Cuban entrepreneurs are finding it more cost effective to travel abroad for products than to import goods into their homeland.
For example, shortly after dawn a crowd begins assembling in a small park across the street from the Panamanian Embassy in Havana. By the time a police officer arrives to start organising lines — before the doors even open — more than 200 people have gathered.
Their goal is to get a $20 tourism card, so they can go to Panama to shop. Some already have airline tickets and plans to travel as early as the next day, so getting a coveted tourist card to the Central American country is critical.
In late October, Panama announced that Cuban entrepreneurs and artisans would be eligible for the new tourist card that allows a Cuban to stay in Panama for up to 30 days, facilitating “shopping tourism” and avoiding a cumbersome visa process that could take up to several months.
The commercial connection works for Panama, because it represents additional income, and it works for Cuba because it takes some of the pressure off the government to establish a viable wholesale network to supply its self-employed workers (cuentapropistas).
It suggests that the government of Cuba would prefer to enrich other countries rather than set up an adequate wholesale network.
The Cuban government’s apprehensions about the private sector are also reflected in new, more restrictive regulations that go into effect for Cuba’s self-employed sector last Friday.
For most Cubans, a trip to Panama is an expensive proposition once airfare, lodging, food, taxis and a 7 percent Panamanian Value Added Tax are tallied with the price of their purchases.