Corruption Crackdown Affects Cuban Black Market
The complaints are tempered by the expectation that inventive Cubans, driven by economic necessity and seasoned by years of filching from the centralized socialist economy, will soon restore the pipeline of illicit goods to full flow.
But not if President Castro has his way. Raul Castro, who took over the presidency last year from ailing older brother Fidel, has vowed to shake up the island's faltering economy.
Experts estimate that as much as 20 percent of goods are stolen as they are distributed to state outlets around the country, a drain Raul Castro has said must be stopped.
At present, despite a serious economic crunch caused by severe hurricane damage last year and the global downturn, Cuban stores and markets appear still reasonably stocked with goods. There was even toilet paper that officials recently warned would be in short supply.
But Cubans say the offer of products on the black market, where goods generally are much cheaper than in stores, has dropped off noticeably. The average salary in Cuba is about $20 a month, so the black market helps Cubans stretch their money or, if they are sellers, supplement their income.
"A lot of things you bought on the black market are nowhere to be seen. For example, before, there was a lot of ham and cheese, now you can't find it because something has changed," said a retired military officer, who like others interviewed preferred not to give his name.
"Powdered milk, the yogurt the country people brought to Havana, the people that sold detergent on the side. They've all disappeared," said a Central Havana housewife.
Castro's transfer of many retail businesses to military control has caused state employees who once routinely stole goods to stop, or at least think twice. Military managers are said to exercise better inventory control and be less tolerant of filching.
After years of mostly blaming Cuba's economic ills on a 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo, Raul Castro has called on Cubans to work harder to increase productivity and efficiency.
The president is also believed to have increased vigilance on the streets and around markets, looking out for people selling items illegally, or "on the left," as Cubans say. Under his direction, a new, all-powerful Comptroller General's office has been created to ferret out and prosecute wrongdoers.
Cubans say black marketeers, many of whom go house to house selling their goods, are staying at home, fearing they'll get caught if they go out to do business.
At a market in the Vedado district where black marketeers once operated almost without fear, those still in business conduct transactions furtively, watchful for police.
"They have police all over this place, and if they come, they'll grab me and take me to jail. I'm too young for that," said 22-year-old Roberto, his eyes darting back and forth.
Holding a plastic bag close to keep it out of sight, he pulls out two packages of Caribbean Queen brand frozen shrimp, clearly purloined from a store or maybe a restaurant or hotel.
"These are my last two," he said. "Sometimes you have to wait a few days to get more."
Cubans cope with the leaner black market the way they have coped with hardships for decades -- by improvising and waiting for things to get better.
One Central Havana housewife tells how her mother cooked chopped banana peels, put them in a stew and told her children it was "meat" during the "Special Period" -- the dark days of deprivation that followed the 1991 collapse of Cuba's erstwhile benefactor, the Soviet Union.
But she and other Cubans expected the current blip on the black market to pass quickly. Previous government efforts to control corruption failed and this one would too, they predicted, saying people did not make enough money to live entirely within the law.
"What Raul is doing will last a while, but they don't have the capacity to confront this," said the military retiree. "There is corruption because there is so much need."