Unable to travel to Miami with the ease of previous years, residents of the island in the informal import business are now going more to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where the “Cuban market” flourishes.
HAVANA TIMES – Most people do not think of Haiti as a shopping destination. Unless they are Cuban.
Every afternoon, hundreds of Cubans walk through the pot-holed streets in the capital of the hemisphere’s poorest country looking for clothing, light bulbs, perfumes and other products that are scarce in their country, reports the Associated Press.
The Haitian vendors put Cuban reggaetón at full volume to attract the clientele. In a café opened a year ago, decorated with painted Cuban flags, Angelina Luis Domínguez, a native of Havana, and her niece Yeleny Terry Luis serve black beans, rice and roast pork to their countrymen at lunchtime.
“There are thousands, from all over,” said Dominguez. “Before there were four or five; now there are many.” It seems like all Cuba is here, she adds.
The “Cuban market” of Port-au-Prince is part of a global trade estimated at more than US $2 billion, fueled by the convergence of the increased freedom of Cubans to travel with the continuous control exercised by the communist state in the economy of the country.
Clothing, household items, hardware, personal care products and others cost two or three times more in state stores in Cuba than elsewhere. And that’s when they are available, in an economy weighed down by never-ending scarcity. Moreover, the Cuban state monopoly of imports and exports excludes the small but vibrant private sector, which employs more than half a million people who usually earn three or four times the salary of a state employee.
Since Cuban government eliminated the hated exit permit five years ago, Cubans fill flights to places with easy entry requirements. In Port-au-Prince, Panama City, Cancun, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and even in Moscow, they pack their bags with items for personal use and sell them back in their country.
In Panama, the Colon Free Trade Zone has a “small Havana” where Cubans left US $308 million last year, and are on track to spending up to 8 percent more in 2018, said Luis Carlos Saenz, deputy general manager of the free trade zone.
“Now we have an important Cuban clientele that comes to make purchases and makes a significant contribution to the businesses in the area,” explained Saenz.
Panama is so eager for this trade that its embassy in Havana has begun to deliver immediate “tourist cards” to Cubans with private business licenses, which eliminates the need to go through a lengthy visa application process.
“Now more Cubans are coming because of the tourist card,” said Jose Hernandez, who bought in the tax-free zone with a group of relatives last week. “For us, taking with us a an air conditioning unit, a motorcycle, is very important. They are gold in Cuba. ”
This type of business tourism has diversified a trade focused for a long time in South Florida. That trade began to dry up with the decision of the Trump administration to remove most of the staff from its embassy in the Cuban capital last year, which ended the processing of visas on the island and forced the Cubans to travel to third countries to request permission to visit the United States.
In 2017, Cubans spent more than $2 billion on items brought back with them to the island, according to estimates from a study conducted in August by Havana Consulting Group, based in Miami.
This expense could be equivalent to between 2% and 5% of Cuba’s gross domestic product, depending on which of the disparate estimates of GDP is used in the absence of reliable statistics on the economy of the island.
Cuba maintains firm restrictions on the amount of items a person can import, and working as a “mule” – carrying goods for others – is technically prohibited, but it is rarely procecuted.
Haiti, which is fighting against an increase in violence and the devaluation of the currency, seems to be keeping a growing share of the Cuban shopping.
In the neighborhood that surrounds the market, dozens of Cubans manage accommodations with breakfast in homes rented from Haitians. Dozens of local “guides” help visitors find specialized articles such as electronics and hardware.
“I have a visa from Panama, a visa from Mexico, but I like Haiti,” said Eduardo Leiva, who manages a small hardware business in Cuba. “There is a great variety of merchandise, there is a level of products that are not really available in other countries. ”
The small airline Sunrise Airways operates 12 weekly direct flights between Havana, Camaguey and Santiago, in Cuba, and Port-au-Prince. Cubans interviewed in the market said they spent around $700 on airfare, food and lodging and another $700 on merchandise, which they resell at a price high enough to earn several hundred dollars of profit on each trip.
Some Cubans said they were victims of robberies at the hands of young people who knew that they carry large sums of cash, but still prefer to make the short trip to a nearby island instead of the odysseys that many embark on to feed the informal retail market on the island.
“Compared to Russia, Haiti is closer, it’s not cold and the merchandise is practically the same,” said taxi driver Braulio Hernández, who was looking for tools and parts for his auto repair shop.