14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguín, June 27, 2020 — Miguel envisioned his prosperous business going bankrupt when authorities announced on March 2 that, due to Covid-19, residents of Cuba would not be able to travel abroad until further notice. He now fears that travel and import restrictions will remain in place long after the pandemic is over.
For six years the Holguín resident, who prefers to use a pseudonym to avoid trouble, travels to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Russia and Panama to buy household appliances, clothing, footwear and other merchandise that he then sells on the informal market.
Over time, Miguel learned how to get around customs barriers, avoid having his goods confiscated and overcome the endless hassles inherent in being a “mule,” a profession that operates in a legally gray area.
Although importing a limited number of products is legal — up to three mobile telephones or two computers — reselling them on the black market can result in fines, confiscations and jail time.
The 2013 Immigration Reform Act that made it easier for Cubans to travel overseas but mules have never had to face anything like the Covid-19 pandemic, which has all but decimated their businesses.
In Cuba there are thousands of people like Miguel who buy products in other countries that are scarce on the island. They typically travel to nations that do not require them to have a visa. Back home they get their goods through customs by claiming them as personal belongings before later selling them on the black market.
It is difficult to say exactly how many private importers sell their merchandise in Holguín province. Those involved in the business avoid giving details and guard their identities to avoid being prosecuted.
Importers often pay family members or friends to travel with them so they can bring back more merchandise. It is common for them to set up support networks and to travel overseas in groups in order to reduce lodging expenses
But since the borders were closed at the end of March, this army of mules has been on hold. The people involved in this trade fear that, even it things return to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities will keep the restrictions in place, hindering their operations.
Among the government decisions announced that March 24, there was one that caused particular unease: Cubans who were still abroad could return to the island, but, if they did, they would not be allowed to bring back more than one suitcase and one carry-on bag.
This announcement brought Sylvia to the verge of collapse. The Holguín resident was in Haiti at the time, buying clothing, footwear and various hardware products. It was her third trip to the poorest country in Latin America, where — because she was of African descent and spoke French — she could buy goods more easily.
Silvia had to leave a large portion of her purchases behind, with her cousin. Her biggest worry now is paying off her expenses. “I don’t know when I will be able to go back and, with what I brought with me, I am not recouping the money I invested,” she says.
For Silvia such unforeseen circumstances are nothing new. As an importer she is used to the risks that come with this kind of work. On her previous trip, in early 2020, more than half of the items she bought were seized by authorities during a police raid in Holguín.
“It was my bad luck to borrow money for this trip,” she says. But with restrictions now preventing many of these products from entering Cuba, Silvia does not plan on sitting idly by. She and her husband are looking into other kinds of informal business in order to stay afloat.
One of the options she is considering is selling products that command three times the price normally charged on the informal market. Scarcity has driven prices up but, in the midst of a public health emergency, what buyers are prioritizing is food.
Silvia suspects that the government’s decision to limit the amount of baggage that can be brought in is not a coincidence and worries the restrictions could be extended. She believes that the authorities took advantage of the pandemic to do away with jobs like hers. “They’ve been wanting to get rid of us for a long time and the coronavirus gave them the perfect excuse,” she says.
Marisol is another informal merchant who fears for the future of mules, an occupation that has allowed her to make a living until now. Before the borders closed, she was in Guyana, where she bought clothes and shoes. “The day before my flight, customs restrictions took effect and I had to leave a lot of what I bought at the house I was renting.”
Marisol has had to start taking sleeping pills because her anxieties have prevented her from getting a good night’s rest. She is afraid that she will not be able to recover her merchandise or recoup the money she has invested but she is especially afraid of what the future holds.
But it is not just the mules who are worried. After three months without imports, the effects are beginning to be seen in the streets of Holguín. Prices in the informal market have risen while product availability has fallen. Costs for the most commonly imported items — clothing and footwear — have skyrocketed.
“We will look like we’re starving and in rags,” says a woman who has visited several clandestine points of sale in Holguín looking for a pair of tennis shoes for her son.
COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.