broken.” They note that in recent months their clientele has doubled, which they credit to “word of mouth.”
Unlicensed businesses hire them to provide delivery services to their customers. “They take care of sales and we take care of delivery, which leaves them more time for business,” explains Carlos. “It works like a chain, from classified ad to vendor to us.”
The two young entrepreneurs’ business operates on the legal fringes but fills an unmet need on the island for courier, parcel and express mail delivery services.
Correos de Cuba, the state-run postal service known for its slow delivery and damaged packages, has an abysmal reputation. At least two generations of Cubans have known since childhood not to trust it and avoid dropping letters and post cards in its mail boxes.
Nevertheless, although the state of crisis in the nation’s postal service can be a headache for some, others have decided to take advantage of its shortcomings. “We realized that many people want to send a package, a letter or a bouquet of roses but don’t trust the service offered by the Ministry of Communications,” says Abelardo, who worked as an engineer for two years before deciding, at age thirty-three, to get into the unlicensed courier business.
“My customers are mostly embassies, small private businesses and foreigners living in Cuba who want to make sure something gets to where it is supposed to go,” he explains. “We have a wide network of couriers in every province and we use Viazul or Astro buses to transport the packages.
One of Abelardo’s colleagues waits at the last bus stop, receives the package and takes it to its final destination. “In less than 48 hours the person has the shipment in his hands, almost miraculously,” boasts the engineer, who dreams of “having a fleet of vehicles, to keep growing and to one day have a plane. Why not?”
Abelardo has specialized in creating a network of buyers and “mules” who import merchandise into Cuba. He also works closely with unlicensed courier agencies who send packages packed in travelers’ luggage to their family members on the island. In this regard he is much more efficient than the state-run service.
According to Correos de Cuba, “once a package arrives by mail in Cuba, it takes seven to fifteen days to reach the provinces. In Havana it takes five days to reach the distribution center.” Abelardo boasts he can deliver a package within the capital in less than three days, or four if the package is going to the provinces. “Careful handling and secure shipping are guaranteed,” he says.
“If a customer wants us to buy something for him, we take the sales voucher to the store. And as an extra we include the ‘weekly packet.’* Those who have been with us for a while now pay a fixed monthly rate,” Abelardo says. “This is how Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce portal, was born. So no one should be surprised if in a few years this small business is taking everything everywhere in Cuba.”
Abelardo knows that “the law does not permit [people like him] to own medium-size and large businesses” but hopes that the new constitutional reforms “might finally allow entrepreneurs to grow because all of us would benefit.” After being interrupted by a phone call, Abelardo begins planning his next order: delivering a Dalmation puppy to someone’s home.
*Translator’s note: The paquete semanal, or weekly packet, is a compilation of largely foreign information and entertainment programming distributed clandestinely and for a modest price on USB devices throughout Havana.
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