Black Market a lo Cubano

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If you follow my blog or any similarly semi-intelligent Cuba-related news outlet, you know that things are fast a-changin’ on this side of the Straits. For those out of the loop: in April, 2011, a series of unprecedented policies – which amount to a new (and not without substantial risk) economic paradigm for the country – were approved at the Sixth Communist Party Congress (see note 1).

Though some of my Cuban friends gripe that change isn’t happening fast enough, I’ve been surprised by how many new policies have come to pass as promised: private sales of homes and cars, relaxed regulations for paladares and casas particulares, and the approval of nearly 200 pursuits and services for private enterprise. Other movement towards so-called normalcy is slower and more complicated still: unifying the two official currencies, salary increases, and phasing out the permiso de salida (see note 2) among them.

What these changes will mean for the most vulnerable remains to be seen and I have not a few friends here tormented by uncertainty, anxiety, and a generalized malaise in the face of it all. Uppermost in their hearts and minds: what might these changes mean for the political, social, and ethical tenor of the revolutionary project so many have fought so long to strengthen and so hard to save?

Some days it feels like it’s all going kablooey – that the Cuba we’ve known is reserved now for dewy-eyed nostalgics fingering grainy photos of the 10 million ton harvest. And this is heart breaking to people who have survived so much drama and tragedy: the rending of families in the 60s and 70s, (plus the Bay of Pigs and Missile Crisis), followed by the Mariel boat lift and collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the 80s which led to the torturous Special Period of the 90s. Then there was Fidel passing the baton to hermanito Raúl which I guarantee looks different from your off-island perspective than from ours here in Havana. And let’s not forget the 50 years of sabotage (both bald-faced and covert) by the behemoth to the north, to say nothing of terrorist attacks by US-sheltered individuals and groups.

So before it all goes kaboom (a day late and a dollar short, perhaps?), I’m determined to document the Cuba I’ve known for the past 10 years and the attendant change as accurately, responsibly, and comprehensively as possible. Today, I turn to an examination of the black market.

Jeans and stilettos, perfume and gas. Cigars of course, but also ice cream (Coppelia, the country’s best), and iMacs, milk and meat: it’s all available on Havana’s black market – if you have the hookup or happen upon someone “repurposing” Cuban Clorox or café. In the interest of full disclosure, I have very little direct experience with the black market (or parallel market as Cubans call it) despite a decade in residence; I have no car, so no need for gas, I buy my meat off the cement, fly-spotted counters at my local carnicería, and would love a Mac but don’t earn enough to join that club. Besides, all that shit is stolen (see note 3) and I’ve had enough stuff vicked in my life to know that if you ain’t part of the stolen goods solution, you’re definitely part of the problem.

But then the moral high ground begins to shift (Cuba is funny like that).


Every once in a while, a kind-faced granny shows up at my door selling either eggs (see note 4) or powdered milk – a key ingredient in the Cuban kitchen. Someone on the block must have told her an extranjera lives in Apt 5 because she came straight to my door that first time, knocked hard and called me La Rusa (“The Russian” – old stereotypes die hard). She’s a bit gnarled and I can tell from the edge in her voice and the fade of her blouse that times are tough for the milk-peddling abuelita. Unfortunately, when I need eggs, she has milk; when I want milk, she has eggs. So even though I was keen to help her out, our supply and demand algorithm never quite jived. Last week, her friendly face appeared anew at my door.

“I have eggs,” she said.

“So do I. How about milk?” I asked.

She didn’t have any that day but promised to “resolve” some; I promised to buy it once she did.

Sitting in my office yesterday whittling a Tweet down to 140 characters instead of working, I once again heard her hearty knock at my door. Smiling big, she told me she had three sacks of milk for sale at $2 a pop (a 50 cent savings over the official store price). I agreed to take one, glad I was finally getting the chance to help out granny. Until she pulled the sachet from her frayed knapsack: I, we both, were taking milk from the mouths of Cuban babes. What my elderly friend was selling was the milk the government guarantees to every child under 7 and I’d just purchased 600 grams of it. I knew that milk wasn’t going to be too tasty. 


This transaction got me to thinking about where all this stolen stuff comes from and put me in mind of my friend Alberto. He has an old Lada on which his livelihood depends. Driving around recently, I noticed a balón de gas (the 20-lb tanks used here for home cooking) wedged behind his seat. Seems Alberto had converted his gas-powered car into a propane-propelled one.

This was a smart investment on his part: although the conversion kit cost $350 and had to be imported from abroad, Alberto fills that tank – which takes him 120 km or so – on the black market for just $5. By way of comparison, that same $5 would buy 15 liters of real gas on the black market; just over four at the pump. I’m glad Alberto has figured a way to enlarge his margins, but wonder about the families who show up to fill their kitchen tanks to be told “no hay” (there isn’t any).

This same pattern repeats itself with steaks and blocks of Gouda, stamps for official paperwork (I was surprised to be asked to produce receipts for my bank-bought stamps on my last visit to immigration) and cooking oil. And while I can appreciate the need for every last Cuban having to do something (or something extra-legal) to make ends meet, the more I parse the situation, the more unsettling it becomes.

And it makes me realize that a certain amount of that aforementioned moral ground is shifting below my feet. At these times I’m forced to ask myself: is this is a part of Cuban culture I wish to participate in? Unluckily for my milk-thieving granny, it is not. But I’m sure she’ll find other clients: as long as there are commodities like oil, meat, and milk to “redirect,” and resell for pure profit, folks will do it.

 As I said: old habits die hard.


1. These political powwows are held every so often (the last was in 1997) or mejor dicho: whenever sufficient excrement threatens to make contact with the cooling element, if you know what I mean.

2. All of these issues came to the fore in nationwide public referendum-type debates held in late 2010. The permiso de salida is an exit permit which is mandatory for overseas travel by Cubans and residents. It earns the country revenue, but is also a barrier to travel – an issue that has to be reconciled somehow and soon.

 3. Except the goods in the black market Mac store. None of this is stolen, but rather all new, in-the-box gear with warranty and all, purchased in Miami and spirited into the country.

 4. Eggs aren’t usually stolen either, but rather the product of home-raised hens.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, Travel to Cuba

25 responses to “Black Market a lo Cubano

  1. Hello dear readers: PLEASE NOTE that my internet access (and that of hundreds of thousand others here) has been diverted to reporters visiting Cuba to cover the Pope until APRIL.

    At the outrageous prices for access here, it may take me awhile to approve/address comments. please be patient and send positive vibes!

  2. I lately find myself feeling like it’s Xmas when your thoughts are landing in my inbox. I’m a professor at a university department in Sweden given the opportunity to exchange ideas and knowledge with colleauges in Havanna. Everything is ofcourse exiting and new and in this way your blog in a “gentle?” way keeps me informed and thinking about important issues concerning real life in Cuba and Sweden. Recently I have been thinking of psychological aspects on politics and have read quite alot upon the subject of narcissism. In many ways it’s an interesting viewpoint when applied on political and social issues. I found some answers to my questions  – I think…

    By the way have you read Sir Michael Marmots book the Status Syndrome? If not please give me a hint and I’ll be glad to bring it to you! Thank you for your invaluable writings. 

    • thanks for writing in with such a lovely comment “CaminoLibre”. I’ll assume you’re not calling me a narcissist?! Cubans? Now that’s a different cuento. You might like my post about how everyone over here seems to be a know-it-all which in my mind is intrinsically linked to narcissm.

      Im fascinated by the mental health aspect of contemporary Cuba and am thrilled to let HIH readers know that the journal I write for here, MEDICC Review, is dedicating an entire issue to the theme in 2013.

      • I I woudn’t dream of calling you a narcissist 🙂 no I was rather referring to the capitalistic system 😉 I read your post on the know-it-all syndrome and found it very interesting. As an international coordinator I have met a lot of people from many cultures and noticed something that might be slightly related to the “know-it-all” syndrome. It is the relatively low interest a lot of people show in what my culture represents. That was the case in Cuba too. When I meet somebody from an other culture I ask a thousand questions. When people are not asking me questions I find it a little bit rude, or a sign of I don’t want to know anything about your culture because mine is superior anyway, or a sign of not being interested??? BUT perhaps there is an other explanation. Help me out here! In my opinion Cuba and the Cubans seems to be as far away from the narcissistic path as a culture could be –  in my opinion! Really looking forward to reading the 2013 reports in MEDICC. 

      • I don’t know. I know as someone from the US, people arent interested in my culture (nor should they be!) since that culture happens to be hell bent on world domination! In other words: most everyone already knows all they need and want to about US culture. Interestingly, as a NYer, I get LOTS of questions about that – what life is like in NY, what things cost, violence, public transportation, 9-11….Maybe it has mostly to do from where you hail?

        Those interested in Cuban health might want to subscribe to our alert service (prominent on the web page!) for when a new issue comes out. Cheers.

  3. Mary

    This is so interesting Connor. Thanks for sharing thing that tourists don’t hear or see.

  4. JeanMc

    don’t think it’s just your internet access Conner… think it’s SMS messaging too … not happy jan!! BTW… love your blog… I’m additcted!!

    • haha! now there’s a vice I can get behind! I guess that would make me the Pusher Woman?! Please do keep coming back.

      Also, wouldn’t know about SMS – no cell phone for me on this side of the Straits.

  5. According to many sources the Cubarte network, one of the governmental institutions charged with providing access to the Intranet, Internet and email on the island when down, I’m sure Yoani’s did not go down since she has high tech types of service or could go to the spy nest US Interest section.

    Even the deputy technical director of this institution that operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, said only that “for technical reasons, the ETECSA company, our Internet provider, said our Internet navigation services would be perturbed since yesterday and and last until March 29.”

  6. Rob

    Hi Conner. Rockin post as usual. Just wondering if you read the blog “Ivans File Cabinet”, and if so, if you would care to comment on the March 22 post “The Two Faces of Medicine in Cuba.” (English translation). Ivan, in my opinion, writes such thought provoking articles about life on the island, 2nd only to you!

    Rob in Sask.

    • Thanks Rob. I don’t know IFC, but am always interested in new people/writing – especially the post you mention since Im an expert on cuban health and medicine (I don’t mean that to sound pretentious/pompous, but Ive spent 8 years as a health reporter here and even longer as a patient and family member of same). Can you send me the link please? Cheers!

  7. Conner

    Hopefully we can hear your thoughts on the Pope’s Marxism Destruction Tour Part 2, since you all now have Good Friday off. My thoughts as a ex-Catholic and now Marxist for 30 years, is the “Pope is full of poop”!

    And the Economist just came out with an interesting article( 10 pages) on th return to capitalism. Fun times and heartaches ahead, hey…

    Hang in their.

  8. You are good!



  9. Ole

    Saludos, chica,

    Always an interesting story from you-Thanks. I think they should just finally grant you Cubana status, as you really understand how things work there.

    I may have told you once about my taxista who had converted to run his 57 Plymouth on propane, but it’s a good yarn and worth repeating.
    This fellow is one of those inherently ingenious types you find in Cuba- Taxista, welder, plomero, electrician- he was the go to guy and if He couldn’t find a resuelvo for your project it was probably better to just give up.

    Anyway, when he installed the propane system he also put in a tin can with a small electric coil and a tiny fan.This he connected to the exhaust pipe, and when passing a cop on the street he would hit a button inside the car, it would excite the electric coil and the fan,and out would waft a good snort of petroleo smoke! We would look at each other with a sideways sonrisa Cubano, and try to keep from busting out laughing until we turned the corner!

    As I say, a real clever guy! Ay, Cuba! ! !

    Buenas, hasta entonces,


    • Very clever! thanks for writing in….we’re cooking up a screenplay over here with the propane cars as a plot point. Stay tuned!

      • Ole

        You are welcome to use my story. Although i think i have a Cuba book in me, and i am going to use it, as well. If you become famous, i might have to leave it out for fear of being called a plagiarist! Hahaha!

        Heck, for all I know that is what All propane converters do.

        Ciao, pescao.

      • If I become famous?!

        Ye of little faith….

  10. Cheby

    Hey Conner
    I just coming off of a forum on Lonley Planet discussing gifting and humanitarian aid in Cuba. It started quite simply as a question I had re taking some gifts to several families/friends I have in Cuba…but as I have learned there are often not “simple “answers. At the end of the day (like you have described many times) there are many dynamics at play in Cuba that until you consider them all (or the ones you can be aware of) it is hard to lock into an opinion. My motivation is to do a good thing to help my friends, but at the same time i have respect for the political and social realities. Any suggestions on how in a “real and sustainable way ” a Canadian with a passion for Cuba could help some friends in a small town 30 min from Havana improve their situation… Is there an equivalent to the Grameen Bank in Cuba? Thanks Cheby

    • Hey Cheby. I get asked this question a lot and have posted a list on things that make good donations to families you/we/the collective good folks want to help out. Since Im on dial up, I can’t search on it easily and Im a bit rushed at the moment to get to a concert, but I will scour/repost in the coming days to get it to you. Of course, money is often best since then your friends can buy what they really need. You can use Western Union for this.

      As I mention in another comment thread, if you feel good and they feel good about the gifts and such, then it’s a win win. But Ive learned this over 10 years – the hard way.

      Sounds like you got slammed on the Thorn Tree – people can get a little testy over there. Don’t take it to heart! Cheers.

      • Kevin Macleod

        Hi Conner
        I am heading to Cuba on Monday (jan14) I travel to Cuba 3-4 times per year. I typically book the cheapest all inclusive and typically dont stay at the hotel.(most of my friends are in Boca de Jaruco and I stay with them). Along with my usual things I take down for my friends.. I want to take a used bicycle and associated tools. I booked today Ssaturday (Jan 12) and Cubana air is closed till monday and wont be open till I am enroute to the airport. Can you suggest the best way to handle the bicycle going through. Ie: is there a charge from Cubana air (I fly from Halifax Nova Scotia). Is there an issue/charge at the airpot in Havana. Shoild I pack some routie maintenance tools in the box with the Bicycle. I am always upront with customs on what I carry and want to be aware of any implications/costs.I realize that the blog is not designed for this specific question however Im not a very savy computer guy and Lonly Planet form for cuba has been off line as late.

      • Hola Kevin

        I have no idea about handling charges for Cubana – I fly them very infrequently and have never done so with a bike. On this end, say the bike is for your personal use and you’ll be leaving with it (or donating it; the thing they’re looking for is people selling bikes/other stuff, which is obviously not you). The best thing is to pack the box with as much extra crap as you can fit in: tools, tires and tubes (in HIGH demand; 26” most common), extra pedals, lights, chains, chain grease, water bottles – you get the idea. All of these are needed down here.

        Not sure if you’ve been reading about my cycling escapades and this is why you’re contacting me about this, but I hope this info helps.

        If you’re in town you should definitely come out to play with our Havana Bike Polo club, every Sunday, 3pm on the corner of Calle 23 & 2 in Vedado. It is one hell of a good time! We have loaner mallets and lots of good will to go around.

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