Cuba’s shadow economy sees some daylight

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Mr. Ritter and several others who study the Cuban economy said it is 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,” said Mr. Ritter, a professor at Carlton University in Ottawa. “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.”

There is evidence, however, that Mr. Castro is persuading at least some black market operators to play by the rules and pay taxes.

In the past seven months, more than 220,000 Cubans have received licenses to work for themselves, joining about 100,000 who legally have worked independently since the 1990s. Of those, 68 percent were officially “unemployed” when they took out their licenses, 16 percent had state jobs and another 16 percent were listed as “retired,” according to statistics on the government website Cubadebate.cu.

Many of these jobless and nominally retired people were likely making ends meet by working in the informal market, and even the former government workers were probably connected in one way or another.

“You have to find a way to survive,” said Manuel Rodriguez, the former head of a Cienfuegos medical center for children with disabilities.

Mr. Rodriguez said his monthly government ration card plus his and his wife’s meager salaries only covered two weeks’ worth of food. “I sat in the park one day and thought, ‘What can I do?’ “

He began bicycling around town on Sundays, renting out bootleg DVDs of the latest Hollywood films, which others had downloaded from the Internet. Mr. Rodriguez, who moved to Miami in 2009, defended his decision to turn to the black market to put food on the table.

“I wasn’t hurting anyone,” he said. “It’s not pornography. It’s not drugs.”

In fact, the sale and rental of pirated DVDs now is one of the 178 jobs that can now be done legally in Cuba, which ignores U.S. intellectual-property rights in response to Washington’s 49-year economic embargo.

New license holders complain the taxes and social security payments can be well over 50 percent of sales, raw materials are hard to come by because there is no wholesale market, and government promises to provide bank credits and retail space have been slow to develop.

But many say they jumped at the chance to go legit anyway, tired of always looking over their shoulder.

“We started off illegally, years ago, but when they started to give out licenses, we got one because it means peace of mind,” said Odalis Losano, a 46-year-old single mother who obtained a license in December to sell lunches she prepares on her home stove. “Now we don’t have to be afraid of the police or the inspectors.”

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