Family Baggage

Smuggling goods into Cuba for profit requires nerves of steel, a flair for dramatics, and a strong back

The aged rotary telephone in the third-floor hallway of this dilapidated Havana mansion -- long ago partitioned into apartments -- rings at short intervals throughout the day and night. Someone in an apartment near the phone usually answers the call and then yells, "AOctavio!" And Octavio, tall and skinny, wearing only sandals and a pair of Nike shorts, stops whatever he's doing, maybe reading or playing with his infant daughter.

"AVa!" he yells back, and lopes out the door of his apartment and along the once-elegant Spanish-tile floor. The summer heat is even heavier in the hall, where there's little ventilation, and the sticky film of sweat on Octavio's olive skin quickly liquifies. "Diga," he answers. It's one of his cousin's clients, inquiring about the new packages of clothes, medicines, dollars, and other goods that arrived the night before from Miami.

"What's your name?" Octavio sometimes asks, although frequently he knows the caller. Then, "Wait a second." He steps back into his apartment and pulls out two rumpled pieces of notebook paper he's stuck on a bookshelf in the living room. He runs a finger down lists of names, each with notations made by his cousin in Miami, that show what has been sent in this shipment.

"I have some things for you, Norma," Octavio reports. "You can come over now if you like." Just then he sees two women and a man emerge from the narrow stairwell that leads to the third floor. They've come to pick up their packages and have brought their own cloth bags in which they'll carry everything. Octavio doesn't know them, so he asks to see identification. It turns out to be Amarylis, her daughter Amparo, and son Luis, whose names Octavio has seen taped to dozens of items he unpacked last night from a gusano (worm), a nickname for big duffel bags -- and Fidel Castro's famous epithet for Cubans who emigrate to the United States.

Octavio leads the three through a wire-mesh door, which opens onto a rooftop patio that also serves as his dining room. "Sientense," he urges, gesturing toward a square metal table and four chairs placed under a makeshift aluminum roof and next to crates, potted plants, and a rusted 35-year-old Soviet-made washing machine. A T-shirt, a towel, and a plastic bag hang from a clothesline in the sun.

Back in the living room, Octavio checks the lists and gathers up the piles of clothing, shoes, vitamins, and a bottle of Ceregumil -- maybe a tonic or cologne of some sort, the purpose of which puzzles even the recipients. There's also a Muscle and Fitness magazine with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover, and some muscle-building powder for another brother, $50 in cash, and two letters from their relative in Miami.

The two women examine each item, read the letters, and conclude they are missing half their money; one letter says that the relative is sending $50, but a second letter tells them $100 is on the way. They glare at Octavio and ask him what happened. "Seriously, I don't know," he replies, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders. "This is what was in the gusano, and the $50 is what Antonio sent me. I went over everything. I'll ask him when he calls."

It's hard work being the Cuban middleman in this underground business that arose from Cubans' desperate need for almost everything. Octavio, which is not his real name, is 26 years old, a highly educated professional with a job he loves, but which is irregular and pays him just 300 pesos per month, about $15. (Most of the names, professions, and locations of the Cubans in this story have been changed to safeguard their identities.)

Even with food rations and partially subsidized housing, $15 per month in Havana -- though a bit on the high side, as Cuban salaries go -- is not a living wage these days. So Octavio, like most ordinary Cubans, must find some other income detras del telon (behind the curtain) -- that is, outside the Castro government's strictly controlled economic system, and invariably illegal.

Octavio and his mother work for Antonio, their Miami-born relative. Antonio is a maletero, a play on a Spanish word for suitcase, meaning one who carries overstuffed pieces of luggage to Cuba for profit. Maleteros are the independent, unlicensed business people who operate under the noses of the agencies that legally ship packages to the island. Miami's maleteros have established a thriving, albeit risky, cottage industry that is supply-and-demand capitalism in its purest form. No one claims to know how many people are part of that industry, which is informal and unorganized, or the value of the money and merchandise they distribute within Cuba. But few dispute that the business has blossomed in the past four or five years.

Relatives in the U.S. have been sending supplies to Cuba for decades, but several circumstances -- among them the post-Cold War deterioration of the Cuban economy, its growing dependence on the U.S. dollar, and easier telephone and in-person contacts between the two countries -- have combined to encourage underground entrepreneurs in the past several years.

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