Cubans head to Haiti for shopping sprees
PORT-AU-PRINCE – Most people don’t think of Haiti as a shopping destination.
Unless they’re Cuban.
Every afternoon, hundreds of Cubans swarm a rutted crossroads in the capital of the hemisphere’s poorest nation, hunting clothes, light bulbs, perfume and other goods that are in short supply back home.
Haitian vendors blast
Cuban reggaeton music to draw in shoppers. In a yearold café painted with Cuban flags, Havana-born Angelina
Luis Dominguez and her niece Yeleny Terry Luis serve black beans, rice and roast pork to compatriots on lunch breaks.
“There are thousands, thousands of Cubans,” Luis Dominquez said. “There used to be four or five; now they’ve taken root. It feels like all of Cuba is here.”
The “Cuban market” in Port-au-prince is part of a global trade, estimated to top $2 billion, fed by the confluence of Cubans’ increased freedom to travel with the communist state’s continued domination of the economy back home.
Clothing, housewares, hardware, personal-care products and other goods at state-run stores in Cuba cost two or three times what they do elsewhere. And that’s when they are on sale at all in an economy hampered by incessant shortage. What’s more, Cuba’s state monopoly on imports and exports excludes the small but vibrant private sector, which employs more than a half million people who often earn three or four times a state worker’s salary.
Since Cuba did away with a hated exit permit five years ago, Cubans are packing flights to destinations with easy entry requirements. In Port-au-prince, Panama City, Cancun, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, even Moscow, Cubans are packing suitcases with goods for personal use and resale back home.
In Panama, the Colon
Free Trade Zone has a “Little Havana” where Cubans spent $308 million last year, and are on track to spend perhaps eight per cent more in 2018, said Luis Carlos Saenz, the zone’s general assistant manager.
“We now have an important Cuban clientele who come to make purchases and are making a significant contribution to business in the zone,” Saenz said.
Panama is so eager for Cuban business that its embassy in Havana has started giving Cubans with private business licences on-the-spot “tourist cards” that eliminate the need for a lengthy visa application process.
“More Cubans are coming now because of the tourist cards,” said Jose Hernandez, who was shopping in the free zone with a group of relatives. “Taking back an air conditioner, an electric motorcycle is a big deal for us. In Cuba, that’s gold.”
That sort of business tourism has diversified a trade long centred on South Florida, where Cubans with family ties in the US relied on relatives to shuttle in personal or business goods. Driving the trade away from Miami has been the Trump administration’s decision to pull most staff from its Havana embassy last year, ending visa processing there and forcing Cubans to travel to third countries to apply for permission to visit the US.
The Miami-based Havana Consulting Group estimated in an August study that Cubans spent more than $2 billion in 2017 on bringing goods back to the island.
That spending may equal anywhere from two per cent to five per cent of Cuba’s gross domestic product, depending on which of the wildly varying estimates of GDP is used in the absence of reliable economic statistics on the island’s economy.
Cuba maintains tight restrictions on the quantities that individuals can import, and working as a “mule” – bringing goods back for others – is technically prohibited, according to some official statements, but it is rarely prosecuted. (AP)