The "Resurrection" of the Cuatro Caminos Market and Free Trade in Cuba

Cuatro Caminos Market clock.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Elías Amor Bravo, Economist, 15 November 2019 — The beautiful published images of the rehabilitation of the Cuatro Caminos Market and resumption of operations at the service of Cubans is one of the few pieces of good news coming from that troubled country.

After almost half a century of paralysis, after the confiscations and expropriations from their rightful owners by the communists, the state owner of this facility has given a boost to the building for its rehabilitation, and best of all, it is now possible sell diverse products, which leads us to ask ourselves, for how long?

The Cuatro Caminos Market was already known to me when, as a young child — but one of great understandings — I accompanied my grandfather on his business in Havana. I remember, then, that there were still some products in the different stalls, whose former owners had now become slaves who worked for the state, and as a result, it had lost the joy, the yelling, the heat and the sounds that, according to my grandfather, had characterized the market and its people in previous decades.

There, people gathered daily not only to buy but to enjoy conversations and relationships in the surrounding bars and cafes, many of them also closed by their former owners who could do nothing but flee the country to avoid repression or jail.

In those years and under the watchful eye of the communists, always dressed in the exhausting olive green and patrolling the streets with their weapons aimed at civilians, information could still be obtained from the events that the official Castro press hid from Cubans. The market was a space for life. And because of that, it was extinguished and died.

Now the resurrection is attempted and we will see how it goes. Photographs in the state newspaper Granma show spaces full of merchandise but, as Cubans know well, it can be an illusion for a day and a lament for months.

The fact is that a hundred years after its founding and fifty after its sentencing by the communist regime, the Cuatro Caminos Market has come back to life, and this is great news. Hopefully it will recover its commercial value, its joy, its ability to gather and summon citizens to that activity as peaceful and necessary as choosing the goods and products that fill their shopping baskets. An activity banned for decades by communism, which was responsible for exchanging it for the dramatic ration book.

So when, this Saturday the 16th, the market reopens its doors to Havanans, its capacity to summon will be seen, and also to be seen is if what communist authorities say will really be fulfilled. Dreams don’t always come true, sometimes they become sad nightmares.

Why do I talk about this? Because trade as a human activity requires the existence of production, supply, goods that can be sold to buyers. In addition, the goods must be continually delivered to the stores. And their quality must be fresh so that buyers do not abandon the place or change their preferences.  And really, does anyone believe that the existing economic system in Cuba can sustain this simple operating model?

Honestly, I have my doubts, seeing the experience of the last decades. If the option is to sell in hard currencies, then there could be some future for the Cuatro Caminos, especially for those who receive remittances, but if the sales are conducted in Cuban pesos, it will not take long to see the empty shelves.

The CIMEX Group responsible for the restoration of the building, which apparently will be managed by a foreign company, has pulled out all the stops, but they should know that goods that are not produced cannot arrive at the market. However much money has been invested in rehabilitation, according to its previous design, the important thing is what exists within the premises and the structure of the economic and trade relations. Relations in which the state must be on the sidelines, turning their execution over to private agents. As simple as that.

It is useless to have an intelligent platform for the control of electricity, and climate controls with photovoltaic panels, if at any moment a blackout lets everything stored in that industrial cold deteriorate. There is no use in opening the place for the most extended hours, or 51 sales terminals, or several plants for services, if the shelves are empty of merchandise. Who will have an interest in keeping something going if it will never be theirs?

In truth, this story published in Granma seems more like “counting the chickens before they hatch” than an event to celebrate, as I said at the beginning, although it is good news that the historical heritage is restored.  At best it could have another dedication, but that is for another article. I talked a long time ago about a Convent Garden in Havana. I maintain that option, now that I see how the building looks.

The communist authorities want to achieve a lot of things that make no sense or reason, much less justification, and the worst is that the State is still sticking its nose into free trade economic activity through CIMEX.

Property rights and freedom of enterprise are the vectors that move markets such as Cuatro Caminos in all countries of the world. They already did it before 1959. If they do not want chaos, destruction and abandonment to return, there is no other way than privatization and profit-oriented management.

All the rest is a fairy tale.


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