Cuba's small merchants denounce a "crusade" against their businesses
Actions that many see as a crusade against small merchants continue in Havana. The constant surveillance of small business stands has spurred many sellers to close them, temporarily or permanently. Others have been forced to do so after receiving visits by inspectors.
Aleyda, who sold housewares, closed her stand after receiving a Warning Notice in which she was advised that she would lose her license if she offered customers an unauthorized product or service.
"I thought about it, did the numbers, and decided to return the license," she says. "The items I was not allowed to sell, like cables and outlets, were those that sold best and allowed me to pay for it."
According to Aleyda, inspectors began to constantly visit her business. "It was no longer enough to pick the things up when they came, because they showed up at random, and they were no longer municipal inspectors, but provincial ones, who did not even identify themselves, and came and took photos of the merchandise. We only learned that they were inspectors afterwards, when they arrived in clothing identifying themselves as such, and their IDs."
Raydel, who was also licensed to sell housewares, but in another municipality, shares a story similar to Aleyda's.
"They started to come almost every day, some without identifying themselves as inspectors, to catch us off guard," he says.
"The problem with provincial inspectors is that we do not know who they are," he adds. "The small merchants usually have arrangements with the municipal inspectors. In some places they even warm them when an inspection is coming, so they can pick up everything illegal before they arrive."
Some vendors did not even receive the Warning Notice.
"Nobody gave me anything. They didn't even warn me," says Raydel. "When they came it was to seize my goods and confiscate my license."
The permit for the sale of household goods is not covered by the simplified system of self-employment. Those who have this license pay monthly and social security taxes, and have to file a sworn return at the end of the year.
"We pay a fortune," says Aleyda. "And we can't make that selling hangers and clotheslines, which is what we have permission to sell."
"They know that very well," says Raydel. "Anyone can see that it is the other things - cables, paint - that allow us to pay for the licenses. Nobody makes that much selling kitchen towels."
Raydel was slapped with a fine of 1,500 Cuban pesos, and had goods confiscated from him worth about 2,000 CUC.
“I watched them as they were writing the seizure record, and they took merchandise for themselves," says Raydel. "They recorded five brushes instead of six, or three wires, instead of four, which was what they were actually taking from me. They did the same thing with almost all the products, especially the illegal ones.”
During inspections and confiscations neighbors and bystanders tend to protest against the inspectors.
"They call them "abusive" and "shameless," says Aleyda.
Raydel says something similar also happened when his goods were seized. "A passerby told them that they were corrupt, and that if they wanted us to stop selling illegal things, they should sell them in stores at a price people could afford."
"They ought to be inspecting themselves," he added. "If they take away your license, in theory you cannot get it back, and you have to get a different one. But I've seen people who have had the same license three times, and that wouldn't happen if there weren't corruption in the Government, which is approving them."
"Here there is illegal business and corruption in many state institutions. It’s already widespread in Cuba," says Aleyda. "But there are many Party members living off it, so nobody steps in. Instead they go after the people, who have nothing else to offer them, those of us who are not members of the Party."
"The solution is always to "throw the baby out with the bathwater," especially because they don't like the ‘babies,’" says Raydel. "Instead of solving the shortages at the shops, and the extremely high prices of things, they come after us. And you know what they're going to tell you: the stores are empty because of us, who buy to resell. That’s not true, but they have to blame us, so they will continue to say that.
Despite the pressure, both Aleyda and Raydel plan to get other small business licenses in the near future.
"You've got to work," says Aleyda, "but not for the State. For the State ... I'd rather die."