Black Market Sellers Are Exploiting COVID, Cubans, and Basic Needs

Black market vendors are buying out supermarket supplies of basic goods and selling them at inflated prices on the island.
September 9, 2020, 3:53pm
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Melisa can no longer afford deodorant. It is nowhere to be found on the supermarket shelves. When at last she locates a tube sold by a neighbor, a black market reseller or revendedor, its price is beyond reach, three times what she paid in March.

Outside a supermarket in the Playa neighborhood of Havana, characterized by tree-lined streets and soviet-style highrises slowly crumbling in the tropical heat, lines snake around the block. Residents wait three or four hours to buy food and other essentials, sometimes standing six feet apart if they can, umbrellas deployed as shields from the sun. Inside, Melisa says, there is usually little left on the shelves. So aspiring buyers walk to another market, then another. It can take all day.

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Amidst the shortages, some Cubans have chosen to manipulate the situation to their advantage. These black market profiteers are called coleros, their name derived from the space that they operate in: la cola, the Spanish word for the line.

Coleros arrive at the supermarket as early as 3AM to be first in line when stores open. Those who arrive later pay attendants at the door or police officers nearby to cut ahead of the crowd. They buy extra items they don’t need, such as chicken breasts, pureed tomato sauce, deodorant: the most necessary, most popular goods. But they take care not to be too conspicuous with their purchases, as over a thousand people have been arrested since Covid-19 hit, for reselling, which is considered a crime.

After the supermarket runs out of supplies, coleros go door to door, selling their goods at twice the previous price or more. Groups of coleros advertise on Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger to ensure anonymity, posting photos of pairs of shampoo and conditioner bottles, one upside down, one right side up, like in a commercial.

One packet of pork, consisting of three small steaks, can cost two to three times its usual price of forty Cuban pesos per pound, which amounts to a tenth of the average monthly salary if bought from a colero. “The salary isn’t enough for anything anymore,” Melisa told me. “Everything on the ships goes to those who exploit.”

Cuba imports eighty percent of its food supply, mainly from China and Spain, and the coronavirus pandemic has thrown its economy off balance as a result. The tankers that arrive now are few and far between - Cuba’s primary trade partners reported large drops in exports to the island this spring, several near a fifty percent decline. With the pandemic throwing global supply chains into flux, Cuba has been flung further into precarity, with shortages of necessary foods and household items even more common than normal.

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Before the pandemic, Cuba was already in a perilous situation as a result of the longstanding U.S embargo. In the 60 years since its inception, the bloqueo as it is called on the island, has not toppled Cuba’s socialist government as intended, and threatens Cuba’s procurement of basic goods for the general population.

Under U.S law, global companies must dissolve any operations in Cuba in order to operate in the United States, leaving Cuba economically isolated from the rest of the world. Since 2017, the Trump administration has augmented the embargo with new policies, constricting Cuba’s oil supply and suffocating its tourism market.

This year, Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel acknowledged the economy “is not giving results”, the government recognized the U.S dollar as currency and opened dollar stores, raised salaries, allowed private sector actors to import and export goods, and created a new online marketplace for everyday items. Nevertheless, due to the combined hurricane of embargo and the pandemic, ships are simply not arriving in port with the necessary frequency, placing the Cuban population in a state of continuous food insecurity.

Melisa, whose name has been changed for this story, works as a manicurist at a shoebox nail salon. She cannot find the products she needs to continue her work. “There’s nothing in the country,” she told me, “It goes from bad to worse.”

Cover: A woman wearing a face mask against the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, walks past the Capitol, in Havana on September 8, 2020. Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images.