Shoes in Cuba Have More Lives Than a Cat / Iván García

Photo: Used Shoe sale.


Buying a new pair of shoes is a real headache for everyday Cubans. There are two ways to get your hands on footwear in Cuba: buying them off of a private craftsman or paying for them in hard currency at whichever state store. There’s no other way.

Lately, there is a swarm of stores in Havana where they sell used shoes or shoes created by craftsmen. One of the most popular spots is located in Monte street, not very far from the National Capitol. It’s a two-floor bazaar which is always packed and where people bump into each other and breathe polluted air. They don’t only sell handmade shoes. They also have shoes of poor textile and of dubious origin.

Amid the constraint and chronic scarcity of the shoes, numerous craftsmen have spent years making money in the business of tailoring leather shoes. Like Osmany, for example. He’s a guy with bulging eyes who came from Yateras, Guantanamo, which is a thousand kilometers away from the capital, to escape his misery and lack of money and future.

Now he lives in a well furnished room in “El Calvario”, a neighborhood at the South end of the city. He has a workshop at his house in which he fabricates shoes for children, women, and men. “I always try to be aware of the latest trends in the shoe-world. I daily produce 10 to 15 pairs. I’m usually able to sell each pair for 130 pesos to a middleman who later re-sells it for double, or more, of the amount. I have a license, I pay taxes and three people who work for me”, Osmany tells me.

The models which shoemakers fabricate are eye-catching, but generally their quality is poor. If you want to prove it, just ask Ramon, who works at a steel factory ten hours a day to make 800 pesos a month (35 dollars). He has three kids and his wife is a housewife.

His problems begin when he tries to get shoes for his family. Handmade shoes cost between 12 to 40 dollars. These are some of the least expensive in Cuba. In stores which operate with foreign currency, they cost more. For many, this is outrageous.

Ramon’s children often go to the Havana boutiques and remain awe-struck upon seeing the variety of models and brands. But they can only stare. The prices are not within reach of their father’s pocket.

“The remaining option is to get them at arts and crafts festivals, and those end up being very bad quality. Just give them three months and their soles begin to tear off. Whenever they get wet by rain, the leather shrinks and its color fades. But we don’t throw them away. None of that. We fix them time and time again with the cobblers”, says Ramon.

In the island, the shoe-making guild was always popular, as well as furriers and shoe-shiners. Today, fixing shoes is one of the most widespread jobs. True magicians, like Luis who assures that Cuban shoes have more lives than a cat.

“I’ve fixed shoes which their owners thought were lost cases. Poor people, which is the majority, try to have their shoes last, at minimum, 8 or more years. A living hell for many families is when their kids outgrow their shoes. I have yet to figure out a way to make them bigger”, the jocular Luis says.

And it’s true: whenever parents have to buy shoes for their kids, they wish they could just disappear. In school, the kids destroy their sneakers in a matter of months, while on the other hand their feet grow by day. When it comes time to buy a new pair, there are families that actually pull out a calculator and discuss where they can get enough money from to buy a shoe that would last them the longest time possible.

Perhaps that’s why the main requests from prostitutes and hustlers to tourists are for shoes. Those who have family on the other side of the water escape this process. Their relatives send them shoes with “mules” (the term for those people who make a living out of taking goods from Cubans outside to their relatives inside) or with the dollars that they are sent they go out and buy them at some store.

The prices are shocking. Listen to this: a pair of Adidas that aren’t the latest model cost more than 120 dollars. Nikes are around the same price. Converse and New Balance range from 80 to 90. Leather, Italian, or Brazilian shoes can cost anywhere from 50 to 130 dollars. Remember that in Cuba, in the best of instances, a worker makes the equivalent of 20 dollars per month.

The cheapest option is to purchase hard and ugly shoes sold for 6 to 12 dollars in any store throughout the country. And there are those people, like the retired Ernesto, that wear flip-flops most of the time in order to try to conserve his shoes as much as possible.

Raul Castro has said that food is a National Security issue. But he forgot to mention shoes. This is an industry that had a long history before 1959, with an ample production of shoes, purses, and leather belts (and even crocodile skin belts).

Whenever a gang of bandits robs anyone on the street, besides taking their money, they also snatch their shoes. There are no statistics of all those young people who have been mutilated, and even killed, by the stabs of a knife just because their robbers want their Nikes or Adidas. It’s the way those living in the margins of society replace their broken shoes.

Translated by Raul G.

April 16 2011