Cuba Wants No More Private Stores / Ivan Garcia
Posted on September 10, 2013
Going shopping or simply browsing through Havana’s large stores is a
popular hobby for many of the capital’s residents. But few of them can
afford to buy anything without first looking at the scandalous prices of
the merchandise, which is levied with taxes ranging from 240% to 300%.
Most buy just the essentials: a liter of cooking oil, two bars of bath
soap, a box of tomato puree or a 250 gram bag of detergent. Others visit
the stores to look at the display window mannequins dressed in
brand-name clothes or the widescreen TVs they can never afford.
Since 2006, when General Raúl Castro took up the presidential baton
after being hand-picked by his brother Fidel, the military regime has
eliminated ridiculous regulations and autocratic prohibitions which had
reduced average Cubans to the status of fourth-class citizens in their
Property rights in Cuba were merely a semantic nicety. Legally, people
could not sell houses, works of art or cars obtained after 1959 (though
they were sold anyway on the very efficient black market). In 2011
Castro II legalized what for a long had been taking place under the table.
After the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet
Communism, blank checks, canned fruit and petroleum from the Caucuses
stopped arriving in Cuba.
Fidel Castro encouraged a do-or-die resistance. When he proposed at a
women’s conference in 1991 that the attendees hold onto their clothes
because they would be in short supply for the foreseeable future, some
thought he was joking.
The man was not kidding. The ration book for manufactured goods
vanished, leaving only the one for food. The island reverted to a state
of destitution, devastated by hunger, exotic illnesses and run-away
After dollars were allowed to circulate legally in 1993, the gaps and
differences in a society designed to make everyone on the low-end equal
Those who had dollars lived better than state workers, who earned
poverty-level wages. Getting dressed meant spending the equivalent of
In a nation where advertising barely existed and the state’s
hard-currency monopoly was fierce, shirts, blouses, pants, shoes and
other goods had to be purchased in a chain of stores operated by
And the prices! Clothes of the poorest quality bought in bulk from
China, from small-scale suppliers in the Panama Canal zone or from
Brazilian wholesale markets were sold in Cuban stores. Jeans with a
counterfeit label, mediocre quality footwear and a Brazilian shirt could
well cost a hundred dollars. Few could afford it.
Getting dressed in Cuba is an odyssey. Rather than money, those who have
relatives overseas prefer they send clothing and footwear. Cubans who
work with foreigners routinely ask that they leave behind their clothes
when they return home.
Since late 1980s, at least in Havana, there have been people who make
their living selling clothing, footwear and costume jewelry
surreptitiously. They would acquire large amounts of dollars when it was
still illegal and, through contacts with young foreigners studying in
Cuba or tourists on vacation, would make large purchases of cheap
merchandise in stores reserved for diplomats and foreign technical
workers. They would later resell the items on the underground market.
Formal wear has always been a profitable business in Cuba. With the
legalization of the dollar and the opening of thousands of state-run
stores selling it for hard currency, vendors had to make business
They began offering it at prices lower than at state-run stores. In 2010
dressmakers and tailors were authorized to sell their wares legally.
Thousands of casas-shoppings (home markets) or trapi-shoppings (“rag”
markets) opened throughout the country.
The items for sale came from the other side of the Florida Straits, from
Cubans working in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, or from illegal
transactions by employees working in the big consumer goods stores.
Right alongside the Carlos III shopping mall in Central Havana is a
thriving private market. Alica, a professor, often frequents these types
of private stores.
“The prices are much lower than in the official stores,” she says,
“which are not only very expensive but also sell a lot of very
Last weekend the authorities gave the new private stores a deadline. The
regime’s ultimatum was highlighted in a newspaper article from Sancti
“The deadline is intended to restore of the function of self-employed
dressmakers and tailors to the function originally intended. By
September 1 there should be not a single casa-shopping operating in
either Sancti Spiritus or in Cuba,” reports Escambray, a Villa Clara
Diario de Las Américas interviewed an inspector from the national tax
office who said, “It has been shown that a significant amount of
merchandise in these private stores enters Cuba surreptitiously,
including some things that are known to have been stolen.”
This tightening of the screws on private stores is nothing new. In 2012
the Customs Service of the Republic restricted inexpensive merchandise
entering the island. In the aftermath of this offensive, owners of
private stores said that the government had used a slew of restrictions
in order to raise sales in their own stores, which had suffered a
decline of almost 30%.
“It’s a treacherous form of competition. They use repressive laws to try
to recapture their lost clientele,” says one disgruntled private vendor.
The owner of a store in the Tenth of October neighborhood believes that,
“even if they prohibit them, one way or another people will still buy
clothing under the table because of the poor quality and high prices at
the state stores.”
“We only have to change the way we operate. If we can no longer sell
things legally in the entryways of our houses,” she says, “we will just
go back to doing things the way we did in the 1980s.”
We Cubans are used to the black market. It is our normal way of operating.
Photo from Redada contra las trapishoppings
8 September 2013
Source: “Cuba Wants No More Private Stores / Ivan Garcia | Translating