On the streets of Havana, sidewalk vendors offer Lacoste sunglasses, Adidas sneakers and many other foreign-designer wares – many acquired from Miami visitors who carry the goods in their luggage claiming they are gifts for relatives.
Tightened travel, money and parcel restrictions enacted by President Bush in 2004 have spawned a shadowy cottage industry of mulas — mules, the nickname for illegal couriers who, for a fee, carry money and goods beyond legal limits.
Some of the items eventually wind up with street vendors in the Cuban capital and other island cities.
But the mule industry may be on its way out.
The Obama administration’s loosening restrictions on travel and on sending money and packages to Cuba is expected to put a damper on the mule industry. As of last week, exiles are allowed to travel to Cuba whenever they want, send unlimited amounts of money to relatives and send a broader range of merchandise, such as digital cameras and personal computers.
But for now, the mule industry is thriving. Though travelers to Cuba often claim their luggage is stuffed with clothes, medicines and food for relatives, some of the items sometimes end up as street wares in Cuba, where an illegal black market in imported consumer goods is tolerated.
A THRIVING BUSINESS
Pedro, 28, who drives a motorcycle taxi in downtown Havana, said almost anything anybody would want is available on the black market.
Wearing cargo shorts, Adidas tennis shoes and a pair of Lacoste sunglasses, Pedro declined to provide his last name, but agreed to discuss how he acquired his designer wear.
Talking about his sunglasses, Pedro said that a friend who returned from Miami carried 40 pairs and sold him a pair for $12 — about $50 less than the average price in the United States.
“I finally got him to tell me how much he paid for them,” said Pedro. “Two dollars each. Now that’s a business.”
Another man, who wore dark sunglasses and carried a white walking cane tucked beneath his arm, sat on a downtown Havana sidewalk in front of a box full of rhinestone-covered belt buckles and dozens of designer glasses.
Oldemar Fortuna, 32, said he has been selling illegal foreign merchandise for about 14 years — which periodically has landed him in jail. But he said the risks are worth it because one pair of sunglasses sells for about $12 — more than the minimum wage for an entire month.
Fortuna is not blind, but said he finds that his disguise helps win sympathy from the police when they come seeking to put him in jail, confiscate his goods or order him to leave.
Fortuna and other Cuban street vendors who sell smuggled items obtain their merchandise from mules such as the two men recently interviewed at Miami International Airport as they waited to board a Havana flight. The two said they travel to Cuba once a month carrying money and personal items to relatives of other exiles.
They agreed to be interviewed in exchange for not printing their names.
“I carry mail and items of merchandise,” one of the men said, adding that Cuban customs officers merely weigh heavy packages and clear them quickly after travelers pay taxes and fees.
The men said mules charge South Florida customers either commissions or percentages, depending on the amount of money or merchandise carried.
Couriers often carry money on behalf of illegal money-remittance outlets in South Florida that are willing to send more than the recently lifted limit of $300.
Recent separate studies suggest that annual exile remittances to Cuba range from $389 million to $1 billion — and that was before the remittance limits were lifted.
But some experts say remittances may be dwindling because of the economic downturn.
“The deep economic recession in the United States, and worldwide, and the concurrent rising unemployment rate, may have significantly impacted the community’s financial ability to remit,” said José Azel, senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
Azel recently conducted a study on Cuba remittances for Western Union that found that Cuban refugees who arrived in the United States after 1990 send more money to the island than those who arrived before 1990.
Post-1990 refugees send about $307.6 million a year to island relatives, the bulk of the $389.9 million-a-year remittance figure cited in the study.