In Cuba, 'On the Left' Means A Flourishing Black Market

A vendor of
A vendor of "secret potatoes" holds contraband. Cubans risk fines or jail to buy potatoes or other food items after reaching limits on their ration cards. (Manuel Roig-franzia - The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 22, 2006

HAVANA -- Most mornings a woman with darting brown eyes lingers here in the sticky hot corner of an open-air vegetable market.

She effects a casual stance, elbow propped nonchalantly against a cigar stand, waiting for the regulars. If she nods, her customers follow her to a side street.

A few quick, nervous glances and the woman reaches inside her blouse. From her bra, she removes her contraband -- neatly folded plastic grocery sacks, illegal except in state-run stores.

Five for one cent.

The transaction, like countless others each day in Havana and throughout this island nation, takes place " por la izquierda ," or "on the left." Cubans use the phrase to describe back-alley deals both large and small. They scheme on the left to cope with chronic shortages and to skirt myriad rules that prohibit most forms of private enterprise and govern the minutiae of their daily lives.

Cubans go to the left for almost anything: for staples, such as rice and beans; for quotidian items, such as the plastic grocery sacks; and for forbidden delights, such as lobster or scarce beef. On the left, Cubans risk fines or jail sentences to watch soap operas captured by illegal satellite dishes, to prowl restricted Internet sites and to boil "secret potatoes" bought after reaching limits on the ration cards that dictate the buying habits of everyone in the country. Mothers of children under the age of 7 -- the only Cubans allowed to buy discounted milk at state stores -- even sell their allotments at inflated prices to collect money for extra food.

The thriving underground economy functions as a pocket of capitalism, prescribed by supply and demand, within the Western Hemisphere's only communist state. Observers say it may be the precursor of a push for a market economy, one that could accelerate after President Fidel Castro dies; on the other hand, they say, the black market may simply be the byproduct of a system that rewards the wily and well-connected.

"They're very entrepreneurial," Wayne Smith, a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said in an interview. "When I go down to Cuba, I've had the impression that everyone is waiting for something to happen. There's a sense that changes are going to come."

While the world wonders what a post-Castro Cuba might look like, the resiliency of the island's black-market culture demonstrates how far Cubans are willing to go to circumvent Castro's dictums. But it also exposes a certain elasticity in government control of the island.

Some of the deals made on the left, though illegal, are clearly tolerated. They sometimes take place in plain sight of uniformed police, or in view of the less obvious, but equally pervasive, network of neighborhood informers.

The sense of tolerance, however, can vanish abruptly. In August, shortly after Castro underwent stomach surgery and relinquished power during his recovery, government authorities swept through neighborhoods in a crackdown on illegal satellite dishes. The agents were presumably bent on blocking outside news broadcasts -- rife with rumors that Castro was dead or suffering from terminal cancer -- that might cast doubt on the rosier official accounts.

As word spread, Cubans scrambled to dismantle satellite dishes that had been open secrets, squirreling them under floorboards and in attics.

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