“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.”