“Half of Cuba lives off the black market … And the other half depends on it.”
When you seek to have the State completely control commerce, production, consumption, and capital this is what it produces. People always find a way to survive, even if it is outside the restrictions of a system, especially communism. And imagine how it will be here when such policies take full command over our healthcare (see: ObamaCare), energy (see: outlawing lightbulbs, the cost of energy/oil-gas), and the push to control what and how much we eat ... Just to name a few.
HAVANA - Want some paprika-infused chorizo sausage? How about a bit of buffalo mozzarella? Or maybe you just need more cooking oil this month, or a homemade soft drink you can afford on paltry wages. Perhaps you are looking for something more precious, such as an imported air conditioner or some hand-rolled cigars at a fraction of the official price.
In a Marxist country where virtually all economic activity is regulated, and where supermarkets and ration shops run out of such basics as sugar, eggs and toilet paper, you can get nearly anything on Cuba's thriving black market—if you have a "friend," or the right telephone number.
A raft of economic changes introduced over the past year by President Raul Castro, including the right to work for oneself in 178 approved jobs, has been billed as a wide new opening for entrepreneurship, on an island of 11 million people where the state employs more than four in five workers and controls virtually all means of production.
In reality, many of the new jobs, everything from food vendor to wedding photographer, manicurist to construction worker, have existed for years in the informal economy, and many of those seeking work licenses were already offering the same services under the table.
And while the black market in developed countries might be dominated by drugs, bootleg DVDs and prostitution, in Cuba it literally can cover anything. One man drives his car into Havana each day with links of handmade sausage stuffed under the passenger seat. A woman sells skintight spandex miniskirts and gaudy, patterned blouses from behind a flowery curtain in her ramshackle apartment.
Economists, and Cubans themselves, say nearly everyone on the island is in on it.
"Everyone with a job robs something," said Marki, a chain-smoking 44-year-old transportation specialist. "The guy who works in the sugar industry steals sugar so he can resell it. The women who work with textiles steal thread so they can make their own clothes."
Marki makes his living as a "mule," ferrying clothes from Europe to Havana for sale at three underground stores, and has spent time in jail for his activities. Like several of the people interviewed for this article, he agreed to speak on condition he not be further identified for fear he could get into trouble.
Merchandise flows into the informal market from overseas, but also from the river of goods that disappear in pockets, backpacks, even trucks from state-owned warehouses, factories, supermarkets and offices.
There are no official government statistics on how much is stolen each year, though petty thievery is routinely denounced in the official news media. On June 21, Communist party newspaper Granma reported that efforts to stop theft at state-run enterprises in the capital had "taken a step back" in recent months. It blamed managers for lax oversight after an initial surge of compliance with Castro's exhortations to stop the pilfering.
"Criminal and corrupt acts have gone up because of a lack of internal control," the paper said.
An extensive study by Canadian economist Archibald Ritter in 2005 examined the myriad ways Cubans augment salaries of just $20 a month through illegal trade—everything from a woman selling stolen spaghetti door-to-door, to a bartender at a tourist hot spot replacing high-quality rum with his own moonshine, to a bicycle repairman selling spare parts out the back door. He and several others who study the Cuban economy said it was impossible to estimate the dollar value of the black market.
"You could probably say that 95 percent or more of the population participates in the underground economy in one way or another. It's tremendously widespread," Ritter, a professor at Carlton University in Ottawa, told AP. "Stealing from the state, for Cubans, is like taking firewood from the forest, or picking blueberries in the wild. It's considered public property that wouldn't otherwise be used productively, so one helps oneself."
Cubans even have a term for obtaining the things they need, legally or illegally: "resolver," which loosely translates as solving a problem. Over the decades it has lost its negative connotations and is now taken as a necessity of survival.
"Turning to the black market and informal sector for nearly everything is so common that it has become the norm, with little or no thought of legality or morality," said Ted Henken, a professor at New York's Baruch College who has spent years studying Cuba's economy. "When legal options are limited or nonexistent, then everyone breaks the law, and when everyone breaks the law, the law loses its legitimacy and essentially ceases to exist."