From foreign DVDs to perfume, rum and coffee, Cuba’s shelves are packed with pirated and counterfeit goods that are sold as authorities turn a blind eye, using the long-standing US embargo as justification.
The more than 50-year-long US trade freeze with communist-ruled Havana has bred a healthy appetite for smuggled goods, including TV series, films, music and software — all available at a low cost.
“Here, everything costs one CUC,” 28-year-old vendor Jorge said as he stood before three bookcases packed with CDs and DVDs, using the acronym for the Cuban convertible peso equivalent to US$1.
In southern Havana’s October 10 neighborhood, where Jorge peddles his wares, pirated DVDs of current US blockbusters, children’s movies and Latin music are on offer.
For Jorge, the cost of doing business is affordable: For 60 Cuban pesos (US$2.50) a month, he can buy a vendor’s license to sell his goods. He is one of half a million Cubans who work in the 200 or so independent jobs authorized under Cuban President Raul Castro’s economic reforms.
Although buying and selling pirated goods is technically illegal in Cuba, the trade is widely known and mostly tolerated, even by the government’s Committee for the Defense of the Revolution officers.
“I pay for my license on time and no one interferes with my work,” said Jorge, who declined to give his full name.
Like many other merchants, Jorge’s stock extends far beyond entertainment DVDs. He also sells “packages,” which feature hundreds of megabytes of data obtained weekly from overseas sources. The bundles include TV series, sports programs, films, anti-virus software and up-to-date listings from banned classified Web sites Revolico and Porlalivre.
The prohibited classified listings sites in Cuba offer buyers anything from air conditioners to black-market tires and even empty perfume bottles to be secretly refilled in off-the-grid factories.
With the help of complicit employees, some of the black-market fragrances and other items even find their way to the shelves of government-owned stores.
Every so often, the heavily censored state-run media report on police busting illegal rings producing fake perfume, rum, beer, coffee or toiletries — items rarely found in supermarkets — but authorities mostly ignore the contraband sales.
Authorities struggle to contain this Cuban “tradition,” which emerged during the dark days of severe shortages in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of Cuba’s staunchest Cold War-era allies.
“The new situation in the 1990s was so sudden, so violent, so unexpected ... that people started, with the only means they had, to find ways to fulfill their needs,” sociologist Mayra Espina said in online newspaper Cuba Contemporanea. “Certain activities previously deemed unacceptable or socially negative started to become legitimate.”
This time of shortages bred a social phenomenon called la lucha, or “the struggle,” which has seen Cubans do whatever is necessary to tackle the island nation’s social and economic malaise, Espina said.
Pirated programs have also crept into the state’s sphere, with public media and government-owned cinemas running shows and films obtained illegally.
Some television networks lacking their own means to produce original programming have “resorted for years to carrying shows from American channels without paying for the rights,” Cuban TV director Juan Pin Vilar told reporters.
This is one of the fringe benefits of the US embargo: Cuban TV channels and cinemas can act with virtual impunity since the blockade makes legal repercussions unlikely.
“There is a kind of tactical willingness [in the US] not to bother Cuba because culture ... is a very effective means of communication,” said Jorge de Armas, a member of a group of Cuban exiles calling for a rapprochement with Washington.
Yet Vilar said the flip side of this is that certain stations in Miami — home to most of the Cuban diaspora — air Cuban programs to satisfy viewers nostalgic for home.
On Miami’s Calle Ocho in the heart of Little Havana, the Maraka shop sells pirated music, films and programs brought in from Cuba.
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