14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, 5 November 2022 — A sign that, only a few days ago, was advertising a garage sale on 26th Street in Havana had suddenly disappeared, leaving customers to wonder if the owner had either skipped town or had nothing to sell. The truth is the sale was cancelled out of caution after officials announced that they would be keeping a closer eye on this type of retail activity, making sure only “authorized items” were being sold.
“I can’t risk getting fined so I didn’t open this weekend,” says Tahimí, a 38-year-old Havana resident who got on the garage sale bandwagon as soon as it was legalized in 2021. “Some of what I sell are second-hand clothes and shoes but my biggest sellers are housewares and other imported goods,” she says.
Cuban officials have begun cracking down on illegal commercial activities. This has not only put coleros — professional line-sitters — resellers and hoarders under greater scrutiny but also threatens others involved in the retail trade. At a recent meeting of senior officials in Havana, there were calls for greater oversight of garage sales, the sites at which they take place and the types of items being sold there.
The announcement caught the attention of anyone who had ever set up shop in a stairway, at a building entrance or in a parking garage. These makeshift stores might sell anything from clothing and wallets to light bulbs, fast-acting glue and cigarettes. “I guess we’ll only be selling used goods or things we happen to have at home,” laments Tahimí.
She recalls that, in late 2013, the government banned the sale of imported goods in private stores, which were being supplied by “mules” returning from trips to countries such as Mexico, Panama and Russia. But last year’s protests forced the government to quickly adopt a set of measures intended to quell popular discontent. Legalizing garage sales was one such measure.
Though the new rules did not require a garage sale operator to have a business license or to register as a self-employed worker, he or she still had to get a permit from the Municipal Administration Council, at a cost of 50 pesos. A few weeks later the regulation was “updated” and the permit requirement was eliminated. “No one told us what we could or couldn’t sell but recently I’ve met several neighbors who were fined for displaying food and coffee.”
Others choose not to give in to fear. “Nobody has told me that I can’t sell these things,” says a vendor who operates on Tulipán street in the Cerro neighborhood. On a small table he displays several types of sunglasses, USB sticks and a couple of universal remote controls, all new and in their original packaging.
He points out, however, that longtime street vendors on Galiano and Monte streets, people “who have been doing this their whole lives,” are receiving the same fines as those who operate garage sales. It is difficult to distinguish between them because the merchandise they are selling increasingly corresponds to items in short supply at state-owned stores, forcing consumers to turn to the informal market for all manner of everyday items.
Residents in Luyanó alert vendors when they see “a red and white minivan approaching.” It ferries inspectors to the neighborhood to conduct checks on garage sales and private vendors. Garage sales are now only allowed to operate on weekends and may only carry second-hand goods and one or two duplicates of new items vendors might have at home.
Witnesses report that infractions are subject to fines ranging from 3,000 to more than 10,000 pesos. These are particularly hefty sums considering how widely this type of activity was tolerated until very recently.
To evade oversight, some garage sales have moved online. “Selling bales of used clothing in good condition,” reads a classified ad on Facebook. “A combo of pants, shoes, blouse and feminine accessories at a very good price,” reads another, which adds “No need to leave home, the merchandise comes to you.”
There are also those who act as suppliers to the vendors. “I have clothes for garage sales, available separately or as twelve pieces packaged together” reads another classified on a page seemingly overflowing with deals on both second-hand and brand new items. Many ads are placed by families planning to leave the country, of which there are more and more every day, and who cannot fit their belongings in their suitcases.
But it is not just officials who are keeping an eye on garage sales. Residents in one twelve-story building in Nuevo Vedado complain that an operation of this type has invaded their stairway and is attracting people “who are constantly coming and going,” shopping for and trying on clothes. “It’s fine that they’re making a little money but they’re using a public space for their own personal gain,” one neighbor remarks.
If the building’s residents complain, the chances of getting a visit from an inspector or the police increase astronomically. “They can always find some reason to shut you down or to fine you because no one can get just by selling only what you’re allowed to sell,” she adds. When it comes to garage sales, the era of just looking the other way has come to an end, and only a little more than a year after they were legalized.
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