‘Everything, ‘ceptin’ an AKA or a tank’

A brief look at Cuba’s underground economy

carlos III 5HAVANA – The headline above was the greeting of an eagle-eyed black who captures his preys in one of the blocks closest to the Carlos III supermarket, a tropical mall always filled with shoppers, where the music breaks one’s eardrums while supplies play hide-and-seek: today, the desired merchandise is there, tomorrow, it isn’t, like the vinyl paint of a specific blue shade required by a friend whom I accompanied on a futile search through six stores in the capital.

The lack of what the frustrated buyers are looking for and can’t find is reflected in their attitudes, looks and faces.

The street vendors in the commercial underworld are experts at reading gestures and faces. The instability in the supply of consumer goods is the hunting ground of the eagles, personages who constitute the last link of the underground economy and its visible image.

“What do you need?” The question came after the statement in the headline. “We have everything. Just ask,” he invited, allowing my friend to state the nature of his quest.

My friend urgently needed a blue dye to finish painting his little son’s room. He had enough white vinyl paint, he said, but the blue ran out before he could add a second coat. And in the regular stores…

carlos III 3“Don’t bother looking, they don’t have it,” interjected the street vendor, with the certainty of someone who controls the supplies in all of the capital’s stores. Closing all the doors is a way for the eagles to capture their prey.

“I have it. How many jars do you want?” My friend asked for two, just to be sure. “Wait right here,” the man said, and disappeared into the crowd.

My friend didn’t ask the price. Necessity compels shoppers to fall – softly and even satisfyingly – into the web of this underworld that, relying on people’s needs, has been socializing commerce. Everyone, or almost everyone, for one reason or another, falls into it, drifting from consumers into accomplices.

Nobody asks where the product came from. From hoarding or from pilfering a warehouse? Maybe from both.

While we waited, Eagle Two showed up, wearing a “NYK” cap, a red pullover, Rayban-imitation sunglasses, worn jeans and white tennis shoes. His specialty was the automotive world: batteries, replacement parts, tires.

I knew that the batteries of various types had disappeared, especially those installed in the small cars, like the “little Polacks” (Polish-made FIATs) or the Daewo Ticos. I had also seen the long lines to return defective batteries. The claimants, carrying their receipts and warranties, waited for their money to be returned. It was.

I didn’t need a battery, but the journalist in me decided to take a shot at the eagle and see how it reacted. I wanted to see how it landed.

“I need a battery for a ‘little Polack’,” I said, even though that’s not the make of my car.

“I have it. Is your car here?” he asked. When I answered yes, he asked me to drive two blocks down the street, turn to the right and park halfway down the block.

The eagles have storehouses in their areas of business. As the vendor turned to go to his “warehouse” – which is part of the chain and presumably is moved from time to time – I stopped him and canceled my order, saying that I knew that many of the batteries were turning out defective and the buyers were returning them. I had seen the lines at the stores, I said.

Surprise. “Those batteries come from Mexico,” he fired back. “There are delays at that port. Then, there’s the boat trip, another delay at Port of Havana, and here they’re stored and kept for God knows how long. Their ‘potential’ charge is lost (what expert language, I thought), as well as the acid. That’s the problem.” The explanation, true or false, was good enough for him.

I interrupted him. “Yours don’t run out?”

“Mine come direct, fella. I sell you one with a three-month warranty, same as in the store but cheaper: 45 (dollars) and it’s yours.”

These eagles are better salesmen than the employees at the government stores. They drape themselves around you, softening you up, oozing chatter and assurances. If you go into a store, you have to locate and approach the clerks, who are forever talking, either to each other or on the phone. What a difference!

After thanking the vendor for his kindness, I told him I wouldn’t be buying. “It’s your loss,” he answered. “But you’ll be back. I’m always here.” And he headed for the area where tires and batteries are sold. Someone was bound to fall into his claws.

The dye seller returned with two hermetically sealed containers. “Check it out,” he said, as he handed them to my friend. “That’ll be 4 CUCs,” In a store, if available, they cost between 1 and 1.25 CUCs.

The man took the money and walked away, delivering his final commercial: “Anything you need, I’m always here.”

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