Cuba’s Exodus Leaves Abundance of Used Clothes & Appliances

When garage sales became legal three years ago, it allowed many business which had been operating on an informal basis to do so legally.

By Natalia Lopez Moya (14ymedio)

HAVANA TIMES – Women’s purses, babies’ shoes and several small home appliances are piled up on one of the tables. “These items have just come in and I haven’t had a chance to organize them yet,” the saleswoman tells a young customer, pointing to the Oster blender in a corner of a store operating out of a garage in Havana’s Vedado district.

“If you want, I can show you the cookware catalogue,” the vendor adds as she opens some black bags containing children’s books, household accessories and a huge teddy bear with a red heart in the middle of its chest. “Give me your number and I’ll send you photos through WhatsApp. We have flat screen TVs, Bluetooth speakers and a couple of microwaves. All used but in good condition.”

Cinthya, a 38-year-old woman who has been selling secondhand goods for three years, has never had so much merchandise. “I’m not accepting anything else until I can get rid of what I already have. Business is very slow. What used to sell in a few days now takes weeks or even months,” she says.

Cynthia and her husband, who drives a Ural motorcycle with sidecar inherited from his father, visit houses to evaluate everything from pots and pans to bottles of water that she might be able to sell later. “I have a network that alerts me when a family is getting ready to leave. But I only take on serious clients, people who have been recommended.”

There has long been a market for secondhand goods in Cuba, a country that has lurched from one crisis to another for decades. This type of business has not always been legal, however. When authorities lifted restrictions on privately run garage sales three years ago, it allowed many businesses which had been operating on an informal basis to do so legally.

“People associate secondhand goods with out-of-date clothing like what used to be sold in ‘trapi-shopping’ stores,” says Cynthia, referring to state-run retail outlets common throughout the island in the late 20th century that sold low-quality, government-imported clothes. “What’s for sale now are the belongings of local people who are leaving and can’t take everything with them.”

“At first, I accepted everything I saw and lost a lot of money. But now my husband and I only buy what we know will sell,” she explains. “We make sure to test the appliances. They can’t have dents or scratches. And no equipment cobbled together with pieces from here and there.”

Cynthia notes in her catalogue that she prefers “modern televisions, bedding and towels in perfect condition, cutlery, pots and pans, clothes.”

“People start out wanting to sell their house and everything in it so they can leave the country. Then they realize it would take too long if they wait for the house to sell first and then auction off the furnishings and equipment later,” explains Cinthya. “That’s when we come in. We go and evaluate what they want to sell.”

Other vendors buy secondhand items from markets in nearby Panama, Mexico or Florida for resale on the island. “Nowadays, it’s really hard to turn a profit in the used-goods business,” admits Leo, a young “mule” who lives in Taguasco, a town in Sancti Spíritus province.

“I have my contacts in Panama and a few years ago I got a visa that allowed me to take frequent shopping trips. I was able to ship back some secondhand goods as unaccompanied baggage. But now there is so much stuff for sale here that I’d rather focus just on clothing and new shoes,” he says.

“The owners themselves try to sell everything before they leave they leave [the country] on the [humanitarian] ‘parole’ program or by some other way,” says the Sancti Spíritus resident, who prefers to remain anonymous. There are a lot of people in this situation, trying to get rid of a washing machine, a refrigerator or children’s clothes. I knew some people who even sold a toilet bowl before getting on the plane.”

Leo believes that, although secondhand electronics are cheaper than comparable, brand-new products sold in MLCs — the island’s hard-currency retail stores — buyers remain very leery. “They know that the person who sold you the audio equipment won’t be here next week when it stops working and you want your money back.”

“The most problematic items are mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices that require skill and knowledge to figure out if they have a problem invisible to the naked eye,” he explains. “I tried doing this myself for awhile until I had an issue with a tablet I bought from a someone who left for Nicaragua. I sold it to a neighbor and it didn’t even last three days. That’s when I got out.”

“In addition to what I bring back from Panama, I deal in secondhand restaurant and business utensils. Mainly prep tables, table and chair sets, forks, spoons, knives, glasses. I’ve even sold bar counters.” As Leo points out, all these objects have one thing in common. “No cables or light bulbs so no surprises. What you see is what you get. You don’t have to worry that it won’t turn on one day.”

A few steps below Leo’s operation, arranged very informally, are items for sale that have been with Cuban families for generations. Coffee cups that belonged to the clan’s matriarch, pillows on which dozens of heads have rested and living room sets in need of some glue and new rattan.

Countless belongings, once destined to remain with their owners for the rest of their lives but which, because of the migratory stampede, have ended up in garage sales or ads on some digital website. They carry descriptions that reveal their histories and their owners’ desperation to make some money off them before they leave, or rather before they are able to leave.

“I am selling an orange juicer, twelve ceramic plates brought back from the GDR [German Democratic Republic] in the 1980s, a glass tray that is used for the oven and an electric toaster, all for 10,000 pesos,” reads a Facebook post. “The tableware is very pretty, with plates and bowls. It has sentimental value for me so I hope whoever buys it will take good care of it.”

Translated by Translating Cuba

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

One thought on “Cuba’s Exodus Leaves Abundance of Used Clothes & Appliances

  • This is a very much needed service to get items in the hands of people who need it. This also is happening in northern rural areas of Russia as people are leaving. My concern is the that when those with skill or a trade are leaving. It will be much more difficult to turn the economy around if a change of economic model or a policy to encourage small to medium business .People are able to buy a place in cuba for $10 000 to $30 000 that has air-conditioning unit and furniture and some dishes included. The same apartment would have been $50 000 to $125 000 about 5 years ago
    In other parts of the world housing as doubled. This just shows how much people are or wanting to leave because of the shortages of key items in comparison to wages.

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