The Cuban government’s recent decision to close off the island in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, has left hundreds of people without jobs in Miami, home to one of the largest communities of the Cuban diaspora.
“The relationship between Cuba and Miami is extremely close, so the blow to the Miami economy due to the closure of the Cuban borders will be felt,” said economist Emilio Morales, president of a Miami-based consulting firm focused on Cuba’s economy. “Shipping agencies, which have dozens of offices, are working at a bare minimum. Also impacted are stores heavily focused only on products to send to Cuba such as Valsan and Ñooo Que Barato.”
“I estimate that shipments to Cuba in remittances will be affected by about 30 percent, while parcels will drop even more, by 40 percent,” Morales added.
Remittances are Cuba’s second largest source of foreign exchange, a phenomenon shared by several Central American and Caribbean countries. According to The Havana Consulting Group, Cuba received some $6.6 billion in 2018 in the form of cash and merchandise remittances. Ninety percent of remittances were sent from the United States.
Cuba announced last week that it would close off the influx of visiting tourists and Cuban nationals living abroad. Earlier this week, government leader Miguel Díaz-Canel announced that measures to close off its borders would also include a ban on travel abroad by Cuban nationals, cutting off a significant flow of merchandise and cash from South Florida and other areas that serve as supply zones of goods headed to the island.
For Yuslaidys Ordóñez, who lives in Miami but travels to Cuba every week ferrying supplies, the measure has resulted in the loss of his job. “I am dedicated to taking packages to Havana. I charge $7 a pound and sell all the space in my luggage,” said the 35-year-old who is among a large contingency of black-market entrepreneurs commonly referred to as mulas or mules. Cuban nationals are allowed to bring in a maximum of pounds of luggage into the island without having to pay import taxes.
Ordóñez, who arrived in Miami in 2016 during a migration influx that brought tens of thousands of Cubans to the United States across the U.S.-Mexico border, said she maintains close ties to the island.
“Trips to Cuba have fed me in the last three years,” she said. “Sometimes I sell the luggage space to people who want to send things to their loved ones and other times I sell it to the parcel agencies.“
Like Ordóñez, hundreds of others who are in the business of transporting merchandise to feed Cuba’s black market are out of work as a result of the travel ban.
“I don’t know how I’m going to make ends meet, or how I’m going to pay the rent,” she said.
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VaCuba, one of the largest travel agencies with about a dozen offices in South Florida, has closed operations, company employees told el Nuevo Herald.
Cubamax, another company that specializes in travel to the island, has reduced services and is now dedicating itself only to processing passports and sending remittances.
“We are still open, but we are afraid that in the next few days we will be laid off,” said an employee at the office in Homestead who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal. “We know that the coronavirus crisis is complicated, but being without a salary and without government help is more so.”
Food shipments to Cuba are also paralyzed
Some of the fastest growing Cuba-focused startups in South Florida also have been forced to shut down.
These startups, which serve as an online intermediary that buys food in hard currency from suppliers on the island for sales to individuals in Cuba, also have been impacted by restrictions affecting most businesses.
“We have decided to join the measures taken by Miami-Dade County to close and postpone all economic activity and non-essential service,” Mayabeque Express told its clients. Other companies like VaCuba also suspended online orders.
“It is a strong blow for us because we are out of work and we do not know when business will return,” said Aydelaixis Pino, a 41-year-old who handles delivery service in Cienfuegos, on Cuba’s southern coast, for several companies based in South Florida.
Cuballama Envíos, meanwhile, is still filling orders: “Since we only deliver products in Havana, we have been able to sustain the work,” Sandra Martínez, public relations manager for the company. “We are in extremely high demand right now, with more than 1,000 daily orders.”
“We will be open until supplies run out or quarantine is declared,” she said.
Alternatives for sending packages
The Islatur Travel company said it is looking for alternatives to send shipments to Cuba.
“We are offering to ship 50 pounds for $89.99 by sea. If you want to send your family members clothes or food for this difficult moment of coronavirus, you can do it with us,” said an agency employee. “The cargo will arrive in a month.”
IslaTur also plans to send shipments by sea for pickup in Havana.
“For customers who are unable to pick up shipments on time due to in-country travel bans, the delivery process will be flexible,” the company said.
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