Havana’s La Cuevita: From Illegal to Official Market

Regina Cano  (Photos: Juan Suarez)

HAVANA TIMES — Months ago, a licensed crafts and assorted products market was opened in the municipality of San Miguel del Padron, very close to the location of an informal market that used to be set up in the area. The new, official market is meant to absorb the vast majority of vendors that once made up the previous, illegal market, known as La Cuevita.

The new market, also named La Cuevita, is located a few blocks away from the area taken up by the previous market, one of the largest underground sales points the outskirts of Havana has seen since 1959. While many such illegal markets emerged and proliferated in the city over the years, most have disappeared quickly or been set up only sporadically. La Cuevita, in contrast, had been in operation for close to 7 years.

Now that self-employment has been authorized and sale licenses have been made available, new business opportunities have emerged and those willing to pay taxes have been grouped in an open and fenced-in area prepared by the authorities, where anything whose origins can be accounted for may be sold – anything from products made through recycling processes to crafts or “homemade” items using a broad range of materials, such as plastic, glass and certain metals.

The fact of the matter is that, when someone in Havana is in need of any one crucial product (for personal or domestic use), a product they cannot fix or replace because of their low wages or the fact these products are not readily available at State and private stores, they invariably start to think and plan their next trip to La Cuevita.

I recently visited the market to get up to speed on these new developments. The first thing I noticed is that, despite the government’s intention of making the informal sales points disappear, people who need to put food on their tables still manage to maintain their black market activities.

The black market area began at an alley surrounded by makeshift and ramshackle homes and spilled into a neighboring street, extending into what was once a small urban settlement and is today a sprawling shanty, spreading along the length of the river that cuts through the area.

Before, this black market was stocked by a series of tiny, illegal assembly plants and products brought from abroad or stolen from State factories (which, incidentally, are currently stocking the new market). There, one could find just about anything, even a coffin.

Word on the street has it that some plastic items that have strange and rather ugly colors are made from recycled garbage bins, the ones that are disappearing from Havana’s street corners.

Whatever we may think about the risks involved in buying “stuff” without knowing where it came from or what harm its use may cause us (in Cuba, one can never be 100 percent sure as to the effects of things we frequently buy), people tend to take their families shopping to places where prices match their wages, as is probably the case in other parts of the world, as poverty tends to be the same the world over.

The police tend to crack down on these illegal sale points, or to deploy inspectors and officers on a regular basis to keep an eye on them. This may help fill the State coffers with fines and confiscated items and increase the number of locals who are summoned to trials or incarcerated for breaking the law, but the market is always reborn – sometimes within seconds – rising from the ashes like the Phoenix.