HAVANA TIMES — A Cuban company manager tells me that the government spends US $5 million in used clothing every year, purchasing the highest-quality products sold around the world. Cuban stores, however, only sell the worst-quality garments.
Every pound of the clothing put on sale in Cuba costs US $0.68. A pound is what a jean (one of the items included in a regular package) weighs. Applying a 240% markup plus what the store adds on top, you can sell a pair of Levis or Lees in good condition at 2 or 3 dollars.
At these prices, these items of clothing would be a very attractive option for many low-income Cubans. What’s made available to buyers, however, are closer to rags than the “premium” garments bought at markets such as Canada’s.
To understand how these goods “deteriorate” so severely from the moment they arrive in Cuba to the time they are put on sale, we need to follow the bales down the old “port-transportation-domestic market” route.
The manager tells me that someone had the bright idea of having these bundles opened at prison-farms and for the clothing to be inventoried by inmates, most of whom have been imprisoned for economic crimes.
That’s where the first “change of clothes” takes place: the inmates take out the new garments and replace them with their own used clothing, maintaining the original number. Of course, to be able to do this, they have to grease the guards’ palms.
Once the containers have been opened and the first “inventory” has been completed, these are sent to central warehouses, where the process of replacing new clothes with old ones is repeated to supply the capital’s thriving illegal stores with fresh stock.
Later, the containers are sent to provincial distribution centers to undergo yet another inventory and another switch. This way, the local black market is able to offer a clientele with fair purchasing power varied, high-quality products.
Finally, the clothing reaches State stores in each locality. Immediately, the clerks notify re-sellers and these buy whatever’s left that’s worth their money. Thus, when buyers reach store counters, the only clothing they find isn’t even worth what it weighs.
A foreign supplier tried to gage how his product was being received by consumers in Cuba. He approached one store at opening time and the clerks told him they had sold everything, which was impossible, as the goods had arrived the day before after closing.
Authorities at the Ministry of Domestic Trade want to suspend imports of these kinds of products because people aren’t buying them. In fact, buyers never see these kinds of products at State stores. They only come across the tattered rags that others have left behind.
The way this second-hand clothing is received by Cubans is evident at underground stores: in 24 hours, they sell everything they get their hands on. I went to one, located in one of Havana’s poorer neighborhoods, and saw a girl buy a pair of Columbia-brand pants for one third the price of the Chinese pants sold at State stores.
Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea once said that socialism was a great script made into a terrible film. Where the sale of used clothing is concerned, we can clearly see the contradiction between screenwriters, directors, actors and the audience.