Without Private Vendors, Three Kings Day in Cuba Would Be Impossible

Viewed as a relic of a bourgeois, consumerist past, Three Kings Day celebrations in Cuba have been on pause for decades. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, January 6, 2022 — Are you selling any toys? Where can I find dolls for sale? These and other questions could be heard throughout Cuba on Wednesday, the eve of Three Kings Day. In recent months toy supplies have been limited and this, combined parents’ financial worries and the often last-minute scramble for presents contributed to the tense atmosphere at Cuban children’s stores.

The only toys for sale at state-owned shops were a few board games. Meanwhile, private vendors capitalized on parental anxiety by offering imported goods at inflated prices. As in previous years, the vendors’ merchandise — items brought in by travelers from Mexico, Panama and the United States — was among the few available options available.

Three Kings celebrations in Cuba have been on pause for decades. Seen as a relic of a bourgeois, consumerist past, the government decided to replace it with Boys and Girls Day, moving the date for familial gift-giving to the third Sunday in July.

Items such as stuffed animals, toy guns, balls, tops and kitchen sets were selling for between 500 and 3,000 pesos apiece. (14ymedio)

With the dollarization of the economy in the 1990s, the tradition of giving presents to little ones on January 6 began to gradually make a comeback. But it is a return the Cuban regime has never been happy about and which government media outlets have strongly criticized on several occasions, deriding it as little more than an excuse for wasteful spending and consumption.

In spite of all this, dozens of parents gathered outside the only toy store on Obispo Street on Wednesday, among them Marisol. The mother of two, who was looking for toys for her children, arrived just in time to watch a store employee carting away the last available items for sale: a few packages of disposable diapers. Shortly thereafter, the store closed its doors.

“They’re not selling anything here,” observed a man who was standing outside. “Half of Havana has paraded through here today looking for toys. I’ve told everyone the same thing. Go to Casa Perez. You’re sure to find something there,” he advised Marisol, who thanked the man for the information before heading towards Neptuno Street.

The toy shortage at state-owned stores is due partly to a dilemma these retailers face. They must sell merchandise purchased with hard currency from foreign suppliers for Cuban pesos. Selling toys at the country’s foreign-currency stores might solve this problem but it would create a wave of popular unrest and the government knows it.

Continuing her search, Marisol headed to Fe del Valle, a small park near San Rafael Boulevard, where private vendors often set up sales tables. On this day the makeshift stalls offered a wide array of toys, jams, footwear, jewelry and other items for sale. The wide selection of merchandise lifted her spirits.

“At that moment I felt the sky open up. I thought I’d be able to buy toys for my children and even something for my little niece,” she told 14ymedio. Her spirits quickly sank, however, when she realized that the prices for the items on display were well beyond her reach.

Items such as stuffed animals, toy guns, balls, tops and kitchen sets were selling for between 500 and 3,000 pesos apiece. “It’s hard to believe. A regular Barbie  for 1,200; a plastic Hulk 2,000,” said Marisol, who had a budget of 1,500 pesos thanks to a remittance from a cousin in the United States. “I’ll keep looking at the state stores and, if I don’t find anything, I’ll go back and see what I can do.”

Prices for the items on display were simply unaffordable. (14ymedio)

Marisol decided to try her luck at the hard-currency store on Carlos III Street but an employee there explained that the store had not gotten any toys for a long time. “I suggest you try the private vendors because it’s going to be hard finding anything at the state stores,” the sales clerk added.

With no other options, Marisol headed back to Fe del Valle and checked each and every stall in search of the most affordable option. “Can’t you please give me a discount? I need to get presents for my two children and my niece,” she explained to one of the vendors. “Don’t complain about the prices. I didn’t tell you to have so many kids. Life is hard for all of us,” the vendor responded.

Among the most affordable but least attractive options were the so-called “street-vendor toys” — cars, trucks and toy soldiers made from molten plastic, whose quality is far below that of the imports — which few people were buying. “Those are the toys for poor kids,” noted one woman.

Finally, Marisol settled on three bags, at 500 pesos each, which included cookies, candy and a small toy. “Never in my life did I think I would be spending 1,500 pesos for a handful of trinkets but these are the times we are living in this country.” A time when celebrating Three Kings Day is no longer prohibited but but is prohibitively expensive for many people.


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