Sounds Good to Me / Miriam Celaya

Clothing sales by the self-employed. Photo from Internet

Things are looking bad for the sale of clothing, so much so that many of Havana’s retailers who pay to be licensed as seamstresses or tailors are concerned about what’s coming. As of 28 September 2013, an official provision has gone into effect establishing that they can only sell clothing made by hand, on pain of heavy fines and confiscation of all the industrially-made apparel they offer.

So far, the numerous private small business in Central Havana have remained open and are selling the same imported clothes, without any official operation taking place. But there is a grim anxiety circulating among them and they know it’s only a question of time before the hordes of inspectors and pack of uniforms come down on them.

Anais, one of the dozens of clothing vendors who have opened private businesses in Central Havana, has already lived four decades, and before having a self-employment license she knew how to make money working for herself. In fact she had a business selling imported clothing, which then came from State warehouses stores, through one of the multiple chains of smuggling networks that have proliferated on this Island since the bans were instituted as a method of governance.

So she shrugs her shoulders at the new official threat: “When I hear that the inspectors are about to come down this street (and I’m sure to hear ahead of time), I’ll close and go to the office and surrender my license. They’re not going to screw me over. I took all the merchandise I had in my house and put it in a safe place, so I will continue to sell “under the counter.” That’s what I’ve always done! Licensed or not, I’m not going to starve. We’ll see who has more to lose.”

Just half a block from Anaís a middle-aged couple complains. The man is more withdrawn and talks in monosyllables or just nods, approving what his wife says; she is more talkative, perhaps because she feels more confident talking to other mature woman like herself, or perhaps because she needs the catharsis.

I tell them who I am and what I do — something for which they don’t give out licenses in Cuba– but that doesn’t scare them one bit. “Just don’t use our names,” they ask me.  Of course not, I don’t even ask. In reality, it’s not necessary, I’m just digging into what the media says, in what lies beyond the laws, the regulations, the statistics.

I’m more interested in people and their reasons than in the government’s regulations and the propaganda of its spokespeople. Life is on the streets, very different and distant from those who make the laws and what the media shows.

The woman tells me that a couple of years ago she took our a license as a dressmaker and began selling there, in the doorway of her sister’s house, and some time later, when they prohibited selling in doorways, she moved to the living room of the same house. It went well, so she was able to invest more money in merchandise and her husband also took out a license as a tailor.

Neither of them knows how to thread a needle, but she knows this business: before she was already “selling some clothes that just came my way, you knowl but always with a fear that the police would catch me. Once they took a backpack frull of t-shirts and I had to pay the owner from my own pocket.”

So when she saw the chance to earn money legally she took out a license. The official who helped her never said she couldn’t sell industrially-manufactured clothing, although it’s true that the permit says it’s for handmade goods.” But, she remembers, “from the beginning everyone here sold imported clothes and no one ever warned us about anything, nor did the inspectors fine us or take the merchandise. Instead they let us get excited, and spend money locally, on the display racks, the pegs and all those things, and we invested in the clothes coming in through the airport where we certainly had to pay duty on them. Now they are saying that we Cubans don’t pay the tariffs, so what have we been paying for at the airport?”

Then the husband tells me, “That’s the problem. In this country there are too many limits and too many things prohibited.”

The story of another young entrepreneur is similar, who just points out that when he got his license specifically asked officials at the tax office if he was only allowed to sell hand-crafted clothing, to which they responded with a typical phrase, full of complicit winks: “This is Cuba , you know that you can always do more. You have to swim and put way the clothes.” The young man laughed, “I do not want to store the clothes, I want to sell them and make money.”

In a total of seven private shops I visited the feeling is one of uncertainty and discontent. All of the interviewees think that the solution would be to have a wholesale market in the country to legalize the sale of manufactured clothing, but we know that isn’t going to happen.

The crux of the matter is that in a couple of years private businesses have successfully competed with the State’s hard currency stores, whose sales have fallen sharply as the self-employed multiplied. A greater variety for sale, more acceptable prices, better quality and friendly service are factors that distinguish the private owner versus State establishments, advantages that the government is in no condition to match, let alone surpass.

Moreover, a significant number of these private retailers are former state workers who have become “available” — the State euphemism for being laid-off — but who already engaged in illegal sales before having a license; that is they are trained in smuggling activities and surviving on the margins of legality, so that — as the last elf-employed young man I interviewed told me — the government is just leaving the path open for crime: “Here many people know how to ’struggle,; so that’s why they don’t have a license. Who’s going to take out a license to sell the same cheap clothes they sell at the fairs all things being equal? And how are the police going to control so many people?”

It is clear that with the implementation of self-employment the government has opened a Pandora’s box that it cannot now close without facing the consequences. However, despite the repressive nature of the new provisions and the official obstinacy in refusing to license as retailers, the balance remains negative for the authorities. What was before is no longer. Meanwhile, there are more and more discontented Cubans in the streets. Given the circumstances, it seems fine to me, to see if once and for all an awareness of autonomy and rights blossoms among the Cuban people.

7 October 2013