Authorities began taking aim at that sub-industry last year by dramatically hiking customs duties.
Cuban labor ministry official Jose Barreiro Alfonso recently told the Communist Party newspaper Granma that it was necessary to “impose order” in the retail sector, and it would be a crime to “obtain merchandise or other objects for the purpose of resale for profit.”
Together, the measures recall previous policies that critics describe as two steps forward, one step back.
In the 1990s, Cubans were allowed to open private restaurants to ease the pain of a severe economic crisis; when the worst had passed, authorities regulated the eateries practically out of existence until they were revived under the recent reforms.
Such policies “create an atmosphere of uncertainty that is not positive, and a level of frustration that will not rise to the level of nationwide protests,” said Frank Mora, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. “But with this, the government is sending a message to the people that it is maintaining control.”
Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a University of Pittsburg professor emeritus of economics, interpreted the new law as an attempt to protect the government’s own retail operations.
“It miscalculated” before, Mesa-Lago said. “It thought it could compete with these people who ... sell at a reasonable price, while [state-run] stores have very high prices.”
After being laid off from his hotel job, Frank Rodriguez, 30, took out a cobbler’s license and began selling imported shoes at El Curita. He intends to recover his US$3,000 investment one way or another, by selling “here or elsewhere.”
“We are living days of complete uncertainty,” Rodriguez said. “If they allowed this for three years across the country, why prohibit it now? How, and with what money will I buy food for my daughter?”