The theft of thousands of surgical masks in Cuba reveals how the island’s active black market has adapted quickly to the coronavirus pandemic.
In early April, more than 4,500 surgical masks in 455 boxes were pilfered from state warehouses, Cuban state-owned publication Cubadebate reported. A search of a home in Villa Clara recovered almost 3,000 of the masks, along with scalpels, gowns, a computer and other medical equipment. Eight people were arrested in connection with the theft, including warehouse employees and drivers for the public health ministry.
As of April 20, Cuba had 1,087 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases and 36 deaths.
InSight Crime Analysis
Thriving black markets, such as Cuba’s, are adapting quickly to the need for critical medical supplies amid the coronavirus health crisis.
The theft, which occurred a month after Cuban authorities confirmed the first cases of coronavirus on the island in early March, did not surprise experts contacted by InSight Crime who point out that Cuba’s black markets are driven by high demand for chronically unavailable goods.
For example, diesel theft in Cuba surged in 2019 as sanctions on Venezuela sharply cut into the island nation’s oil supplies.
But where contraband in Latin America often moves across borders, Cuba’s black markets are internal, according to one of the official sources who spoke with InSight Crime but asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. Goods brought in from overseas can fetch high prices, often from people who have access to remittances.
And food, consumer goods, and medical equipment are also being pilfered within Cuba and resold at prices much higher than the market. Though punishment for being caught is severe, speculators still operate on every level of the economy.
The theft of medical equipment appears to be relatively rare. A review of news media failed to turn up any recent instances, despite the fact that the island was struggling with medical shortages prior to the coronavirus.
But the involvement of government employees in the theft of the medical supplies shows how weaknesses in supply chains are easily exploited. Other Latin American countries have seen similar pilfering from state medical supplies.
For example, the Honduras watchdog Association for a More Just Society (Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa – ASJ) revealed in 2013 that millions of dollars worth of medicine was siphoned from Honduras’ state-controlled warehouses and then likely sold on the black market, threatening the lives of countless of Hondurans.