Cuba’s Shadow Clothing Economy

by Tony Chavira

On my way to work this morning, NPR had an interesting report on how 20% of the Gross Domestic Product of the nation of Russia was essentially tied up in the Russian Shadow Economy.  A Shadow Economy, in case you didn't know, is essentially the "black market," or the place to get stuff you can't buy in stores... usually from a shifty importer, your cousin's friend's uncle, or a guy who knows a guy who knows some guys.  There may be huge warehouses full of things you can't pull into a country legally, and these guys own them.  There's a percentage of every nation's economy that's shadow economy (ours, for example, is less than 9%... probably all illegal drugs).  But our post-Soviet friends is twice that.  Kinda crazy, if you think about one in every five products being full-blown illegally purchased or sold.

As Rebecca rightly pointed out, Cuban residents had a pretty strong sense of their style (although much of it was Christian Audigier-influenced) but when you'd walk around even the most expensive and touristy areas of town, a good clothing shop was nowhere to be found.  You can rest assured, I saw plenty of cabana shirts and wide-brimmed white hat, but you can also rest-assured that the Ed Hardy shirts all the cool kids seemed to be wearing were nowhere in sight.  When I later asked an average, anonymous Cuban where everyone bought their clothes, he was pretty clear that the Shadow Economy for clothes in Cuba was alive and well.  Strange (or appropriate) as it may seem, the worst-dressed people in the city were the tourists; although it's not that surprising when you know full well that some Cubans are deliberately strutting their stuff in the hopes they'll be wisked away to exotic foreign lands by rich sugar-benefactors. Regardless, the Cuban Shadow Economy is actually kind of striking only because of how obvious the Cubans are about flaunting it.  Prostitutes along the Malecon aren't arrested, cigars scammers walk around trying to sell you fake Cohibas all day, and everyone wears black market clothes.  And why not? Although I hate the look of Ed Hardy clothes in America, it somehow looked much cooler than whatever Cuban-wannabes were wearing in Miami.

I've read reports saying things like "40% of Cuba's economy lies in the informal sector" (which essentially means not-government jobs in a socialist nation).  I wonder how much of that is Shadow Economy, and I wonder how much of that Shadow Economy is Ed Hardy clothes.

Comments

For an excellent book on this subject, see “This is Cuba: an Outlaw Culture Survives,” by Ben Corbett (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2002).  A sample: “… about one-fifth of the island’s income comes in the form of cash wires sent through Western Union from Cubans living abroad. Although the regime quietly calls these benefactors gusanos (maggots) for abandoning the Revolution, it couldn’t survive without them.”  (p. 11)

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Awesome!  Thanks for the recommendation Steve, looks pretty great and exactly what I was looking for in terms of some the pros and cons of having to actually live in Cuba!

Here’s the link for anyone else interested: http://www.amazon.com/This-Cuba-Outlaw-Culture-Survives/dp/0813338263

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