They were born in the economic crisis of the 1990s, at a time when the government was scrambling in its capacity as employer. They existed previously, but hardly in the same numbers as today. They came to be known as “merolicos”, a word meaning “informal vendor,” which was added to the Cuban vocabulary from a Mexican soap opera.
These street vendors, who were often people with physical disabilities, sold homemade products of clearly poor quality, but which were in short supply in the state run markets and stores. Their wares included coffee makers, fingernail polish and remover, deodorants, pots, Tupperware-like products and a long list of products ranging from plaster piggy banks to pink lawn flamingos.
Now such peddlers have sprouted like dandelions. They can be found everywhere, from the exits of hospitals to the entrances of homes, mainly in the Central Havana and Marianao neighborhoods of Havana. This informal sector has expanded prolifically, an empirical expression that poverty -if only at a Cuban scale- has also increased, a fact that is also maintained by sociologists and other academics.
This now involves a diverse market in which a certain degree of trade specialization prevails. Today I’ll deal with one of these traders: the sellers of bootleg CDs.
Crouched down in portals or near bus stops, these “other” merolicos display products that, at first sight, can be surprising in their variety and diversity. For a relatively moderate price -let’s say two Cuban Convertible Pesos, or a little over two US dollars- one can find burnt CD copies ranging from popular local artists (like Van Van, Paulito FG or Kelvis Ochoa) all the way to the globalized sounds of Madonna and Britney Spears, but especially Puerto Rican reggaeton rappers Daddy Yankee and Don Omar.
In addition, they will of course be hawking Cuban artists from across the Strait (Gloria Estefan, Willy Chirino, Celia Cruz), who are noticeably absent from Cuban airwaves for political reasons.
Several Cuban musicians who have exploded into the market call this piracy, and they complain that the practices of the merolicos affect their income.
However, the question at hand is to what extent the new phenomenon expresses the global contradiction between the democratization of culture brought by new technology and the production oligopolies -whose prices distance many peoples access to cultural goods-, and in this case impeding possession of the music that they themselves generate).
“Here we are,” wrote author Nicolás Guillén in a famous prologue. These new merolicos have come to stay, because the angel of the informal market also flaps its wings here, just like in Madrid, Mexico City, Santo Domingo and Lima.