Sounds Good to Me / Miriam Celaya
Posted on October 7, 2013
Things are looking bad for the sale of clothing, so much so that many of
Havana’s retailers who pay to be licensed as seamstresses or tailors are
concerned about what’s coming. As of 28 September 2013, an official
provision has gone into effect establishing that they can only sell
clothing made by hand, on pain of heavy fines and confiscation of all
the industrially-made apparel they offer.
So far, the numerous private small business in Central Havana have
remained open and are selling the same imported clothes, without any
official operation taking place. But there is a grim anxiety circulating
among them and they know it’s only a question of time before the hordes
of inspectors and pack of uniforms come down on them.
Anais, one of the dozens of clothing vendors who have opened private
businesses in Central Havana, has already lived four decades, and before
having a self-employment license she knew how to make money working for
herself. In fact she had a business selling imported clothing, which
then came from State warehouses stores, through one of the multiple
chains of smuggling networks that have proliferated on this Island since
the bans were instituted as a method of governance.
So she shrugs her shoulders at the new official threat: “When I hear
that the inspectors are about to come down this street (and I’m sure to
hear ahead of time), I’ll close and go to the office and surrender my
license. They’re not going to screw me over. I took all the merchandise
I had in my house and put it in a safe place, so I will continue to sell
“under the counter.” That’s what I’ve always done! Licensed or not, I’m
not going to starve. We’ll see who has more to lose.”
Just half a block from Anaís a middle-aged couple complains. The man is
more withdrawn and talks in monosyllables or just nods, approving what
his wife says; she is more talkative, perhaps because she feels more
confident talking to other mature woman like herself, or perhaps because
she needs the catharsis.
I tell them who I am and what I do — something for which they don’t give
out licenses in Cuba– but that doesn’t scare them one bit. “Just don’t
use our names,” they ask me. Of course not, I don’t even ask. In
reality, it’s not necessary, I’m just digging into what the media says,
in what lies beyond the laws, the regulations, the statistics.
I’m more interested in people and their reasons than in the government’s
regulations and the propaganda of its spokespeople. Life is on the
streets, very different and distant from those who make the laws and
what the media shows.
The woman tells me that a couple of years ago she took our a license as
a dressmaker and began selling there, in the doorway of her sister’s
house, and some time later, when they prohibited selling in doorways,
she moved to the living room of the same house. It went well, so she was
able to invest more money in merchandise and her husband also took out a
license as a tailor.
Neither of them knows how to thread a needle, but she knows this
business: before she was already “selling some clothes that just came my
way, you knowl but always with a fear that the police would catch me.
Once they took a backpack frull of t-shirts and I had to pay the owner
from my own pocket.”
So when she saw the chance to earn money legally she took out a license.
The official who helped her never said she couldn’t sell
industrially-manufactured clothing, although it’s true that the permit
says it’s for handmade goods.” But, she remembers, “from the beginning
everyone here sold imported clothes and no one ever warned us about
anything, nor did the inspectors fine us or take the merchandise.
Instead they let us get excited, and spend money locally, on the display
racks, the pegs and all those things, and we invested in the clothes
coming in through the airport where we certainly had to pay duty on
them. Now they are saying that we Cubans don’t pay the tariffs, so what
have we been paying for at the airport?”
Then the husband tells me, “That’s the problem. In this country there
are too many limits and too many things prohibited.”
The story of another young entrepreneur is similar, who just points out
that when he got his license specifically asked officials at the tax
office if he was only allowed to sell hand-crafted clothing, to which
they responded with a typical phrase, full of complicit winks: “This is
Cuba , you know that you can always do more. You have to swim and put
way the clothes.” The young man laughed, “I do not want to store the
clothes, I want to sell them and make money.”
In a total of seven private shops I visited the feeling is one of
uncertainty and discontent. All of the interviewees think that the
solution would be to have a wholesale market in the country to legalize
the sale of manufactured clothing, but we know that isn’t going to happen.
The crux of the matter is that in a couple of years private businesses
have successfully competed with the State’s hard currency stores, whose
sales have fallen sharply as the self-employed multiplied. A greater
variety for sale, more acceptable prices, better quality and friendly
service are factors that distinguish the private owner versus State
establishments, advantages that the government is in no condition to
match, let alone surpass.
Moreover, a significant number of these private retailers are former
state workers who have become “available” — the State euphemism for
being laid-off — but who already engaged in illegal sales before having
a license; that is they are trained in smuggling activities and
surviving on the margins of legality, so that — as the last elf-employed
young man I interviewed told me — the government is just leaving the
path open for crime: “Here many people know how to ’struggle,; so that’s
why they don’t have a license. Who’s going to take out a license to sell
the same cheap clothes they sell at the fairs all things being equal?
And how are the police going to control so many people?”
It is clear that with the implementation of self-employment the
government has opened a Pandora’s box that it cannot now close without
facing the consequences. However, despite the repressive nature of the
new provisions and the official obstinacy in refusing to license as
retailers, the balance remains negative for the authorities. What was
before is no longer. Meanwhile, there are more and more discontented
Cubans in the streets. Given the circumstances, it seems fine to me, to
see if once and for all an awareness of autonomy and rights blossoms
among the Cuban people.
7 October 2013
Source: “Sounds Good to Me / Miriam Celaya | Translating Cuba” –