We always end up talking about the same old thing: politics, the economy, “our situation.” Names and faces change in the different groups, but the subject remains the same. Inevitably, we end up analyzing “how things are” — like a moth to a flame.
However, recently, our favorite subject has moved on our agenda. It just so happens that some of my friends, mostly young professionals, are dedicating themselves to traveling and bringing “merchandise” back to sell.
They fulfill two noble aspirations in this way: earn a bit extra and discover what lies on the other side of the sea. These are universal, human ambitions as old as time itself. Nevertheless, these also imply a great deal of work, which seems to be our enduring national karma.
The process (Kafkaesque in its absurdity) begins with an extremely thorough study of the market. Sounding out demands, prices, the kinds of items needed; and then adjusting these to an estimated weight and value at Customs requires a complex skill which many people don’t know they have, until they do this for the first time.
At the same time, they need to get a visa, if they need one. On some embassy websites, the section to book an interview is closed, and when they open it, word travels around in such a way so quickly that it ends up being nearly impossible to access because of so much traffic to the page. And from a WIFI hotspot, this becomes an even more impossible task. That’s why others with enough Internet charge approximately 50 CUC just for the favor of making an appointment.
If everything goes well, you receive messages like this one: “The good news is I got a visa, the bad news is it’s only for 6 months with multiple entry. I’m going in October, so you already know, short lists hahaha.” Traveling friends becoming suppliers of goodies and important things like chocolates, condoms from the “outside,” medicines, an external hard drive, cellphone… etc.
People are already waiting for them on the other side. Dayana tells me that in Mexico, there is a place called Tepito, a kind of huge and assorted (not to mention dangerous) market where fellow countrymen buy. “Welcome Cubans” could be read on a store door. From her description, I imagine it to be like La Cuevita market in Mexico City.
Word has it that the Zocalo square has become the normal meeting point and that they can identify those who are “in the struggling game” at first sight. Word has it that if you have a hand of Orula, they treat you with more respect because Mexicans know all about voodoo and santeria just like Cubans do, or almost as much.
For the last two days of her trip, Dayana stayed at a half-ass hotel ($11 per night), which fellow countrymen also stay at. Although there are also more expensive options for others who can pay, of course.
Alejandro went to Panama with a friend, as if going with others makes the journey safer. They help each other when purchasing stuff. And they have a better time going together, of course. But in spite of all of this and some chicanery, Cubans (who are know-it-alls) can end up like the hunted hunter. This seems to be the moral of a recent scam.
There was a guy in Alejandro’s group who used to work in Customs. The Key Man, the others called him; the man who knew the abracadabra that would let them cross the island’s border unharmed. Because even if all their papers are in order, and coming back full of packages, pulling off the blessed first import of the year is always a complicated and stressful experience.
Alejandro uses a master alibi. In order to throw off Customs’ officials, he dresses up as a businessman: a long sleeved shirt, perfectly shaved, Ray-Ban glasses, killer cologne. He plays a rich Cuban who lives “there” and is now coming back with presents for his family.
When the time comes, he showers the Customs official with compliments. For example, he says: “Don’t be mean sweetheart, with those beautiful eyes you have.” If she smiles and is flattered, accepting the compliment, Alejandro knows that he has won. He personally prefers flights after midnight because Customs’ officials are tired at that late hour.
Selling is the final stretch of this adventure, a tiresome stretch where transnational street vendors supply domestic street sellers or sell directly to clients. The net proceeds they earn are about 300 CUC, if they’re lucky 500; it’s an adventure, which for many people means getting on a plane or train, eating strawberries or beef.
I bet the Cuban authorities know all about these stories. They also know that this will keep happening because we are suffering what an economist calls “pent-up demand,” because shortages are on the brink of becoming endemic. (Attention, chasing after toilet paper or minced meat undermines strategic thought; our fight to survive is robbing us of all perspective).
So, how insane would it be for them to recognize this kind of trade as a legal economic activity? Decree Law 162, of “the Customs Act”, stipulates in Article 49: “Natural and legal persons are able to commercially import and export if they are authorized to do so by the Ministry of Foreign Trade.”
In theory, more consumer goods entering the country will break down the rock-hard blockade a little. These “trinkets” (such an ugly word) mean more shampoo, more clothes, more TVs and computers for the Cuban people. Or don’t they? And that’s only where they are allowed to be sold, because if they ever allowed importing tractors for farming, people would import them.
Let’s look at an example. The TRDs (hard-currency stores) sell a box of four replacement blades for Gillette Venus razors for 24 CUC. Dayana brings these same replacement blades from Mexico and she sells them for 2.50 CUC each — in other words, four would cost 10 CUC.
Let’s imagine for a minute just how great it would be to be able to buy something with more than a 50% discount. Let’s imagine, in passing, that this discount could be applied to more necessary products.
While the blockade lasts (like it seems it will), there are other things we can do to lessen the impact.
Photo by Raquel Pérez.
[This article originally appeared in Progreso Semanal. Translation to English courtesy of Havana Times.]