“Por la izquierda:” Cuba’s black market is all-pervasive, vital

By Mike Adams, Havana, Cuba, 2018

Before the revolution, retired Havana construction worker Erraldo Dile was earning 10 pesos a day on the job. After the Batista dictatorship fell in 1959, he found his government employment sporadic and his government rations scarce.

“I’d work for a few years and then I wouldn’t have any work for a few years,” Dile, now 73, said. “Even during the best times I only made seven pesos a day…The rations aren’t sufficient, they have never been sufficient. You can’t live like that.”

Erraldo Dile, 73, a retired Havana construction worker.

Every Cuban citizen is guaranteed a ration of essential supplies by the government. The state provides each person with around 15 days’ worth of calories a month in rice, beans, meat, sugar, coffee, salt and cooking oil. But when government rations fall short, Cubans like Dile must turn to the black market to make ends meet.

This system of quasi-legal exchange is all pervasive on the island. Nearly every Cuban, regardless of job or social standing, must act outside government-approved means—conducting business “por la izquierda,” as Cubans say—in some way, whether for their own survival or to circumvent restrictions.

“The issue here in that the Cuban market is not enough, and it doesn’t have all that we need,” Camilo Garcia Lopez-Trigo, a former Cuban diplomat and political science professor in Havana, said. “Nowadays the only enterprises with the legal ability to import things are state-owned enterprises, and the state-owned enterprises are not bringing everything that is needed in the country.”

Garcia, an academic and former high-ranking government official, must regularly sell some of his government-allotted rice to his relatives to get what he needs.

“I don’t eat much rice, so I sell it or I give it to my brother and my sister,” Garcia said. “It’s part of the survival of the Cubans. We would like to have a better economy, we would like to have a market which could fill all the requirements, but at the end we have to go to the black market.”

A Cuban family on a balcony in the Plaza del Santo Cristo in Havana.

Cuban world-record holding hurdler Dayron Robles recently opened a casa particular, a privately-owned hotel run out of his house in Havana, to supplement his government salary. The athlete turned businessman does not believe he could ever properly cater to his clients through legal means, and admitted his kitchen was partially furnished through illegal private commercial importation.

“My first intention is to try to get everything from the government, but that’s impossible,” Robles said. “I have to find alternatives. Sometimes I travel and get what I need. We have a fridge I bought from the Dominican Republic, in government markets it would be 3,000 or 4,000 CUCs [the Cuban Convertible Peso, which equals 0.87 US Dollars].”

The black market even affects the way people consume media. Cubans increasingly get their television and movies through “packages,” bundles of bootlegged broadcast media sold between locals and shared through pen-drives with storage capacities of up a Terabite.

Cristina Escobar, Cuba’s most well-known television journalist, said weekly packages have become her main competitor.

“Weekly packages are in every neighborhood, and everyone knows the guy who is the dealer of the package,” Escobar said. “You can see Modern Family, Speechless, House of Cards, Grey’s Anatomy…all of those things. It is very comfortable to, at 8pm, when before all you could watch was the news, you plug in your hard-drive or USB and you watch whatever you want.”

While the government might oppose the black market on paper, Escobar said anti-black market laws are rarely enforced. The market, she argues, solves problems the government cannot solve, like keeping Havana’s taxi fleet properly fueled.

“How do you move 250,000 people, as these cars do, every morning?” Escobar said. “Public transportation can’t do that, and it solves a huge problem for Cubans. In a lot of ways, the black market is a solution, or is a consequence of the lack of a solution in the state. Even if publicly, the state says they can solve that, they can’t solve that.”

Cuba’s market problems affect far more than its supply of goods, Freelance journalist Jon Alpert, director of Netflix feature “Cuba and the Cameraman,” said. Alpert has famously documented the lives of ordinary Cubans since the 1970s. The kind of mentality the average person has to adopt in the situation, Alpert said, directly undermines the values the Cuban Revolution has attempted to instill in the populace.

“It’s unfortunate that this is what people have to do in order to survive,” Alpert said. “And when you start thinking selfishly, and when you start putting the collective good of the people in second place, third place or fourth place because you have to help your family survive, for want of a better word it eats away at the type of solidarity you need in order to make a difficult revolution survive.”

“El que sigue:” Cuba’s next generation faces a nation in flux

By Mike Adams, Havana, Cuba, January 2018

Cuban President Raul Castro is set to step down from office in April. In just a few months, the country will have its first head of state from outside the Castro family since military dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted from power in 1959.

The nation’s next president will be elected by the 612 members of the National Assembly, Cuba’s main legislative body, after parliamentary elections are held on April 19. First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel is widely seen as Castro’s successor, but any Cuban citizen over 18 years old can run for the position.

Cuba’s next leader will inherit the daunting task of navigating through a pivotal period in the nation’s history without the authority of the Castro name. For Cuban diplomat Camilo Garcia-Lopez Trigo, uncertainty is the only guarantee for the future.

“The most important decisions made today in Cuba are in the hands of the new generation of Cubans,” Garcia-Lopez Trigo said. “You don’t see one that is going to be the next leader, who is going to replace Raul Castro.”

El Capitolo: Cuba’s capitol building and the seat of the National Assembly in Havana.

The diplomat believes that Cuban politics will change dramatically as the revolutionary guard passes the torch to the next generation.

“Not having anyone in the leadership from the generation who made the revolution is going to create a completely different perspective on the relationship between the constituency and the leadership,” Garcia said. “It’s not the same when you have the people who made the revolution as your president as it is having a regular citizen.”

Cuba’s political and economic fate have been tied to its relations with the United States ever since President John F. Kennedy issued an embargo on all American trade with Cuba in 1962. The nation has withstood over 50 years isolated from the largest economic force in the world, and while relations began to normalize under former US President Barack Obama, current President Donald Trump has tightened restrictions since he took office.

Opinions of Trump vary on the island. Jonathan Ruvira Perez, a sales representative at Clandestina, a famous Havana clothing store that makes its products in the US, believes President Trump is directly impeding Cuba’s advancement.

“I think that what we really need right now is for Trump to go away,” Ruvira said. “All the progress that Obama made, Trump is taking back. All these guys in the government in Cuba have the same ideals, but if there’s someone in the states willing to work with them to make change, I think we may have a future like we expected with Obama.”

A European-made gas truck on a side street in Havana, Cuba.

Despite popular opposition to the blockade, Cuban journalist Cristina Escobar worries the nation will be unable to handle the shock of its eventual repeal.

“We don’t know how to live without the embargo, our economy is not ready for that,” Escobar said. “We don’tknow how to deal normally with the world.”

Escobar is also concerned that US business interests will hold sway over Cuban affairs like they did during the Batista government.

“They use the word ‘normalization,’ normal relations with the US,” Escobar said. “And I wonder, is it possible to have normal relations with the US? Was it normal before 1959? I’m afraid that the only possibilities are none or everything, no relations or Puerto Rico 2.0.”

Safi Quinteros Navarro, a housewife and mother of two living in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, hopes a changing Cuban economy will help people like her children make a better living in the future.

“I’d like to see that the salary that people get matches their work and the general prices,” Quinteros said. “That’s the main change I’d like to see in this country.”

While many Cuban people desire a more capitalistic economy, Canadian author Hal Klepak, a military history professor and expert on Cuba, believes the Cuban government is wary of rapid change. Even the small pushes towards capitalistic reform the government has made, Klepak argues, have ultimately been opposed by the Cuban people.

“Everybody has lunch, at their work if they work for the state,” Klepak. “So, of course they say ‘we’ll raise the salaries a little’ and they charge for that. Food prices worldwide are not what they were, so what you’re making in exchange for giving up your lunch is half of it. So while people support the move towards greater capitalism, not when it affects them.”

While experts inside and outside of Cuba doubt the youth’s willingness to stand for Fidelista values, at least one young Cuban said his generation’s commitment should not be underestimated.

“Yes, they believe,” Jorge David, a 14-year-old student from Vedado, said. “Because there are multiple achievements from the revolution. Medicine, free education, everything. That’s good! We are expecting a positive change.”

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and later translated.