The Used Clothing Business in Cuba

Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz


By Fernando Ravsberg

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.

Used clothes are “changed” many times during their long journey to Cuban stores. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

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.

Underground stores like this one are the final destination of many of the high-quality second-hand clothing imported by the Cuban government. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

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.

7 thoughts on “The Used Clothing Business in Cuba

  • Did you link the right article? This article speaks to the anticipated increase in tourism once the US embargo is lifted. Nothing about the real Dolce&Gabbana soon to be on sale at Carlos III.

  • It’s my guess that there are some items of clothing that even Value Village can’t sell at any price. As a result, they probably donate these unsold items to groups that ultimately donate to Cuba.

  • The real honest Cuban people are still being exploited by Mr Castro. Time for a change at the top and the middle and the bottom level of government!

  • I do not know whether or not this has any bearing on the subject. I remember two or three years ago, I entered a store that was selling used clothing. I went through the items for sale wondering what was being offered. I espied a tag on a jean shirt. The tag indicted the price and the enterprise where the shirt was from. I was somewhat taken aback, when I read the name “Value Village.” Value Village is a thrift store located in many cities throughout Canada and the United States that sells good, used clothes. By their donations to Value Village, people are helping many non- profit organizations. For example, in my city in Ontario, Canada, Value Village, aside from operating costs, donates all the proceeds to the Canadian Diabetes Association. So, it was with a great deal of consternation that I was reading a clothes tag on a shirt that was donated to Value Village and that was selling for (if my memory serves me correctly) $5 CUC in Holguin, Cuba. I wondered what non-profit organization was benefitting from this sale. To this day, the answer eludes me. 🙂

  • I would have expected a more equatable distribution of used clothing in a socialist country.

  • Yet another example of how the Castros’ failed social experiment affects poor Cubans. This pitiful effort to provide poor Cubans access to decent clothes has nothing to do with the US embargo. In fact, most of these clothes come from the US. The reality is that the Castro revolution unleashed a measure of corruption upon the Cuban people that will take generations to overcome.

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