Cuba: The Business of Charity

Osmel Almaguer

Bales of donated clothes. Photo:
Bales of donated clothes. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Odalys, one of my mother’s neighbors, has a niece who’s made some significant additions to her wardrobe of late. She now has some rather expensive garments, but, no, she doesn’t have a salary that would make such luxury affordable.

Nor does she have friends or parents living in the United States, no. She simply works at one of those State institutions which receives and distributes clothes donated to aid the victims of the hurricane which lashed Santiago de Cuba recently.

She pays regular visits to her aunt, a seamstress, for her to mend the latest acquisitions. Odalys gives her a reproachful look, again and again. To which the niece replies: “Aw, come on, girl, when did you suddenly become so conscientious?”, or: “Don’t be a party-pooper, auntie. Everyone at work does it.”

While it is true that people are going through tough times, it is also true that you have to be fairly insensitive to do what Odalys’ niece does. I feel the average Cuban has become so used to taking things from the workplace that these misappropriations are no longer seen as something reprehensible.

This holds for items of clothing that arrive as donations from abroad, where the feeling is perhaps more widespread. There, you don’t just see a handful of employees rummaging through boxes in search of something that could be useful to them; you find a whole chain of businesses that almost constitute an economic sector in the country.

Between warehouses and delivery trucks, clothes take illicit detours, and garments are sold and purchased. I’ve heard that a sealed box, containing who-knows-what inside, costs anywhere from 200 to 300 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs). With this investment, the would-be retailer can make as much as 1,000 or 2,000 CUCs, if they have the patience to move the clothes (1.00 CUC = 1.10 USD).

This is the reason the clothes that end up in State thrift stores are garbage that only the most financially desperate among us buy and wear.

From time to time, you do come across a decent dress shirt from a donation at a reasonable price, like 30 or 40 pesos, but only if you know someone in the business.

Things have gotten to the point that, when I met Odalys’ niece, I scratched my head and asked myself: “Where might the clothes I painstakingly sent to Santiago after the hurricane have ended up?”


Osmel Almaguer:Until recently I would to identify myself as a poet, a cultural promoter and a university student. Now that my notions on poetry have changed slightly, that I got a new job, and that I have finished my studies, I’m forced to ask myself: Am I a different person? In our introductions, we usually mention our social status instead of looking within ourselves for those characteristics that define us as unique and special. The fact that I’m scared of spiders, that I’ve never learned to dance, that I get upset over the simplest things, that culminating moments excite me, that I’m a perfectionist, composed but impulsive, childish but antiquated: these are clues that lead to who I truly am.

6 thoughts on “Cuba: The Business of Charity

  • May 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    This is a good approximation. I’ll buy it. Works the same in the US. When people are not pleased about paying taxes, they cheat – effectively stealing from all of us. Be it an impoverished nation, or the richest country in the history of the planet, people usually can’t see the whole picture.

  • May 13, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Cubans often interpose “Fidel” for the word government or state. Not surprisingly since they are essentially the same thing. Proof of this is the fact that in the last 54 years, the will of the former has been made manifest in the latter. The so-called ‘massive’ counterintelligence budget has been more than offset by the even more massive Soviet and subsequent Venezuelan subsidies of the Cuban socialist experiment. Rather, low productivity and export/import ratios as well as poor fiscal management and corruption have been the biggest reasons behind these government garage sales.

  • May 13, 2013 at 9:47 am

    I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean it literally. This problem exists in many countries of the world were people don’t have faith in the government. When you don’t see the benefits or understand where your taxes are going you don’t feel the moral obligation normally imposed by the society you live in.

    Where the money goes is another issue completely. One thing is sure though, the cubans do not feel it is being invested back in them.

  • May 13, 2013 at 9:24 am

    “Nearly everyone I know wonders why Fidel should sell
    clothes that were donated to the state? Why can’t the state give them away?”

    Tell your friends that Fidel does not sell the clothes. The
    Cuban government sells the clothes to help manage the massive budget associated with countering USA belligerence.

  • May 13, 2013 at 7:03 am

    Thanks for this post. Another example of ‘real’ Cuban solidarity. There is a second-hand clothing store near the corner of Jesus Pelligrino and Infanta in central Havana. Some of my Cuban frends have explained to me that the capacity to be so insensitive as to steal donated clothes for personal use or for resell begins with what Cubans feel is begun by the state. Nearly everyone I know wonders why Fidel should sell clothes that were donated to the state? Why can’t the state give them away? As a result, if Fidel can justify making a profit, the Cuban worker who has to do the actual work, should get a cut as well. When I explain that in the US, organizations like the Salvation Army also sell donated clothes, I am quickly reminded that the proceeds of these sales go to pay for ‘free’ services that these non-profit organizations provide to the needy. In Cuba, there are no soup kitchens or homeless shelters (not really). The proceeds from these second-hand stores are for normal government uses.

Comments are closed.