In reality, many of the new jobs – everything from food vendor to wedding photographer, manicurist to construction worker – have existed for years in the informal economy and many of those seeking work licenses were already offering the same services under the table.
And while the black market in developed countries might be dominated by drugs, bootleg DVDs and prostitution, in Cuba it literally can cover anything. One man drives his car into Havana each day with links of handmade sausage stuffed under the passenger seat. A woman sells skin-tight spandex miniskirts and gaudy, patterned blouses from behind a flowery curtain in her ramshackle apartment.
Economists, and Cubans themselves, say nearly everyone on the island is in on it.
“Everyone with a job robs something,” said Marki, a chain-smoking 44-year-old transportation specialist. “The guy who works in the sugar industry steals sugar so he can resell it. The women who work with textiles steal thread so they can make their own clothes.”
Marki makes his living as a “mule,” ferrying clothes from Europe to Havana for sale at three underground stores and has spent time in jail for his activities. Like several of the people interviewed for this article, he agreed to speak on condition he not be further identified for fear he could get into trouble.
Merchandise flows into the informal market from overseas but also from the river of goods that disappear in pockets, backpacks, even trucks from state-owned warehouses, factories, supermarkets and offices.
There are no official government statistics on how much is stolen each year, though petty thievery is routinely denounced in the official press. On June 21, Communist party newspaper Granma reported that efforts to stop theft at state-run enterprises in the capital had “taken a step back” in recent months. It blamed managers for lax oversight after an initial surge of compliance with Castro's exhortations to stop the pilfering.
“Criminal and corrupt acts have gone up because of a lack of internal control,” the paper said.
An extensive study by Canadian economist Archibald Ritter in 2005 examined the myriad ways Cubans augment salaries of just $20 a month through illegal trade – everything from a woman selling stolen spaghetti door-to-door, to a bartender at a tourist hot spot replacing high-quality rum with his own moonshine, to a bicycle repairman selling spare parts out the back door. He and several others who study the Cuban economy said it was impossible to estimate the dollar value of the black market.
“You could probably say that 95 percent or more of the population participates in the underground economy in one way or another. It's tremendously widespread,” Ritter, a professor at Carlton University in Ottawa, told AP.
“Stealing from the state, for Cubans, is like taking firewood from the forest or picking blueberries in the wild. It's considered public property that wouldn't otherwise be used productively, so one helps oneself,” he said.’
“Turning to the black market and informal sector for nearly everything is so common that it has become the norm, with little or no thought of legality or morality,” said Ted Henken, a professor at New York's Baruch College, who has spent years studying Cuba's economy. “When legal options are limited or nonexistent, then everyone breaks the law and, when everyone breaks the law, the law loses its legitimacy and essentially ceases to exist.”
There is evidence, however, that Castro is persuading at least some black market operators to play by the rules and pay taxes.
In the last seven months, more than 220,000 Cubans have received licenses to work for themselves, joining about 100,000 who have legally worked independently since the 1990s. Of those, some 68 percent were officially “unemployed” when they took out their license, 16 percent had a state job and another 16 percent were listed as “retired,” according to statistics on the government Web site Cubadebate.