Denigrating Cuban Street Vendors


Street vendors in Caracas.

HAVANA TIMES — I recently met several Cubans who came to Venezuela for a couple of weeks. Since I know how difficult it is to come to an unknown country and “find things” at prices affordable to our pockets, I offered to show them around, serving as a kind of guide. I always do that when I stumble on any of our people here.

Doing this is a little strange for me since normally the Cubans that leave the country for short trips on work reasons belong to a social status that’s different from mine or my friends.

Having the opportunity to leave Cuba is a serious matter, one of luck, no matter if it’s done frequently or once a year. Most of those who have jobs that allow them to leave the country every so often take care not to rock the boat, which means their having to repeat the official line.

What’s worse though, is that they even come to believe it (but again, not all of them).

Most in this group preferred not to touch on “the subject”, but it became uncorked last night. This was done by my partner (who I should explain is Venezuelan; and that no matter how hard she tries, she still gets “lost” trying to understand the “rules” of my country). She commented about Cuba’s new customs regulations, something that seems unfair to her.

The oldest member of this group — the one who had the most stamps in his passport — began explaining to my partner reasons for the new measures. But more than giving reasons, he was trying to console her saying that these regulations wouldn’t hurt most people in Cuba at all, since most people there don’t receive shipments from abroad. Rather, the new measure would help them.

“How?” asked my partner, innocently enough.

Dark glasses for sale in Havana.

“Because those people who sell things on the street [in Cuba], all those clothes, shoes, appliances or whatever they can get, aren’t common people. All of them — covered in tattoos and gold chains — are exploiting people with excessive prices,” he replied.

“So from now on the Customs Office is making them pay what’s due from them, since they add nothing to the country.”

For the first time a kick under the table worked and my partner choked back the words that were about to come out.

This was the Cuban “friend” we had helped to do his shopping to find things a little cheaper than what he would have found in most stores in Caracas, not to even mention what such products would have cost in Cuba.

Apparently he — and those people who are like him, and those who have better jobs than him, because he is someone who has very little “power” compared to others — has more rights than the great majority of Cubans. At least that must be what he feels… or thinks.

He must have talked that way to other people who don’t know much about Cuba. He was trying to say that street vendors are to blame for the exploitation and even the crime that’s committed in my country.

And there’s always a fool like me who — out of solidarity between Cubans — reaches out to these people when they make their trips out of the country.


6 thoughts on “Denigrating Cuban Street Vendors

  • Guys please! and Yordanka too. Slow down and consider that a kick under the table may save a bruised ego, but in the long run we need information and most of what sticks in people minds is their personal experiences, including good conversation. So, do assert your personal and/or political views, but somewhere in any discussion of things that involve not only “the consumer” and “the vendor” and even “the political activist”, there will be enlightening moments when new information is exchanged. I hope, cause that is the only way we improve things.

    Yordanka knows her Cuban experiences, and I have mine and the guy with lots of immigration stamps has his and each and every one of us has important anecdotal experience that would prove every point of view, left, right and outer space! Reality exists, but anecdotes and the wonder subjective beliefs we all have are hardly realistic – except like the stopped clock that is right twice a day.

    So lets listen and try to teach, even our passionate opinions, but the larger world, such as whole societies and economies and grand concepts like consumerism and “freedom” etc. are more about the macro than the micro. I admire lots of people and aspects of both the US and Cuban culture, but I don’t hesitate to ask difficult questions in both places. What I find is that most people are not so good at being sociologists, or scientists of any kind when it gets too far from their daily work. Ask them about their personal stuff and you will get facts and fiction there too. Did you know that sociologists say that large percentages of people in both countries believe in actual angels flying around? Want to guess which country has the most angels and what percent can hold such irrational beliefs side by side with actual facts?

    Vendors and peddlers come in all types too. But if you were given the task of helping all or most of Cuba get better in the coming several years, what would you do? I know that there are people actually thinking and working on that challenge. Truly, they need help if they are to succeed. What can you suggest?

  • Wrong, I have been to Cuba and there is no comparison in terms of “consumer-driven” urges between Cubans and family members who have chosen to become immigrants in Miami. ‘Exile’ – defined as “the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons” (Wikipedia) was obviously the wrong term to use.

    Consumerism is driven by having a life empty of meaning and, of course, relentless marketing propaganda. One TV channel in Cuba is hardly likely to stir up a consumer frenzy in comparison to what consumers have to deal with in the US. Obvious, no?

    Family and the relationships of friends extend far beyond anything you will find in Miami. Clearly their life is not empty of meaning. It shows. The ubiquitous general friendliness of Cubans is legendary, a stark contrast to anything found in Little Cuba, at least for tourists. The inhabitants seem to be too absorbed with getting tourist dollars. That what fills THEIR life. It’s the Yankee capitalist way.

    Oh, and the clothes in Cuba are not that “horrible”. But ‘Moses’ obviously doesn’t care about living off the backs of the workers of poor countries. Ask an American to show you the labels on the clothes they wear if you want a real shock. Don’t be shocked. It’s the Yankee capitalist way, called exploitation of the worse off by the better off. Americans are good at it. It’s Incredibly ugly, horrible, actually.

  • You write generically about “small businesses”. The article was about a subset – street vendors – and what they represent – a relatively benign glimpse of capitalism, but ugly nonetheless – preying on individuals they are unlikely to do business with again. Not a very pretty picture.

    I avoided them in Cuba like the plague. It serves as a picture of what predatory capitalism looks like – in a very small way of course. It sounds like Cuba is trying to keep it to that proportion. Unlike in Canada and the US.

  • Clearly,John, you have not been to Cuba or when you were there you were not paying attention. Cubans, by and large, are as consumer-driven as their exiled family members in Miami. They want the same Dolce & Gabbana knock-offs and the same Addidas sneakers that they see on the illegal Univision channel they watch. The clothes made in Cuba are horrible! They are made with poor quality and offer very poor selection. These clothes are mostly sold in the CUP stores and no one buys them even they are offered at much lower prices. This is absolutely true in Havana but almost as true in the provinces. While your comment makes solid macroeconomic sense and would work just about anywhere else on the planet, with regards to Cuba you might as well have said, “Let them eat cake”.

  • My opinion is that in the short term the new tax will make some things more expensive, but in the longer term the increased prices should stimulate demand for Cuban-made clothes; thereby providing employment and income for Cuban workers, rather than profits for foreign-based middlemen and sweatshops who pay their workers very little – and also do not provide free housing, healthcare, education, subsidized food or other benefits.
    Take your choice: cheap clothes and unemployment, or pay slightly more and develop the Cuban economy.

  • A very interesting article!

    This part is striking:

    ““Because those people who sell things on the street [in Cuba], all those clothes, shoes, appliances or whatever they can get, aren’t common people. All of them — covered in tattoos and gold chains — are exploiting people with excessive prices,” he replied.

    “So from now on the Customs Office is making them pay what’s due from them, since they add nothing to the country.”

    So long as opinions like that, spoken in utter ignorance of the economic vale that small businesses create, Cuba will continue to suffer from under-development and stupid economic policies. The government will not be able to improve the economy so long as they maintain such antagonistic attitudes toward small businesses.

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