14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, October 12, 2021 — Clothes, shoes and small appliances, but also electrical outlets, a screw, hair clips, earrings, silicone, an ornamental plant, an old hookah and even a pre-1959 phone book. You can find anything at garage sales, which the government legalized on July 20 and are now proliferating across the island.
“In Cuba you can sell everything because no one has anything,” says a buyer from Central Havana who has become a regular customer at these types of businesses.
Retail merchandise for sale in Cuba’s national currency is in short supply. Increasingly, items such as shoes and clothing cannot be purchased with pesos and not everyone has the dollars needed to shop at the burgeoning hard currency stores. Customers can find products at online classified ad sites such as Revolico but prices there can be astronomical. As a result, garage sales, where prices are lower, have become an economical and pleasant shopping alternative for many Cubans, especially those most disadvantaged.
“Here in Central Havana, people are putting any little spare space to use. It could be a hallway next to a staircase, a tiny corner in a tenement or even empty building. A whole retail network has already sprung up,” say Iris, a vendor who, along with her cousins, has set up shop in a family member’s garage.
In a quick stroll through the neighborhood, 14ymedio found seven such operations.
Though garage sales have operated for years in Cuba — their popularity grew in 2013 after the government outlawed sales of imported goods in private stores, which were supplied by mules importing items from Mexico, Panama and Russia — they took off after being legalized as part of a package of emergency measures intended to calm public discontent after the July 11 demonstrations.
Though local authorities did not initially require sale organizers to obtain commercial licenses or register as a self-employed workers, they were required to file permit applications with the Municipal Administrative Council and pay a fifty-peso fee. The fee requirement was subsequently waived on August 12 when the government updated the regulations.
There were, of course, other strict requirements. Items for sale had to be for domestic or personal use only — whether used, pre-owned or new — and transactions had to be carried out in garages, on front porches or in other residential areas in ways that did not obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic. The resale of products purchased through the rationed market or in hard currency stores, such as toiletries and food, was prohibited.
Shortages are so acute, however, that there are some laws that not even sixty-two years of total state control can undo, such as the law of supply and demand.
“Everyone comes here,” says Iris of her fellow vendors. “They even sell toiletries the rationed stores sell: low-quality brands like Daily and Lis.” Inspectors do not bother them, she says, because Cubans’ need for basic products is so urgent.
One example is tobacco, a product so difficult to obtain that fights often break out when it goes on sale at state-owned stores. At one garage sale, customers could buy H. Uppmann filtered cigarettes for 160 pesos and unfiltered for 140. (The price is almost double at state stores.) The vendor has the items out on a counter, in full view. “If an inspector comes along, I tell him I’m a smoker and that they’re mine,” explains the vendor, who asks to remain anonymous.
Augusto, another garage sale vendor from Nuevo Vedado, employs different strategies to avoid being fined. “You have to be very careful about what you display because obviously [the inspectors] are not idiots. They could come and accuse you of selling things illegally” he says. For example, if he has several watches for sale, he will only display one.
Augusto is happy transactions like these are now legal. He and his family, who used to own several tourism-related businesses, have been laid low by the pandemic. They have adapted by selling their personal belongings, in some cases at very good prices. This weekend he is doing particularly very well. “I was dying of boredom being cooped up at home,” he confesses.
The capital is not the only city where this type of business is expanding. Lucretia from Santa Clara says, “My house has a front patio and it’s near Vidal Park so several friends and I organized a garage sale.” For the first one they had very few things: some kitchen towels that her grandmother made, some cables and parts of old laptops they had gathered together, old shoes and clothes they no longer wore. They were better prepared the second time around, collecting everything their relatives had to offer. “We even sold a small children’s bike,” she says. “That time we raised more than 2,000 pesos.”
Another advantage to this type of transaction is the flexible payment options it offers customers. For example, there are vendors who will set an item aside if the customer does not have enough money to pay for it at the moment.
Other conventional businesses also take advantage of garage sales. In Old Havna the owners of a bakery located on an undesirable corner have divided the premises in two. In one half they sell bread, meringues and ground peanuts. In the other other there are clothes, shoes, keys, scissors, locks and a whole arsenal of things.
“That’s how far we’ve fallen” says the Central Havana customer. “These are things humans invented a long time ago but, in the commercial Middle Ages we’re living in now, it’s like a major event.”
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