Underground economy: Job market for the jobless
HAVANA – “What’s the origin of those you call illegal-market operators, what we in Cuba call ‘quarry’?”
That’s a question from a reader apropos my previous article “Everything, ‘ceptin’ an AKA or a tank.” (See my blog, A Correspondent’s Notebook.) Evidently, my reader’s interested in what we might call a job marketplace for the underground economy.
According to the latest official reports, Cuba has an active labor force of 5 million 10 thousand citizens. Minister of the Economy Adel Izquierdo Rodríguez, in his report to the National Assembly in 2012, said that the jobless numbered 250,000, the equivalent of 3.8 percent.
Needless to say, that percentage is within the universally accepted parameters. Izquierdo added that the figures don’t include the 1 million people who “don’t actively look for work,” which is why they are not recorded as idle or jobless.
The fact that those people don’t show up at the offices of the Ministry of Work and Social Security to ask for employment excludes them from the official figures. That omission by the Cuban authorities is not arbitrary; it responds to an almost universal practice, i.e., he who doesn’t sign up doesn’t count as unemployed. Nevertheless, that 1 million represents 8.9 percent of the total population (11.2 million).
And here’s the point. If these people don’t sign up and don’t look for work it’s because they don’t need it. The absence of necessity implies that they somehow cover their basic needs beyond the ration card, whose coverage doesn’t extend beyond the first 10 days of the month. Besides, several of the goods that used to be covered by the card have been transferred to the commercial market, at prices that are not subsidized.
Out of that 1 million, I don’t know how many are shoeless, because anyone looking down the streets of the island can see that the people wear shoes – original Nikes or imitations, it doesn’t matter, they wear shoes.
Even those who are included in the 1 million wear jeans – Levis or knock-offs – or sweaters or shirts of questionable origin (if they bear a label). Many of them can be seen at dawn on a street corner drinking a can of beer or a “planchao,” a relatively cheap rum sold in plastic cartons for 1 CUC (one convertible peso, the equivalent of 24 Cuban pesos), a remarkably cheap price when compared with the famous national labels.
In any case, they don’t make a living from thin air, or rather, how do they make a living?
The parallel job market
The underground economy, the one that sells you everything, except for an AK-47 or a tank, has become the job market of an indefinable portion of the 1 million “idles.”
Some are street vendors, selling what pedestrians need. Others act as lookouts, observers who, because they know the area, warn the vendors of the presence of the police or “odd” passers-by (plainclothes policemen or business inspectors). Others, who occupy houses near the trade zone, are the so-called “warehouse keepers,” guarding and delivering the goods to the vendors, who are the visible face of the operation.
Higher in the pyramid of the underworld are the intermediaries who deal with the “suppliers” of goods. These people are the connectors; they rank high because in order to obtain supplies one must have access, “contacts” at the stores, shops or state-owned centers of production.
To these people, the ground can be not just slippery but explosive, because the risks are greater, as are the danger and the prison terms in the event they are arrested.
It’s at that level that you find the main links of a well-forged chain, where theft, rerouting of goods and fraudulent book-keeping are ingredients of the operation. They’ve even committed worse crimes. According to reliable sources, people who were involved in a major operation some years ago set fire to a well-known Havana department store to cover up fraud, reroutings and constant pilferage.
The underground economy has been going on for years. Like a spider web, it has enveloped the whole of society and endangers the country. As I spoke years ago to a friend, the writer Daniel Chavarría, he told me – half seriously, half jokingly – that “if the black market and the underground market disappear, we’d suffer a tremendous crisis. But we must find a way to overcome it.”
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(From his blog in Spanish, “A Correspondent’s Notebook)