In Cuba, ‘On the Left’ Means A Flourishing Black Market
Guile and Caution Employed to Counter Chronic Shortages
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 22, 2006; A14
HAVANA — Most mornings a woman with darting brown eyes lingers here in
the sticky hot corner of an open-air vegetable market.
She effects a casual stance, elbow propped nonchalantly against a cigar
stand, waiting for the regulars. If she nods, her customers follow her
to a side street.
A few quick, nervous glances and the woman reaches inside her blouse.
From her bra, she removes her contraband — neatly folded plastic
grocery sacks, illegal except in state-run stores.
Five for one cent.
The transaction, like countless others each day in Havana and throughout
this island nation, takes place ” por la izquierda ,” or “on the left.”
Cubans use the phrase to describe back-alley deals both large and small.
They scheme on the left to cope with chronic shortages and to skirt
myriad rules that prohibit most forms of private enterprise and govern
the minutiae of their daily lives.
Cubans go to the left for almost anything: for staples, such as rice and
beans; for quotidian items, such as the plastic grocery sacks; and for
forbidden delights, such as lobster or scarce beef. On the left, Cubans
risk fines or jail sentences to watch soap operas captured by illegal
satellite dishes, to prowl restricted Internet sites and to boil “secret
potatoes” bought after reaching limits on the ration cards that dictate
the buying habits of everyone in the country. Mothers of children under
the age of 7 — the only Cubans allowed to buy discounted milk at state
stores — even sell their allotments at inflated prices to collect money
for extra food.
The thriving underground economy functions as a pocket of capitalism,
prescribed by supply and demand, within the Western Hemisphere’s only
communist state. Observers say it may be the precursor of a push for a
market economy, one that could accelerate after President Fidel Castro
dies; on the other hand, they say, the black market may simply be the
byproduct of a system that rewards the wily and well-connected.
“They’re very entrepreneurial,” Wayne Smith, a former chief of the U.S.
Interests Section in Havana, said in an interview. “When I go down to
Cuba, I’ve had the impression that everyone is waiting for something to
happen. There’s a sense that changes are going to come.”
While the world wonders what a post-Castro Cuba might look like, the
resiliency of the island’s black-market culture demonstrates how far
Cubans are willing to go to circumvent Castro’s dictums. But it also
exposes a certain elasticity in government control of the island.
Some of the deals made on the left, though illegal, are clearly
tolerated. They sometimes take place in plain sight of uniformed police,
or in view of the less obvious, but equally pervasive, network of
The sense of tolerance, however, can vanish abruptly. In August, shortly
after Castro underwent stomach surgery and relinquished power during his
recovery, government authorities swept through neighborhoods in a
crackdown on illegal satellite dishes. The agents were presumably bent
on blocking outside news broadcasts — rife with rumors that Castro was
dead or suffering from terminal cancer — that might cast doubt on the
rosier official accounts.
As word spread, Cubans scrambled to dismantle satellite dishes that had
been open secrets, squirreling them under floorboards and in attics.
“There used to be dishes there, there, there,” a man who lives in a
Havana suburb said recently, pointing at his neighbor’s homes.
“The funny thing is that they think we want to watch the news from
Miami,” said the man, a government port worker who, like dozens of
others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity. “But all my wife
wants to see are the soaps.”
The Castro government says the restrictions that push so many Cubans to
the left are, in some cases, necessitated by the U.S. trade embargo and,
in others, a counteroffensive in the nearly half-decade propaganda war
between the countries.
Satellite dishes are banned in order to block the U.S. government’s TV
Marti, which broadcasts programming critical of Castro, National
Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón said in an interview. Internet use is
restricted, he said, because the embargo prevents Cuba from tapping
high-speed cables in international waters.
When the subject of food rationing comes up, Alarcón invariably points
again to the U.S. embargo and to a declassified U.S. State Department
memo written shortly before the trade embargo was enacted in the early
1960s. “The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support,” the
memo states, “is through disenchantment and disaffection based on
economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” The memo proposes “a line of
action which makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to
Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger,
desperation and overthrow of government.”
“It’s equivalent to genocide,” Alarcón said of the memo and of the
Even Cubans who are critical of the Castro government tend to have
similarly heated reactions to the embargo. Their trips into the black
market unspool as quiet acts of rebellion against both U.S. policy and
the restrictions imposed by Castro.
Entire networks have developed to feed the black market system. There
are suppliers, who skim materials from state-run enterprises. And there
are middlemen, who buy the stolen goods and resell them.
One recent afternoon in Cojimar, a town outside Havana famed as a
hangout of Ernest Hemingway’s, a middleman sat shirtless in his living
room, flashing signals at passersby. He gave a thumbs-up to a man
looking for chicken; he shook his head at a woman looking for milk.
“Here, everything is on the left,” he said, sweeping his arm across his
modest home and shouting to be heard over a Steven Seagal movie that
he’d picked up from an illegal DVD vendor.
The house, once half its current size, had grown wider and longer
because of several dozen bags of cement that he had collected one at a
time from “some guys” over more than a year. His guys would stuff their
pockets with cement at the end of each workday until they had
accumulated enough to fill a bag. The family’s freezer bulged with
chicken waiting to be resold, and the refrigerator held three large
flans, because the middleman had come into a windfall of eggs.
“This is an art,” he said, sagging back into a recliner. “Not everyone
can sell like me.”
That same afternoon, in another town near Havana, a 30-something Cuban
went out in search of videos to rent. He walked down a street lined by
homes with peeling facades, then stopped at an entrance that stood out
because of its fresh paint job.
A gaunt man cracked the door open a few inches, and tersely asked: “What
do you want?”
After poking his head out and looking each way down the street, the man
ushered his customer inside. The floor was brand-new faux marble, the
recliners plush velvet — more signs of prosperity amid the street’s decay.
“I’ve got some Julia Roberts, I’ve got some Al Pacino,” he said.
But he had no intention of handing them over. Instead, he would relay a
message to a courier, who would inform “the old man.” The customer would
have to wait six hours, then go to the old man’s house to retrieve the
“Things are tight now,” the movie dealer said, explaining that police
had been more vigilant since Castro’s illness.
A few days later, back at the market where izquierda culture might be
strongest, a customer was on the lookout for lobsters. A man stepped up
to him and whispered, “Meet me two blocks down the street.”
Lobsters, abundant in Cuban waters, are illegal in all but a few of the
most expensive state-run restaurants. The rest of the catch is exported.
The lobster vendor hopped in the customer’s car and directed him through
a labyrinth of city streets to a colonial-era home. A man on the rooftop
flashed a caution signal, and the vendor instructed the customer not to
The vendor slipped out of the car and disappeared through a door,
reappearing 10 minutes later to wave the customer inside. At the top of
the stairs, a woman appeared with a dozen beautiful lobster tails.
The customer handed over six dollars, grabbed the lobsters and dashed
down the stairs. He wheeled his car back toward the market. Three blocks
away, the vendor yelled, “Stop!”
He jumped out of the car, and in a moment, he was gone.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company