The breeze was barely moving and the humidity was unbearable. Outside Terminal 2 of the Cancun International Airport, Juan Ernesto waited for his brother’s arrival on an Aeromexico flight from Havana. It was Jonathan’s first trip abroad.
The goal: to buy merchandise he could sell later on the island. “What’s selling most in Cuba right now are toiletries,” said Juan Ernesto.
Products like disposable diapers, soap, toothpaste, shampoo and hair conditioner are among the top items, said Juan Ernesto, who asked that his full name not be revealed for fear that Cuban customs officials would confiscate the goods when they arrived in Havana.
Traveling as a “mule” to supply the growing black market on the island is not legal. Cuba’s customs has been cracking down on those who bring in products to sell. Nevertheless, Cubans are increasingly traveling to places like Mexico, Panama, Russia and Guyana.
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Statistics provided by Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism showed that the number of Cubans who entered the country during the first six months of this year increased by 60.5 percent over the same period in 2017. The Cuban arrivals at Mexican airports totaled 69,105, compared to 43,055 in the previous period.
The year 2016 saw a peak of more than 100,000 Cubans arriving in Mexico. But with the end of the U.S. “dry foot, wet foot” policy in early 2017, the flow dropped to 83,000, presumably because a significant portion continued traveling north to reach the United States.
“Getting a Mexican visa is difficult,” said Juan Ernesto. The requirements set by the Mexican consulate in Havana include evidence of a bank account that shows financial soundness, ownership of property and online processing of the visa application.
“Most of the time the web page does not work. Our visas cost about $3,000. Corruption is rampant in Mexico as well as in Cuba,” he added.
Outside the terminal, taxi drivers offer their services. “Shuttle bus for 100 pesos,” one shouted at a group of Cubans exiting the airport. A network of businesses and transportation has grown up around the wave of arrivals from the island.
Cheap hotels, shops where buyers can pay in either a Cuban currency, Mexican pesos or U.S. dollars, freight forwarding companies and even jobs are now available in the municipality of Benito Juárez, which includes the city of Cancun.
“There are many shops here that are owned by Cubans and employ a lot of people from the island. There, you can find everything that’s sold in Cuba: clothes, electrical appliances, medicine, toiletries,” Juan Ernesto explained to his brother after he arrived.
“Right now there’s no deodorant in Cuba. We buy the Gillette deodorant for $3.50 here and sell them there for double. The scented balls for clothes cost 255 Mexican pesos ($14) here and can be sold for up to triple the amount in Cuba,” he added.
Jonathan, 25, was in Cancun for the weekend. He’s finishing his engineering studies but wants to follow in the footsteps of his brother, whose constant buying and selling trips and another business on the island gives him an income far above the Cuban average.
“The Cuban government does not realize the opportunities it is missing. It is persecuting people in the private sector and insisting on a model that does not work. Each one of the Cubans who comes to Cancun brings at least $1,000 to spend here. That’s money lost to Cuban businesses,” he said.
He noted that while an engineer’s salary in Cuba barely breaks the $30 per month level, a businessman who buys and sells can afford to buy plane tickets and travel abroad.
But not all Cubans in the private sector do so well. Some even choose to stay abroad in countries like Mexico, where salaries are far above the Cuban levels.
Annia is a 26-year-old woman who lives in nearby Cozumel. After several trips to Cancun to buy products she could sell in her hometown of Matanzas, she decided to stay even though she’s undocumented.
“In Cuba I was a hairdresser, but I couldn’t make a go of it. Everything I earned, I spent on expensive products and bribes for the inspectors,” she said.
During a trip to Cancun three months ago she decided to stay with relatives already living there. She’s been working as a waitress, as a salesperson in shops that cater to Cubans and as a street vendor.
“I am in the process of applying for my Mexican residence. It’s cost me several thousands of dollars, but it’s worth it,” she said. The owners of the restaurant where she works love her because its specialty is Cuban food. It also sells cigars and rum.
“I have not sensed any discrimination. On the contrary, people here know that we Cubans are hard workers,” she added.
Annia earns about $8 a day as a waitress but is content because she has more opportunities than in Cuba. “At first you always have to sacrifice. I work nights and early morning to avoid the immigration authorities, and I live with a girlfriend to split the ($150) rent. But it’s worth it,” she said.
“When I get my papers, I will be able to work in some hotel, like other Cubans, or start my own business,” she said. “I was already able to send some money to my family, and in the future I hope to bring them to live with me.”