Cuba has been a communist state for more than 50 years, but that doesn't mean there isn't lots of underground capitalism going on. For almost as long as the United States has had a trade embargo on the island nation, there's been a significant amount of black-market activity. You can place all sorts of ideological government limits on trade, but you can't squash humans' desire to make some money and buy things. In fact, underground trade between Americans and Cubans is thriving thanks, in part, to Barack Obama lifting some travel restrictions for Cuban-born Americans.
While there are few official statistics gauging the amount of black-market trade between the two countries, a Reuters report claims that in 2008, "Cuban exiles in the United States sent to the island some $636 million in 2008 and probably slightly less in 2009 due to the economic downturn." About 60 percent of that trade goes through unofficial channels such as human mules.
Exiles, many of them living in Miami, pack coveted goods before making visits to family on the island. From Reuters:
It all starts with a description given over a mobile phone: "Look for a woman with long blond hair, blue jeans, silver heels, and a black T-shirt arriving on the next flight from Miami."
When the woman emerges from Havana's international airport pushing a cart loaded with bulky black duffel bags, she is greeted effusively by a man she has never seen before.
"They hug as if they had known each other all their lives. Once in the parking lot, the woman hands over the bags and says goodbye," says Yanet, a Miami resident.
She is describing the tactics of growing numbers of human "mules" who regularly travel between the United States and Cuba carrying in their bags loads of clothes, food, consumer goods, electrical appliances and millions of U.S. dollars to the communist-ruled Caribbean island. They deliver the goods for a fee or free ticket, often to complete strangers.
"The system works beautifully," said Yanet, making her second trip as a "mule" to Havana in less than a month.
Sending money and goods through mules is often preferable than the legally available channels. Mules cost less, and money usually arrives faster. Goods sent through mules are usually priced lower than similar products sold in state-run stores. Reuters claims a $700 TV set bought in Miami could go for $2,000 in Cuba when smuggled in through a mule. That same TV set might cost $2,500 through a state-run store.
Besides necessities such as toiletries and food, luxuries including electronic goods and designer knock-off sunglasses and purses are also hot-ticket items for mules.
The underground trade has seen a recent boom thanks to President Obama's lifting of travel restrictions for Cuban exiles and the amount of money they can take with them.
[Reuters: "Mules" stretch limits of U.S. trade embargo on Cuba]