Cuba: The Business of Charity
May 13, 2013
HAVANA TIMES — Odalys, one of my mother’s neighbors, has a niece who’s
made some significant additions to her wardrobe of late. She now has
some rather expensive garments, but, no, she doesn’t have a salary that
would make such luxury affordable.
Nor does she have friends or parents living in the United States, no.
She simply works at one of those State institutions which receives and
distributes clothes donated to aid the victims of the hurricane which
lashed Santiago de Cuba recently.
She pays regular visits to her aunt, a seamstress, for her to mend the
latest acquisitions. Odalys gives her a reproachful look, again and
again. To which the niece replies: “Aw, come on, girl, when did you
suddenly become so conscientious?”, or: “Don’t be a party-pooper,
auntie. Everyone at work does it.”
While it is true that people are going through tough times, it is also
true that you have to be fairly insensitive to do what Odalys’ niece
does. I feel the average Cuban has become so used to taking things from
the workplace that these misappropriations are no longer seen as
This holds for items of clothing that arrive as donations from abroad,
where the feeling is perhaps more widespread. There, you don’t just see
a handful of employees rummaging through boxes in search of something
that could be useful to them; you find a whole chain of businesses that
almost constitute an economic sector in the country.
Between warehouses and delivery trucks, clothes take illicit detours,
and garments are sold and purchased. I’ve heard that a sealed box,
containing who-knows-what inside, costs anywhere from 200 to 300 Cuban
Convertible Pesos (CUCs). With this investment, the would-be retailer
can make as much as 1,000 or 2,000 CUCs, if they have the patience to
move the clothes (1.00 CUC = 1.10 USD).
This is the reason the clothes that end up in State thrift stores are
garbage that only the most financially desperate among us buy and wear.
From time to time, you do come across a decent dress shirt from a
donation at a reasonable price, like 30 or 40 pesos, but only if you
know someone in the business.
Things have gotten to the point that, when I met Odalys’ niece, I
scratched my head and asked myself: “Where might the clothes I
painstakingly sent to Santiago after the hurricane have ended up?”