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Clandestine video shops cater to Cubans on tight budgets
CubaNews / November 2002

By Larry Luxner

Interested in catching a kung-fu action flick, a sappy Leonardo DiCaprio romance or the latest Austin Powers comedy?

If you happen to be a tourist or a Cuban with access to dollars, you might drop by one of 40 or so state-run Videocentro rental stores around Havana. There, you’d find a selection of state-sanctioned movies at $1 per 24-hour rental — plus a $10 annual membership fee.

But for the vast majority of Cubans who have only pesos in their pockets, clandestine video shops that charge the equivalent of only 20 cents a movie are the only way to go.

No one knows how many such outlets exist, but it’s believed that in Havana alone, these so-called “video banks” number in the hundreds, maybe even more than 1,000.

The people who run these operations are called “banqueros,” and CubaNews recently caught up with one of them — Graciela (not her real name), a middle-aged woman living in the Havana suburb of Marianao who likes to refer to her business as Blockbuster Video.

Plainly visible in a narrow hallway of Graciela’s three-room apartment are shelves and shelves of pirated videotapes, ranging from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to “The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Their titles, translated into Spanish, are neatly printed with a magic marker and carefully alphabetized as in any legal video store.

“The police don’t care as long as nobody talks,” said Graciela, who estimates she has 800 videos at home. That may sound like a lot, but it pales in comparison to others in the same line of work, some of whom have up to 3,000 or 4,000 videos to rent out.

Like other banqueros, Graciela charges five pesos per 24-hour rental — a fifth of what Videocentro gets. Her business is helped considerably by the fact that Cuba has only two TV stations, both state-controlled, with few other entertainment options available.

“Our movies are generally more recent than what they have at Videocentro,” she tells CubaNews, noting that her customers are especially fond of movies starring Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson.

“The public prefers subtitles in Spanish,” she says. “Cuban people don’t like dubbed movies because the dubbing isn't authentic.”

Graciela’s films are more current because she doesn’t have to wait until the films come out on video. Instead, she buys them for 10 pesos each from Cuban pirates with satellite antennas who record them in flagrant violation of all international laws on intellectual property.. She then makes three or four copies of each movie herself, using blank videotapes purchased in dollar stores.

“We also have a lot of friends who are in the merchant marine,” she says. “When they travel to Europe, they bring back the latest movies, and we copy them.”

Some customers come to her apartment, while others prefer to have the movies delivered to them by a teenager hired by Graciela. The boy collects the money and keeps two pesos for himself, bringing the remaining three pesos back to his boss.

Graciela keeps all her records in a well-worn looseleaf book, with each client represented by a number in her ledger. And like Blockbuster, there are rules: clients must rewind the movie when finished, and if a customer keeps a video one extra day, he has to pay another five pesos.

“Our family has been doing this for more than five years,” says Graciela, estimating that her business generates between 500 and 1,000 pesos (about $20 to $40) a week. That’s just enough to support herself, her aging mother and her teenage son.

“We convert the dollars into pesos at 25 to one, and use the dollars to buy shampoo, meat, chicken, soap, detergent and cheese.”

The money from her video rental business also enables Graciela to enjoy one small luxury: an illegal, $50-a-month Internet connection so she can communicate by e-mail with her family in Miami for one hour every night.

But Graciela used to earn 1,200 or 1,500 pesos, and sometimes as much as 3,000 pesos in an especially good week.

“After Sept. 11, our earnings dropped off because the majority of our clients are people who work in tourism — hotel employees, taxi drivers and owners of paladares (private restaurants),” she said. “These people earn dollars, so they have purchasing power for luxuries like movies, even they pay in pesos.”

A young woman visiting Graciela quickly objects.

“No,” she says. “In Cuba, watching videos is not a luxury. It’s a necessity, because we’re fed up with listening to Fidel.”

Interestingly, Graciela recently opened a neighborhood paladar with some friends in hopes of boosting her profits. “We believe in socialism,” she says proudly — not seeing any contradiction between socialist ideals and a little private enterprise on the side.

Although the kind of business she runs is illegal, Graciela isn’t worried because 20 to 30 policemen are among her regular clients.

“I’m not scared, but I am careful,” she says. “I guess what we’re doing is illegal only because we’re not paying for the rights to the movies. Legalizing [operations like ours] would oblige the government to pay the distributors of the movies in order to avoid being accused of piracy.”

And does Graciela feel guilty for violating Hollywood’s intellectual property rights?

“Para nada,” she responds with an indifferent wave of her hand. “For us, this isn’t just a business. It’s a way to stay alive.”

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