Todo aqui es de Fidel. Everything here belongs to Fidel.
My Brief Run-in with the Cuban Black Market
It was my second night in Cuba, and I had clearly been marked as a tourist. I walked the Havana streets in jeans and a t-shirt, and I was of a blindingly white complexion. A Cuban in his forties caught up to me, and, after welcoming me to his country, began a sales pitch. He "knew" the lady that ran the bed and breakfast where our group was staying. She was his sister. I later learned this was false, but he duped me at the time. His plea continued. He wanted to know if I wanted to buy something purely Cuban. Una cosa pura cubana. Slowly, and cautiously he looked around and reached into his breast pocket. His hand emerged with a plastic bag. I immediately became apprehensive before I realized the contents of the bag. He worked at one of the government owned tobacco factories in Havana where he rolled cigars. He had sneaked out a few. I had misheard him earlier, un puro cubano... he had said, a Cuban cigar.
I had dealt with peddlers before. I had haggled a few times, but something about this transaction still did not seem right. He was selling cigars, but he constantly glanced behind him, he spoke softly as to make sure no one we passed could hear, and he was pushing the cigars into my hand as if to get them out of his possession as quickly as possible. I told him that I could not take them, that they were his. His response floored me. No son mios, todo aqui es de Fidel! They are not mine, he said, everything here belongs to Fidel. I responded that I certainly did not want to buy them if they were Fidel's. His own paranoia became mine, and I wished I had just kept walking but I could not shake him. It was after all, a black market sale.
The Cuban black market is a means for survival. It is a bartering system that has allowed Cubans to obtain necessities, gifts, and other merchandise that could otherwise not be afforded on the minimal government salaries they receive. However, a Black Market is a somewhat over-ominous title given the goods that are traded and sold behind the government's back in Cuba. Guns and drugs, although possibly a small piece of the market, do not make up the majority of goods. In order to fuel the market Cubans search for items at their jobs to sneak out and resell. Goods could include nails, tools, milk, food, cement bags, and of course, cigars. Still, it remains illegal, and it is a growing testament to the financial insecurities felt by those living on government salaries.
The man that caught up to me on the street was simply working a second job. He was trading his stolen goods in order to afford goods that he and his family needed. It was a difficult plea to ignore. In a nation where todo es de Fidel, he was trying to scratch out something for himself.