The Rebels Of Imported Clothes / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

Clothing store in Havana. (EFE)
Clothing store in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 8 March 2016 – “Chinese or brand name?” Sandy asked a customer who had come to order some shoes. They talk inside the house with the door closed, in the same room where three years ago the saleswoman had one of the most frequented boutiques in Central Havana. Today she is still in business, but no longer has a sign in the window or models on view for those passing by on the sidewalk.

Despite all the customs restrictions, the sellers of imported clothing have managed to maintain a stable and varied offering. On 31 December 2013, a ban on selling clothes or other products made abroad went into effect, plunging the market into illegality from which it continues to operate, moving millions of pesos a year.

Most of the clothes Sandy sells are “Chinese,” a popular moniker for non-brand-name products. In the corner of her bedroom, several suitcases are full of leggings, shirts, jeans and dresses of various colors. “I have every size, even extra large,” she says. Unlike the state stores, which don’t accept payment in installments, the vendor allows her clients to pay things off “little by little.”

Sandy explained to 14ymedio that among her merchandise the best denim comes from Panama, where she can buy jeans for 18 dollars and sell them here for 25 CUC. The young woman took advantage of a seamstress’s license to sell imported clothes, but had to go underground when the government decreed that that license only allowed the sale of handmade clothing. “Just imagine, I don’t know how to sew a single stitch. My thing is this: buy to sell later,” she said.

Along with the restrictions on this kind of self-employment, customs regulations were also tightened, by Resolution 206. In 2014, limits were established to “determine the commercial character of imports by natural persons,” by any route. Now it is only possible to bring in 24 shirts, 20 blouses, 10 pants or 10 dresses.

However, the flow of goods does not seem to have suffered a drastic fall off in the informal market. “We have to be more careful, but we keep on selling,” comments Karina, a “mule” who frequently makes the trip from Panama, Ecuador and Mexico to buy from large wholesale stores, thanks to an Italian passport that she obtained after living in that country for some time.

To get through customs, Karina says she relies on her luck and on having a network of contacts that allow “suitcases and briefcases through, leaving behind a few goodies,” for the airport staff. She doesn’t consider it a crime to corrupt a few officials, because, she justifies, “It’s clothes! Not arms or drugs!”

The General Customs of the Republic has not released figures of seizures of “miscellaneous” items since Resolution 206 went into effect more than two years ago. An official of the Customs Disclosure Department told this newspaper, by phone, that “this data isn’t published,” and refused to confirm the final destination of the seized merchandise.

Along with the “Chinese” shops, in the underground clothing business there are boutiques, with choices for higher quality and higher prices. In Cuba the preferred brands are the most economical, “we’re not talking Louis Vuitton,” affirms Solveig, passionate about the latest fashion trends.

The young woman, 22, has numerous contacts, and so is able to dress herself with a certain “touch of exclusivity.” She explains that brands like Mago, Zara, Berskha and H&M are marketed in parallel in a country where there are no franchises or large chains. “Desigual brand clothes cost double, and the same with Pull&Bear,” although “the clothes are originally acquired in liquidation.”

“People still prefer to buy clothes from private sellers,” affirms Solveig, which is consistent with many people’s opinions of the clothes in state stores. “They are years behind the times and the prices are outrageous,” she complains. She dreams of being able to enter a “closed circle” selling “good clothes,” where a trader has a fixed clientele and knows their preferences. “If you are not in that group you have to knock on the door and they don’t sell to you or alter things,” she laments.

Marcia is operating at this level and buys most of her clothes through Amazon, thanks to a relative abroad. Her relative buys the clothes on line and sends them by way of “mules” or package services to the island. Her clientele comes to a night show, ready to pay much higher prices thanks to the long trip.

The experienced seller downloads pages from Amazon and prepares a digital collection that she shows her customers on a tablet. The buyers choose and when she connects “on wifi on La Rampa or at the home of a friend” she makes the selection and her sister buys them. “I fill a virtual cart and tell my sister so she can pay,” she explains.

“First of all, the people who do this have to have contacts over there,” says Marcia, pointing north. “This is a business of attention to detail.” She is right when she says that, because they have to know the costs for buying things, the delivery services and the costs of sending the packages to Cuba. A complicated arithmetic formula whose profits are shared among all concerned.

The system for shipping parcels is also undertaken by agencies such as Bacuba, Fromline and Caribexpress, which have contracts with the state-owned Cubapack. If the packages exceed three pounds, there is a tax of 20 CUC for each kilogram. A sender abroad can only send two to four packages each time, but there are no limits for the recipient. Packages can take between ten days and a month to get to the island.

Marcia is waiting for a “significant” package. A famous singer has commissioned a dress for a special night. “I’m counting the days until it comes, because if all goes well I’ll earn an excellent client,” she says, convinced that this will allow her to have her own “circle of famous people” who will buy “name brand clothes to order.”