Daniel Palacios Almarales (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — Tensions between the self-employed who sell articles of clothing and footwear and the Cuban government have been on the rise in recent weeks as January 1, 2014 approaches, the date when these establishments are to be closed by authorities.
Numerous store-owners have been expressing their refusal to suspend the sale of their products, in a heated atmosphere that reached its boiling point on October 10, when nearly a hundred people protested in front of Havana’s Capitolio building.
The protesters demanded the revocation or revision of the government’s decision barring the sale of imported clothing and footwear during a rally which led to the detention of several demonstrators, as well as two journalists from the independent agency Hablemos Press who attempted to cover the event.
Abuse of Power
Similarly, several web-sites have been publishing more and more posts calling for citizen action against this government decision. The well-known classifieds page Revolico (blocked in Cuba) published an ad titled “No to the abuse of power by inspectors. STRIKE. This is an abuse of power by the government.” (“No al abuso de poder los inspectorers. HUELGA. Es un abuso del gobierno.”)
“There is no law [that supports this decision], they’re simply imposing this on the self-employed. They want to stifle the people, after they left a ton of people without work. It’s all a big lie, they’re clamping down on the self-employed. The offices of the DIS (Inspection and Sanitation Department, attached to the Comptroller General’s Office of the Republic) don’t have the laws that inspectors use. We have to join together to protest this injustice,” said a person in their comment.
At the close of September, the Cuban government issued a new series of regulations that broadened the list of job categories for the self-employed and redefined the scope of previously authorized ones, such as the category of tailor or fashion designer. These regulations established that the latter only encompassed dressmaking activities by those who make and repair items of clothing and that it does not include the sale of industrially-produced or imported garments.
These new measures affect hundreds of establishments that sell articles of clothing brought to Cuba from Ecuador, Panama, Mexico and the United States through so-called “mules” or through personal arrangements by the sellers themselves, through transactions which have entailed considerable hard-currency investments for many of them.
Sales to Continue
Several of those interviewed by CafeFuerte claimed they would continue to sell clothing, be it in the locales they currently operate or “under the table” (without State permission), for they consider the government’s decision to be rash and unjust.
“I’ve invested too much money to stand back and let them come shut us down so unfairly. If they use force to impose decisions on us, we’re going to respond with firmness. We have rights, as workers,” Roberto Garcia, owner of a kiosk at one of the fairs located in the busy avenue of Calzada de Monte, said.
A DIS official who chose to remain anonymous stated that such resistance is unjustified, as the law was clear from the very beginning.
“The license is geared for tailors and fashion designers that make clothing on order. It doesn’t authorize the import and sale of clothing. That falls outside the bounds that the license establishes, a license these people signed and accepted. They’ve been in violation of the law from the beginning and the government has decided to take more vigorous action,” the official affirmed.
Some have made strong demands calling for the authorization of this type of commercial activity, which has not been legalized to date.
Fear of Competition
“Since the problem’s come up, they should issue a new license for this and put an end to the dilemma. But they’re afraid and it’s not in their interests to do this, because we’re competing with their stores and they can’t keep up. There isn’t a single State store that sells clothing that’s both in style and good quality, as we do, and that’s why people are buying less from the government. That doesn’t sit well with them,” Maritza Hernandez, the owner of a sales establishment in the municipality of La Lisa, commented.
Others accept their fate with a certain degree of resignation: “What can we do, we’re going to lose a lot of money, but you can’t go against the government, we’d be putting a lot at risk if we did. We’ll look for an alternative,” Reymundo Sanchez, a store owner located in the neighborhood of Diez de Octubre, says.
Empty spaces at many of the crafts and clothing fairs located at different commercial areas in Havana are already being noticed and much speculation surrounds the direction in which developments are heading. It is believed that people are no longer what they were years ago and measures of this nature can no longer be imposed on them that easily.
President Raul Castro has impelled a series of economic and social reforms since taking office after his brother Fidel Castro stepped down because of serious health issues.
One of the most significant of such reforms was the authorization of private (or “self-employed”) businesses, a regulation which, since first seeing the light of day, has experienced a number of changes that have not always been welcomed by the population. Currently, the government authorizes 191 categories of self-employed commercial activity and more than 430 thousand Cubans hold State licenses to operate private businesses.