For the forty-minute charter flight between Miami International Airport and José Martí International in Havana, the official recommendation is that all passengers arrive four hours ahead of their departure time. On your first trip, you will, naively, not understand why this is necessary. Upon arriving at MIA, however, you will take in the passengers snaking through the check-in line with luggage carts piled high enough to require people to stand on their tiptoes to see in front of them. You will watch the bicycles and car parts and computers and stereos and flat screen TVs make their way forward, and you will start to worry that four hours may actually not be enough.
Young, polo-shirted men will greet you at the entrance to MIA’s North Terminal, American Airlines’s hub for flights to Latin America and the Caribbean. They will give you a nearly dry black marker and piece of white paper on which to write your surname. They will place the paper on your bag and charge a fee and a tip, or just a bigger tip for a reduced fee and a wink, to spin your luggage on a platform attached to a shrink-wrap dispenser. This will be done with such deftness and speed the young men will appear to whirl along with your luggage.
When they stop to pile your bags onto your cart, you will notice that your shrink-wrapped duffels look exactly the same as everyone else’s.
The carousel at José Martí International, then, will look like a giant rabbit dropping uniform blue and white pellets, along with loose tires in multiples of four and Costco-sized packs of toilet paper. Which pellet is yours will be anyone’s guess. The shrink wrap will be too thick and the marker too faded to distinguish one from any other. The old women will be pinching their foreheads, exclaiming about their nervios . The men will push through with carts full of luggage, shrugging innocently when they ram into the backs of legs. You will wish you’d been smart enough to bring your own Sharpie to Miami International to write your name directly onto the shrink wrap in big letters, as more seasoned travelers have.
If you were to unwrap the cellophane, you’d find that the bags themselves are identical too—all of them cheap black duffels with gold zippers, called gusanos , or worms, the same derogatory term Cubans give to exiles. Only these things really do look like giant worms. They are three and a half feet long and stuffed to the point of breaking. They will have been purchased in the same Miami stores everyone else has visited in preparation for their trip, where they are priced according to how much weight they can carry ($8 for fifty pounds; $9 for seventy pounds; $10 for a hundred pounds).
If you were to open the bags you would find them packed to their worm gills with tins of Café Bustelo and containers of Sazón Completa and soap and cheap made-in-China clothes and shoes. The clothes would be bright and adorned with abandon; the shoes flimsy sandals and badly knocked off Nikes and Pumas. There would be coffee makers and rice cookers and any household appliances small enough to pack.
Most gusanos will be too heavy for one person to carry. If you didn’t know any better, you might get the wrong idea watching two men walk out of the terminal with a long black duffel bag between them, the veins in their arms pronounced as they each grip a strap.
Outside the airport, a live mural of happy, teary people will await. Passengers will hug and kiss family members with near-violent effusion. Most will be genuinely elated to see relatives they have not laid eyes on in maybe years or even decades. But some are mules—Cuban-Americans hired to carry in their bags goods and cash to be delivered in Cuba. They, and the families who have hired them, will be putting on telenovela -style performances, gushing over strangers they may not ever see again.
When no one’s looking, the mules will leave their bags with their “relatives” and walk away.
A Cuban joke: Back in the early 1900s, after Spain had lost the war and no one knew if or when the US was going to invade, a farmer came from the countryside to the capital to sell coffee. All day he walked up and down the Malecón, screaming, ¡Café! ¡Cinco kilos! Then he heard the traditional cannon that goes off from the fortress in Old Havana at nine o’clock every night. Being from the country, he didn’t know about el cañonazo and assumed it meant the Americans had invaded. So he simply changed his sales pitch and began yelling, Coffee! Five cents!
Until very recently, mules were the only feasible (albeit illegal) option for sending goods to Cuba. Direct mail service, which the two countries restored this month, had been suspended since 1963. In the volatile Miami of the 1970s and 80s—one captivated by anti-Castro terrorist groups like Alpha 66 and Omega 7—companies that sent packages to Cuba were threatened and often bombed. When, in July 2013, marine transportation outfit International Port Corp finally launched the first freight service from Miami to Havana since the embargo, it was quickly bombarded by thousands of orders that their single, ailing ship and Cuba’s tortoise-paced analog system could not keep up with. Within the year International Port Corp was sued for not paying its bills and the service ground to a halt.
Getting cash to Cuban relatives was not any easier. Western Union, the only American firm of its kind with a contract to work on the island, takes a cut ranging from 7–20 percent, not including the hefty fees and conversion rates for both of Cuba’s currencies. And it used to take some time—about thirty to forty-five days—to get to your family members, especially if they weren’t in Havana.
Sending a mule is an altogether more informal deal. They might charge $9 a pound to bring goods, but no fee to bring along cash, or they might just have you buy them a plane ticket to bring whatever you wanted. And, maybe mostly importantly, the Cuban government despised by so many Cuban-Americans won’t see any of that money.
Making a business of traveling to Cuba violates both the US embargo against Cuba and Cuban laws limiting private enterprise. If mules are caught, they can be prohibited from returning to Cuba. But the practice is so common it’s hard for US authorities to stop, and the money and free flights are worth the risk to Cuban-Americans who may not otherwise be able to travel to see their relatives. At the height of the recession, Cuba received an estimated $1.2 billion annually from families abroad, about 40 percent of which was sent through mules, according to Washington-based think tank The Inter-American Dialogue .
The political pendulum that defines US-Cuba relations has swung since the early 1960s, when the Johnson Administration effectively banned travel as part of the embargo. The travel ban was then lifted by Carter, only to be restricted by Reagan, then loosened, tightened and loosened again by Clinton in response to the Cuban Rafters Crisis in 1994. Bush tightened restrictions significantly, only to have them completely undone by Obama.
In September 2009 the Obama Administration gave Cuban-Americans the right to visit relatives in Cuba as often and for as long as they wanted for the first time in nearly a decade. Obama also eliminated the previous forty-four-pound limitation on accompanied baggage, allowing travelers to carry as much as they could afford to pay airport fees on. In response, the mule industry basically exploded. A 2013 survey conducted by the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group found that Cuban-Americans have since brought nearly $2 billion a year worth of goods in their checked baggage, with the average flyer bringing $3,551.
Here’s how my family does it every month: My dad gathers items and cash from various relatives in Florida and Puerto Rico; he drops it all off at the Miami house of a woman whose relation to us can be traced along a winding branch of our family tree (my dad’s first cousin’s deceased brother-in-law’s daughter); the woman then brings it to one of two mules she uses, whichever one is traveling soonest to the town where my dad’s family lives; the mule delivers it to the family’s doorstep or to an agreed-upon point nearby. The mules remain anonymous to those of us doing the sending. (They refused to speak with me for this article.)
In an effort to stem the tide of goods and force relatives abroad to send cash instead, the Cuban government recently capped the allowable value of a passenger’s imported items at $1,000. But the black market in Cuba has already grown to the point of viral over the last six years, even producing an illegal Craigslist-type website for Habaneros, www.revolico.com . (Revolico being Cuban slang for “a mess.”) The demand for goods continues, which means the supply will, too.
A Cuban joke: A Cuban man stands on a Hialeah street corner trying to sell a dog for $10,000. His friends think he’s crazy but he assures them he’ll sell it. A day later he runs into one of the friends, who asks if he managed to sell the dog. The man answers in the affirmative. The friend is incredulous. For ten thousand dollars? The man says yes; the friend pushes further. Really? Paid in cash? The man says, Well, no, but they gave me two beautiful cats, worth five thousand each!
If you know someone who’s emigrated from a Latin American country to Miami, or the child of such immigrants, chances are they’ve lived in Hialeah. Starting in the 1960s, exiles were drawn by the thousands to jobs at the manufacturing plants and clothing factories in the area.
A famous Cuban-American lyric goes:
Si tú pasas por mi casa (If you pass by my house)
Y tú ves a mi mujer (And you see my wife)
Tú le dice que estoy en Hialeah (Tell her that I’m in Hialeah)
Trabajando en factoria (Working in a factory)
Por culpa de Fidel! (Because of Fidel!)
It might be Castro’s fault that so many Cubans ended up working in the factories of Hialeah, but then the city’s success can also be attributed to him. Years of consistent immigration and the embargo have transformed Hialeah into Little Havana’s pragmatic, no-frills sister, a border town within the larger border town of Miami. Now it is the fifth largest city in Florida and nearly 95 percent Hispanic; it serves as ground zero for much of the merchandise purchased by Cuban-Americans to bring back to their relatives or be sold on the black market. The city’s micro-economies breathe in sync with the shortages that have dragged on in Cuba for the last fifty-seven years.
Serafin Blanco, a short, bald man with a silver goatee, came to the US from Cuba as a teen in 1967. He found work in Hialeah’s garment plants, and in 1980 started selling deeply discounted clothing directly from factories; the majority of his clients were the rafters coming from Cuba who needed cheap goods for their new lives in Miami and for the relatives they left behind. His stores were so successful he opened several, the most popular of which is a 40,000 square-foot cheap goods bazaar called ¡Ñooo Que Barato!, which loosely translates to Daaamn That’s Cheap! (Their tag line can be translated as: The name says it all.) Blanco later expanded the brand with a number of specialized vendors, including ¡Ñooo Que Cache! (Daaamn That’s Fancy!) and ¡Ñooo Que Baby Cache! (Daaamn That’s Fancy Baby!) for higher-end items.
My dad, who has lived in the area on and off since before I was born, revels in giving outsiders tours of Hialeah in a grinning, “Look at us Cubans, aren’t we kooky” sort of way. ¡Ñooo Que Barato! is always on the tour. I’m very much my father’s daughter—collector of stories, forager of sale racks—and ¡Ñooo Que Barato! is one of my favorite places in Miami. A reviewer on Yelp likened it to “your abuela’s old closet if it were an industrial warehouse.” Guarding the store is a life-sized statue of San Lazaro rising up out of a plastic container full of dollar donations. Inside, army-green industrial fans hang from the rafters, pirouetting the price tags. Imitation Levi’s at $17.99; guayaberas , the light, button-down shirt preferred by Cuban men of a certain age, at $7.99; refurbished laptops for $150.
Some of the most popular items at ¡Ñooo Que Barato! are the white collared shirts and burgundy pants and jumpers Cuban children are required to wear to school. The government provides each child with just one or two uniforms a year and they don’t sell them anywhere, so you couldn’t buy more even if you had the money. If you were a parent who didn’t have someone in Miami to send you extra uniforms, you’d potentially have to wash and iron the same outfit five nights a week, about 180 nights a year. Blanco’s discount stores sell a few thousand uniforms annually at $5 each. The labels on them read hecho en la yuma (made in the Yuma), “Yuma” being Cuban slang for the United States.
Given that, since 2009, Cuban-Americans have been traveling back home as often as they like, carrying thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in their suitcases each trip, it makes sense that Blanco’s stores have seen their share of competitors. Just eight miles north of ¡Ñooo Que Barato!, sandwiched between Opa Locka Executive Airport and the Palmetto Expressway, is a 1.5-block area officially named Palmetto Lakes Industrial Park but affectionately called “Los Chinos” by locals. The district serves the same costumer base as Blanco’s stores, but nothing there is made in La Yuma. The goods are mostly imported from China and even cheaper than those at ¡Ñooo Que Barato!
Five years ago, the first time I came, the area was not all that different from the surrounding blocks of manufacturing plants and warehouses. There were just two wholesale stores specializing in the supermarket sweep for clothes, shoes, and electronics that one does before visiting family in Cuba. On a trip at the end of last year, I counted twenty-two.
There’s a party vibe to Los Chinos. Turning onto NW 163rd Street, the first thing you see are food trucks selling Cuban sandwiches, along with café and natural juices from the popular Miami chain restaurant El Palacio de los Jugos (The Juice Palace). The first thing you hear is a babel of music and high-pitched announcers that is actually all the stores blasting different reggaeton stations at the same time.
The stores have names like B-Buda and Zhen Hong Trading, Inc. and East Sun Wholesale. Signs are handwritten in Spanish and badly translated English. The air is heavy with heat, dust, old-lady perfume, and the home-fried plantain chips a woman with a sun-blotched face is walking around trying to sell. T-shirts with nonsensical graphics and words (one printed with a string of guitars and the caption month is ch! where yerymaryer ) line the aisles. The Cuban flag is prominently displayed, as is the Chinese flag and, occasionally, the American flag. The owners and managers are mostly Chinese; the workers who speak to the customers are Cuban. Prices are listed by the dozen to encourage bulk buying; some stores require a minimum $20 purchase. All sales: final.
Most stores ask that women put their purses in lockers upon entering. Signs throughout warn you to watch your purse too, the gist of it all being that you can’t trust anyone around here, and neither can they. This translates into the way people haggle over prices. I walked into one store just as a flustered Cuban woman was flinging a noisy, gold-braceleted wrist at the female attendant. “What you’re doing is an injustice! An abuse!” she shouted, clanking her wooden platforms down the steel warehouse ramp. The store attendant watched unperturbed as the woman got into her SUV and peeled out of the parking lot.
At another store, negotiations were handled more delicately. A Cuban customer offered a price to the Spanish-speaking attendant, who explained in English to the Chinese girl running the store (a teenager, presumably the store owners’ daughter), who then relayed back to the woman the best price on the shoes in her hand. In the end no one gets much more of a deal, though. As one exasperated attendant explained, “It’s already too cheap!”
At the end of the block, I went into a smaller store that sells women’s clothing from mainstream American brands like Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe, complete with price tags that appear to be original. Some of the tags list prices as exorbitant as $329.00, which seems preposterous for clothes from Forever 21, but even those items are sold, like everything else in the store, for $3.99. The store’s attendant, a young woman with long, chemically straightened black hair that swished limply with her hips to the reggaeton song on the radio, was eager to show me a see-through ivory top she’d picked out for the store. But when I asked where the clothes come from, indicating a Forever 21 price tag, she turned coy, shrugging and shaking her head. “I don’t know anything, I don’t know where they’re from,” she said. After that she was eager to get me out of there. She threw my tops into a plastic bag and rang me up before I’d finished deciding what to buy.
I wondered how these stores were faring under recent restrictions on Cuba-bound luggage. But the manager of Magic Wholesale, a Chinese man who goes by Hank and seemed confused as to why I would want to write at all about his store or any other, told me he carried a greater variety of merchandise than his competitors so he could cater to buyers from local dollar stores. While he admitted to having a lot of Cuban customers and hiring mostly Cuban employees, he said his clients are from all over—China, India, even the nearby Seminole reservations. He said his sales have been consistently good since he opened the store three years ago.
Blanco said sales at his stores have only gone up in the last year. “More people are traveling to Cuba now and more Cubans are arriving here, and this is where they come: Hialeah.”
Waiting for Afuera
A Cuban joke: If you want today’s bread, come tomorrow.
The most popular santera (fortuneteller) in Las Villas, Cuba, tells her clients one of several things: that they will receive a pair of shoes as a gift; that they will work in a field that requires a uniform or fall in love with a man in uniform; or that they’ll go afuera (outside), as in to La Yuma. La Yuma is braided into the culture of yearning on an island where even the complicated plots of telenovelas are about wanting out. (The words Cubans use when they talk about elsewhere and emigrating—“outside” and “take me out of here”—make it sound like they’re imprisoned.) You might pay half a month’s salary for a pair of knock-off shoes too, if you knew it was better than the ones at the state-run stores and would put you a little closer to outside, where you want to be.
The prices in Cuban stores are astoundingly high. A basic two-slice toaster that would cost $12.99 in the US is priced at 30 CUC (about 30 USD). The only time a price is lowered is if it is so high that no one can buy it. I once saw a rice cooker originally priced at 54 CUC fly off the shelves because it had to be reduced to 25 CUC. Lines wrapped around a Havana mall that was selling it, even if it was still too expensive for the average Cuban to afford. Adding insult to injury is the poor quality of the products, which can’t withstand the years Cubans need them to last. On one trip, I tried to buy a small ceramic statue as a gift but the ones the store had in stock broke in half each time the cashier tried to take it out of the box. He finally sold me the display model and instructed me to cut the box around it rather than pull it out.
So it’s logical that products from afuera are regarded as having near magic qualities. The brushes are more capable of making your hair straight, the clothes less likely to make you sweat. I once heard my cousin teasing her brother about his body odor; he responded that there was no way he could possibly smell bad because he’d bathed with the soap I’d brought from a-fue-ra (emphasis his) .
I haven’t been to Cuba in four years, only because I haven’t had the money to spend thousands on gifts to bring in my suitcase. I know my relatives would like to see me anyway, but I also understand that, as a representative of afuera, not bearing those gifts would reduce my utility and allure. The first order of business upon my arrival has always been to lay all the items across a bed and have relatives pick from the clothes and shoes in their sizes. Neighbors are invited over just to admire them. Whatever doesn’t fit might be sold at a price you would never in your most impulsive moments pay for a shirt that actually costs mere cents to make—sometimes a whole month’s salary (about $20), depending on whether or not it’s a “designer” brand.
To be Cuban is to inventar . You invent a way around having the thing you need. A shortage of coffee beans means you make café out of raw peas. A shortage of surgical gloves means you bring your own gloves to the dentist if you want to be treated. A shortage of lighters spurs an enterprise that charges fifty cents to break through the bottom of your empty lighter with a pin and refill it with butane.
The quixotic search for the thing you need, too, like its famously self-deprecating, laughing-in-the-face-of-adversity sense of humor, is part of the Cuban mind’s trick of avoiding the bigger picture. I once spent the better part of a sweaty afternoon with my cousins in Santa Clara going from the houses of one friend to another, looking for someone who might have some gas and be willing to sell it to us for cheaper than it was at the state-run Oro Negro. Driving, wasting the very thing we sought. I felt like the dogs running back and forth on the rooftops above us, barking at the sky. When no one could produce any fuel, we bought enough from the Oro Negro to get us home and back the next morning to continue our search.
A Cuban joke: What are the three biggest achievements of the revolution? Health, education, and low infant mortality rates. What are the three biggest failures? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
On my last trip to Havana, in 2011, I read a brochure put out by La Colmenita (The Little Beehive), a children’s theater group in Cuba famous enough to warrant a recent visit from Katy Perry. An article translated into English for foreigners described a play called Abracadabra as “an act of justice and life, written mainly by children who share the dream of freedom . . . It has to do, above all, with the essential elements of the Cuban nationality.”
The play centers around the Five Heroes, a group of Cuban spies arrested in Miami in 1998 and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The Cuban government touted them as celebrities and, along with activists in the US and abroad, pushed for their release. In Abracadabra , the children tell the audience what fantastical powers they’d use to rescue the Five Heroes, like sending a bird to fly them out. At the end of the play, a child says, “I have an idea! Let’s go to President Obama’s house and tell them we would like to speak to Mr. Barack, who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and tell him about everything.” Another student responds: “And what if we don’t convince him?” To which his friend answers: “He will see the injustice when he sees the love in our eyes.”
The children’s approach seems to have worked: In 2014, Obama released the three spies who were still in custody in exchange for American intelligence agent Rolando Sarraff Trujillo and American contractor Alan Gross. The deal marked the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, leading to the opening of an American embassy in Havana and the easing of restrictions on trade, banking and travel, as well as an increase in Internet access in Cuba and the release of fifty-three Cubans identified as political prisoners by the United States. Gross described the decision as “a game changer.”
What’s the game that changed, though? Despite hotels in and around Havana being above capacity, with 80 percent more Americans visiting, salaries in Cuba remain miserably low. Food shortages are pervasive—the price of a pound of tomatoes, onions or beans has gone as high as a day’s wages in recent months — and freedom of expression is still threatened with jail time. Since the détente was announced, more than 70,000 Cubans have left the island, for fear the US will end its generous immigration policy toward them. My relatives in Cuba say little has changed for them, at least not yet. But maybe if they were in the capital, they could stand on The Malecón and hear the Habaneros changing their sales pitch.
Obama arrived in Havana last Sunday; in preparation for the historic visit, streets and homes along the President’s anticipated routes through the city were repaired and repainted.
A new Cuban joke: If Obama came to visit different neighborhoods once a month, the country might start to look pretty good.
While the world watches for changes in Cuba, my eye is on Miami. It’s on airport lines, gusanos , Hialeah, on the various embargo economies Cuban-Americans have built there, as the political scaffolding under which they’ve survived for decades is slowly dismantled. Travel agencies and mules will soon have to contend with the advent of direct mail service and better Internet access in Cuba, which could diminish their necessity. And if trade restrictions continue to loosen, Blanco’s stores and those at Los Chinos may find themselves eventually competing not with each other but with markets developing inside Cuba. How does a city once so united by its ire for a single man reimagine itself when that man begins to dissipate? And if it’s an “essential element of the Cuban nationality” to define itself in relation to La Yuma, how will rapprochement alter that?
At José Martí International, passengers wait to board the plane back to Miami with a single purse or nothing at all in their laps. The terminal seems to be the quiet, neutral space between Havana and Miami. I remember, in 2011, watching crew drive down the tarmac in carts piled high with luggage unloaded from an incoming flight. My fellow passengers and I followed with our eyes as the shrink-wrapped duffels tumbled down off the back of a cart and a crew member jumped to retrieve them.
Next to me in the terminal, a boy sat with his mom and toddler brother. The boy ate from a package of cheese balls, ignoring his little brother when he put his hand out for some. Their mom insisted he share; he gave his brother a few and shoved a handful in his own mouth while she wasn’t looking. When the toddler cried for more, the boy ruffled his hair, spreading neon crumbs all over his brother’s curls. Mami, he said, can’t we just sell him to someone?