The Cuban Gold Rush

Dmitri Prieto

Photo: Rosa Martinez

“I’ll buy anything with gold in it.”  It’s the cry of Cuba’s gold buyers, almost all of them young.  They holler the same or very similarly, with an identical tone and intonation, as I hear them in my town of Santa Cruz del Norte and in Old Havana, where I work.

Their cadence is also similar, the same as their rhythm.  It can even seem like it’s the same person shouting; it reaches the point that I have to look up at their faces to make sure that this isn’t the case.

Of all the street criers, these are the only that offers to buy the merchandise instead of sell it.

The bidding revolves around rings (even if broken), earrings (though not in pairs), old watch cases, broken chains…in short: “any piece of gold.”

I don’t know how profitable the operations of those buyers are, or if they have any types of licenses as “self-employed workers.”  They probably don’t have documents of that type since they’re buyers and not sellers, though later they’ll sell to others, but not wholesale I’m sure.

Nonetheless, we can suppose that it’s a good business, given the proliferation of gold buyers in recent times.

I remember how in the ‘80s the Cuban government opened a “gold and silver center,” a managerial proposition together with certain foreign companies (Panamanian firms, if I’m not mistaken) to buy gold from the public and then resell it.

Back then, the benefit to the sellers was the chance to by surplus stock that was only sold in hard currency; those “gold centers” were the embryo of the future “shopings” (or “dollar stores”) that we have today.

This was a period when to even possess dollars was illegal, so people ran around selling gold and silver heirlooms to buy cassette recorders, sweaters and glasses.  My mother, drawing from her Russian experience, remembered how she was surprised that the Cuban government took a grab at those private gold and silver reserves, which according to her should have been maintained until some “dark day” struck.

We didn’t know what would happen some years later during the “Special Period” crisis.  Back then one could in fact be sure that many citizens — if not the majority — exchanged their family jewels for cheap electronics and Ocean Atlantic Surf T-shirts (that were plentiful in that era).  Today, it’s not that gold is so plentiful, but again it’s present.

We don’t know what the future heralds for these new traffickers, who are now brand-new members of the emerging private sector.