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.
Antonio, a gregarious, energetic 30-year-old working out of his apartment in Miami, has been making a good living as a maletero for almost four years. It was a logical field to explore, he says, since he had a ready-made network in Cuba of family and friends, some of whom hold fairly influential jobs.
"The cash is what got me into it," says Antonio, who has another occupation he doesn't want to reveal. "It was such good compensation, and so easy to go in and out [of Cuba], like running drugs." Last year, he estimates, he traveled to Cuba a few dozen times, grossed $100,000, spent $40,000 in operating costs, and kept the rest tax-free. (He's not about to declare income from a business that doesn't have the special license required by the U.S. Department of Commerce.)
Since early 1996, when Cuban jet fighters shot down two planes carrying civilian members of Brothers to the Rescue, direct passenger flights between Miami and Cuba have been suspended by presidential order, and so American visitors go through a third country like Mexico or the Bahamas. In an effort to prevent later trouble for travelers, Cuban officials don't stamp U.S. passports at the Havana airport.
The export of "gift parcels" is allowed under the 34-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, subject to tight restrictions on the value and content of the packages; a U.S. resident cannot send more than one parcel per month to the same Cuban resident. Sending dollars to Cuba is forbidden unless the money is used to pay fees for immigration to the U.S. But since dollars are la cosa mas necesitada (the item most needed), according to just about everyone receiving assistance from the U.S., maleteros always carry lots of them -- for a fee. Antonio charges ten percent of each remittance.
Maleteros dance around the laws of Cuba, as well, as it's illegal to "commercialize" for individual profit in the socialist state. But until about a year ago, according to Antonio, he and the several other maleteros he often encountered at airports were able to get their bags into Cuba with few problems. "We would let each other know what brigada [group of customs agents] was more accepting. We knew their schedules, which ones could be paid off," he says. "I would change disguises, grow a beard or wear a hat. It was fun. But things started getting hot this past January. All the old agents had been eliminated. You'd get to know them, know their families, and then you'd learn that they'd been arrested."
Antonio thinks the Cuban government was getting tougher on maleteros because they were becoming more numerous and brazen, and because they were angering many Miami exiles, who called them mulas (mules) and traitors for helping to prop up the Cuban economy. In both Cuba and the U.S., changes in regulations and the whims of inspectors contribute to the unsteadiness of the profession. "When a maletero crosses the water from Cancun to Cuba," says Antonio's cousin Octavio, "he disappears into another realm, where nothing's certain. Antonio is carrying a two-edged sword. He's playing with fire."
Antonio did get burned this past spring in what he refers to as "the great March maletero sweep," a generalized crackdown by Cuban authorities. Antonio's business hasn't been the same, he says, since he arrived at Jose Marti International Airport in late March with six gusanos and more than $10,000, only to learn that the inspector who would normally have been waiting for him had just been thrown into prison for participating in a tobacco-smuggling ring. Everything was confiscated except medical supplies and $8000 that had been well hidden -- a loss of other people's money and materials totaling about $15,000. Cuban officials warned him to cut back on the frequency and volume of his shipments. Other maleteros he knows also suffered losses.
"The [officials] said I was commercializing," Antonio explains, "but they always knew what I was doing. They were cracking down because too many [independent] people were getting into it. They told me the only [U.S.] agency they sanction is Cuba Paquetes," a major package shipper based in Miami. (Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, who has represented several agencies that sell package shipments and charter trips to Cuba, says that statement is nonsense, since other agencies deal freely with Cuba.) Cuba Paquetes owner Nilda Serret, target of numerous demonstrations outside her offices and of a celebrated attack by an outraged exile at the Miami airport this past February, insists there's nothing "official" about her company's status with the Cuban government. "After years of going through the cumbersome process," she says, "you become well-known."
Serret acknowledges that plenty of Miami exiles are convinced that Cuba Paquetes (and other agencies) are actually sponsored by Castro. Many exiles who are in regular contact with the island contend there's no way the package and travel agencies can continue in business without paying some kind of kickback to the Cuban government, although the agencies deny those allegations. "Some people won't use us because they think we're a Cuban company," she concedes, "and this is circulated on the [Spanish-language] radio." But she's the one who's legitimate, Serret asserts, whereas maleteros are breaking the laws of two countries and siphoning business from the licensed agencies. She says she charges ten dollars per pound, which includes delivery and a guarantee of safe arrival. But to send some items -- like electronics, which are heavily taxed in Cuba -- an agency client must pay additional charges, often more than $100.
Before the March confiscation, Antonio was taking seven or eight bags down about twice a month. Now he may make the trip every other month, and he often arranges for other people to go with or for him. He says he used to charge fifteen to twenty dollars per pound and twenty percent on all cash remittances; now it's ten dollars per pound and ten percent. For the first time in three years, he's had to find a real job in an office here.
For a recent shipment, Antonio fills up two gusanos with clothes, shoes, food, medicines, and vitamins that he's picked up at homes around the city. There's too much to fit into the two bags but not enough to pack a third gusano, so Antonio decides to include the leftovers on a trip he plans to make himself in a few weeks. And two gusanos don't warrant buying two plane tickets for two people when he can pay the excess baggage fee. So a friend will make the trip solo this time, flying first to Cancn, then booking through to Havana on Cubana, the national airline. In Havana each person is allowed to bring in for free one bag other than carry-on suitcases; for every extra bag, the visitor must pay $225. That's in addition to the excess weight fees due at check-in with Cubana: 75 cents for each pound over 44 pounds per bag.
Even as Antonio lifts the gusanos onto a sturdy postal scale on the floor of his living room, jotting down the weights of each, he is fielding calls on a portable phone from people pleading with him to take a few more "emergency" items. He ends up stuffing in a pack of gauze, a bottle of iron supplements, and a plastic water pistol. "Why?" he asks with amusement, picking up the water gun and angling it at a house guest. He knows why: There's a shortage of toys in Cuba too.
Antonio has already gone through each package to make sure no one has slipped money into a shoe or a pocket or a medicine bottle; he's also learned to check for and toss out religious pamphlets and anti-Castro literature. "I don't want to take the chance," he says. Finally, a narrow cardboard box about a yard high has to be hand-carried onto the plane. It contains a "Deluxe Molded Bath Bench with Back" -- a plastic seat to help invalids onto toilets and into shower stalls without slipping. "Nothing like this can be found in Cuba," Antonio says. It's destined for an 86-year-old woman named Cecilia, who lives by herself in Marianao, a western suburb of Havana. Cecilia's daughter Silvia, who left Cuba in 1961 and has seen her mother only four times since, lives in Miami Beach. Silvia became a client of Antonio six months earlier, on the recommendation of a friend. "I found him to be a trustworthy person," she says. "And he's so upbeat and likable." Silvia was tired, she adds, of paying the high fees agencies charge for transporting electrical goods and other items her mother needed, like a special inhaler apparatus for her asthma, a home blood pressure tester, electric hair rollers. "When she was young," Silvia says, "she was a very elegant woman, well dressed, always wearing French perfume. She is extremely thin now, but she tries to keep up her appearance."
A maletero must keep up appearances too. At times Antonio has displayed an innate acting talent to get him through sticky situations. Once he was taking a wheelchair to Cuba for a client, along with six huge bags he knew would raise suspicions among Cuban customs agents. He settled into the wheelchair himself, placed a bag on his lap, and received solicitous treatment all the way from Miami to Havana. Once there, he rolled himself through the airport followed by a porter (whom he tipped $20) with five bags. When he reached the customs check, he handed the inspector his passport with another $20 inside. Then he rose, trembling, and exclaimed, "AQuiero caminar! AQuiero caminar!" -- "I must walk on the ground of my homeland!" His "efforts" failed, though, and he nearly collapsed before sympathetic agents grasped his arms and helped him back into the seat. They never did inspect him or his luggage, Antonio says.
Once the gusanos are safe on the floor of Octavio's Havana apartment, he and his mother take over the operation. The mother, Caridad, has always been la cabeza, the Cuban head of the operation, who used to call each client when a shipment arrived (much harder to do now that outgoing phone service from the old house has been discontinued because someone made "too many" lengthy long-distance calls). Caridad kept track of everything that came in. In recent months she has played a less active role, and she vows to retire from the business. The confiscation of Antonio's bags in March had serious repercussions for Caridad, who had to face the fury and desperation of clients who had been depending on receiving money or medicine; some even threatened to report her to the government. Since then Antonio's Miami client base has dropped, by his estimation, from about 120 to 50, and he can no longer pay his aunt the $200 per month she had been earning. Now she and Octavio are paid according to the value of the shipment, perhaps $30 to $50 per month.
"So many problems arise," she says. "I prefer more peace in my life. This requires a lot of organization. Antonio leaves the bags here, so people have to come and pick up their things. But there are some ancianos, for example, who can't even leave their apartments, so you have to get someone to take their packages over to them."
A downstairs neighbor and long-time family friend, Francisco, often fills that role. He's a physician in his early sixties who wears expensive-looking gold-rim glasses and shiny, patterned shirts. "I'm going to deliver these to two ladies in their seventies," Francisco says. "Their friend Zoraida sends them a lot of medicines and vitamins every month. Medication for circulation, Ben Gay, Motrin -- there's nothing here for arthritis."
Francisco owns a 23-year-old Peugeot, a remnant of the revolution's heyday, when he was part of the young socialist vanguard who drove expensive cars and lived in luxurious homes seized from the old ruling class. Now he gets by on a small pension and says he no longer drives the Peugeot because gas and maintenance are too expensive. So he'll travel to the ladies' apartment by bus -- "two stops from here, and a ten-minute walk." It will probably be left to Octavio to transport the bath bench to Cecilia in Marianao.
It's late afternoon, and the breeze blowing in from the Havana harbor begins to dissipate some of the day's damp heat. The third-floor phone in the old mansion keeps ringing. On his way to answer it, Octavio greets the elderly woman who lives on the same floor. "Abajo Fidel," he remarks in the same tone he'd say buenas tardes. "Muerte al tirano." He taunts the woman, whom he claims is a revolutionary, mainly for his own amusement. His political beliefs are not so simply expressed; he, like his friends, looks on the Castro regime more with sarcasm and a sense of fatalism than with hostility. The woman gives him an exasperated look but has long since stopped arguing. "I'm really not a big fidelista," she protests later. In fact, she, like Francisco, is part of the generacion perdida, the lost generation of once dedicated social and economic reformers who built Castro's early Cuba but have nothing to do now. "I'm just like any other old woman here in this country, trying to live in peace."
More people show up to claim their money or packages. Jose, for example, always receives money from his mother in Hialeah, and clothes, food, and toys for his year-old daughter, who suffers from digestive problems. His parents, both of whom spent time in prison "for not saluting the flag," emigrated five years ago; Jose says he wanted to leave with them but stayed behind because his other daughter was very young at the time. Now he's begun the process of securing permission to take his family with him to Miami. He's proud of his mother, who has a good job with AT&T.
"We can't live on the money I make [as a sewer worker]," continues Jose, a thin man with wiry black hair and a mustache. "Out of 200 pesos a month, electricity costs 70 pesos, water costs 70. The little girl eats malanga, which is five pesos per pound. Apart from this, a can of milk is five pesos. The government gives you baby food and milk until age five, but it doesn't last a whole month, and you have to buy other food [on the black market], which is extremely expensive." He pauses to lift his cap and wipe perspiration from his forehead. "Forget about meat. If they catch anyone selling beef, they get a year in jail for each pound."
This afternoon Jose is particularly interested in taking home a mosquito net for his baby's crib that his mother had promised to send. It's not in this shipment, but Octavio tells him that one of the two gusanos had been lost at the airport and should be picked up the following day. "Call me tomorrow," Octavio says. It won't be easy for Jose to make another trip to the house; he lives about 25 kilometers outside Havana and doesn't own a car. But he doesn't complain and cheerfully tells Octavio he can come back in two days.
About an hour later, after a dinner of bread, black-market cheese, and guanabanas bought earlier from a farmers market down the street, Octavio is ready for his evening chores: delivering the bath bench to Cecilia in Marianao and buying black-market Cohiba cigars using dollars Antonio has sent. The prized Cohibas will will go back to Miami, where they will fetch $250 to $350 per box of 25, money Antonio badly needs to make up for his recent lack of income. Their Havana connection, according to Antonio, steals the smokes directly from the factory. Octavio's close friend Martin, an engineer, drives up in his fifteen-year-old mottled white Lada, and they're off.
Cecilia lives in another spacious, formerly elegant mansion that now houses six families. When Octavio and Martin knock on the front door, two large women answer and tell them Cecilia is resting but that they'll make sure she gets the bench and that one of the men will assemble it for her. There's no reason not to trust the two gorditas; neighbors look out for each other. Some of them, however, also spy on one another; each block has a designated Committee for the Defense of the Revolution member who reports any counterrevolutionary activities, or even activities in general, such as the arrival of a guest from the States.
Martin and Octavio head for another neighborhood closer to central Havana. They stop in the middle of a residential block as the sky is darkening. Absolutely no one is on the street, a rare phenomenon explained by Tierra Brava, a television soap opera produced in Cuba that airs every other night on one of the two TV stations. It's fabulously popular, as is a Brazilian soap that airs on alternate evenings. From the open windows and doors of houses all along the street come the cries and whispers of the deceived lover, the evil temptress, and her guilt-obsessed father. "Everything she said to me was a lie, and I believed her!" rages a tormented voice. "I deserved this! How could I have been so blind?"
The Cohiba marketeer appears on the sidewalk, a young man in clam diggers and a loose vest. He and Martin talk, gesturing energetically, for twenty minutes before Martin walks back to the Lada empty-handed. "He said the price had gone up because there's a shortage," Martin says. Antonio had sent only $30 for each box, and they can't supply the difference. "He told me to come back tomorrow and he'd try to work something out."
They head back toward Octavio's house, gears shifting harshly down quiet tree-lined boulevards, and turn onto Rancho Boyeros, one of the city's main thoroughfares. Then, right in front of the Plaza de la Revolucion, with the Ministry of the Interior directly across the street -- two real and symbolic sites of power in Cuba -- the Lada suddenly stalls. Martin turns the key repeatedly, but nothing happens.
He gets out to open the hood. Peering down at them is Che Guevara's giant lighted face, painted on the side of another building. Two vigilant National Police soldiers have become alarmed, seeing the car stopped in such a strategic place (perhaps worried about a bomb, in view of recent explosions in prominent Havana hotels). They rush up and order the two men to move. Martin, after tinkering under the hood, still can't start the car, so one soldier simply helps Octavio push it down the street for about a block. Martin goes back to working under the hood. The Lada's engine starts, and the men continue on their trip. "It was the fuel," explains Martin. "There wasn't enough gas for the fuel pump to pump."
"Even a Soviet machine can't run without food in Cuba," jokes Octavio. "But feed it a grain of corn and it's grateful." The car makes it to Martin's house and Octavio leaps out to begin the ten-block walk home down sidewalks lined with stinking garbage, an annoyance in many parts of Havana. People have begun to stroll outside, now that the soap opera is over. News of this year's sugar harvest, on both channels, is not riveting.
As Octavio opens his front door and begins to climb the marble stairs, a neighbor calls out to him. Antonio is on the phone from Miami, and the cousins discuss Amarylis's missing $100, the gusano that didn't arrive, the Cohiba price hike. These are minor crises that will be resolved on his next visit, Antonio promises. His voice grows weary. Like Caridad, Antonio is growing tired of the business. "I just don't want to push it any more," he says. "It used to be worth the risk, but now I don't think so. A lot of people have taken my place now.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.