- Associated Press - Monday, July 18, 2011

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 already were offering the same services under the table.

A Cuban man who did not want to be identified molds a tooth with wax before making a gold tooth. (Associated Press)
A Cuban man who did not want to be identified molds a ... more >

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 prison 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, the 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 Mr. 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.

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