10 March 2021
The “cyclone” struck on an unassuming morning at the marketplace in Havana where I worked. I was midway through my year and a half of ethnographic research, studying Cuba’s new market reforms. I sat on a wooden stool in the hallway next to Luz, watching customers and time pass by. Luz was a 31-year-old market assistant who sold tights and baby dresses for her boss, an older woman who owned the merchandise but was rarely present. I usually helped her out in the mornings, furnishing her stall with clothes. Throughout the day, we would sit and chat with other market vendors while trying to tempt customers to stop and have a look at the goods. Like most vendors, Luz also kept a separate stock in the back of her stall with imported jeans, branded shoes and other items that the Cuban government – still wary of private enterprise – had defined as illegal to sell. According to the regulations, only state-owned enterprises could trade factory-produced consumer goods. Private sector workers like Luz had to sell homemade merchandise.
The problem was this – few customers cared for such items. Especially younger Cubans who visited the market desired branded goods, Nike shoes in flashy colors, or T-shirts with the letters M-I-A-M-I printed on the front, which informal importers brought to the markets from places like Panama City or Moscow.
Because markets in Havana brimmed with “contraband”, they regularly attracted inspections from officials. Inspectors always found an array of imported items, even though the inspections would often end in an unceremonious bribe in the office of the market administrator, with stall owners chipping in to inspire the officials to look the other way.
But this particular day – the day that would go down among traders as the day of the “cyclone” inspection – was different. Suddenly, the market doors slammed shut, and two police officers took guard. Vendors hurried to take down their illicit merchandise. Branded shoes slipped into cardboard boxes. Designer heels disappeared into bags and locked in cases. The latest Nike models vanished from displays. But there was no point in hiding the goods. Inspectors started rummaging through stalls and sales tables like enforcement agents looking for drugs, snapping photos and ordering bags and cabinets to be opened.
Instead of cocaine, they seized the latest fashions from across Latin America, shoes, jeans, fake Versace belts, Colgate toothpastes and Gillette shaving gels. From our viewpoint half way down the hall, Luz and I saw how Marisa, a newly employed trader and former member of the Communist Youth League, fainted when inspectors arrived at her table to discover the more than two hundred “contraband” pairs of shoes she had bought on the black market over the previous months. They carried her out, unconscious. Other police officers started to escort customers out of the hall, randomly checking their bags for imported clothes or shoes. That was when Luz poked my shoulder. She held out a stuffed shopping bag with imported jeans. Could I take it and split? Her nervous eyes flashed down the aisle where the inspectors were approaching. “If they ask you at the door, say you don’t speak Spanish.”
I am not the first ethnographer to face such a question. In 2017, legal expert Tracey Elliott and sociologist Jennifer Fleetwood remarked in a paper on the subject that, “ethnographers have long trod the thin line between observing and participating in criminal activity.” Patricia Adler (1993) admitted to taking illegal drugs during her study of smugglers and dealers in California. Seth Holmes (2013) was jailed after he trekked illegally with Mexican migrants through the desert into Arizona, as part of his research. Alice Goffman (2014) provoked uproar by disclosing that she had driven a car with armed men who were out to revenge the murder of a friend while she was doing research in Philadelphia.
While practitioners commonly agree that ethnographers have no legal responsibility to report criminal activities, committees on research ethics clearly state that researchers must, indeed, follow the law. Yet there I was, being invited to break it. Would it be wrong to take Luz’ bag of jeans and walk towards the exit?
During my fieldwork in Havana, I had learnt that it was difficult to become part of the country’s private sector without at least coming close to breaking official regulations. Across private and state-run enterprises, Cubans broke rules en masse. Taxi-drivers filled their tanks with cheaper black market fuel, pizza dealers baked with stolen flour, and airline passengers carried tons of merchandise into the country – while customs officers turned a blind eye for the right price. If I wanted to study and understand the Cuban economy, I had to get up close to such practices.
I had set out to understand what it meant for people to become part of a state’s attempt to “order” and expand the market, by creating new rules to govern economic life. How did private sector traders experience their new status as a legal workforce? What did it mean to be an entrepreneur in Cuba?
It would be meaningless to think that I could find answers by simply asking people about their lives. I can still recall how, as a fresh-faced fieldworker, I had wandered into the markets with a pen and pad, hoping that traders would tell me about their struggles. Rumors soon began circulating that I was some kind of spy who wanted to infiltrate and expose, and was working either for “them”, the authorities, or for someone “outside.” I was not the only non-native to come to these marketplaces for professional purposes. In fact, several of those who imported consumer products to the markets were foreigners, and a few were even white Europeans, like me. But to have an outsider turn up simply to learn, work and then write the story, seemed weird to many, and suspicious to some. My presence was scrutinized with caution. Yet, with time I noticed something encouraging – that as I started to help out at the market, the rumors receded, and relationships grew more trusting.
On the one hand, participating in market activities was a way to gain implicit knowledge about what it was like to work in Cuba’s private sector. As I traded clothes, drove taxis and sold fruit on the street, I learned about the skills and efforts needed to get by in a country that is plagued by material scarcities, authoritarian rule and corruption. To work was also a way to gain people’s trust. As traders saw me showing up months on end, they grew used to my presence, even bored of it. Time – the secret weapon of any ethnographer – worked in my favor.
By the time Luz asked me to smuggle her bag of imported jeans out of the marketplace, I had been working there for nearly nine months. The person who reached out to me for help that day was not an anonymous interlocutor. She was my friend. On Sundays I often ate soup in the ten square meters flat where Luz lived with her boyfriend, a bicycle taxi driver, and their two kids. I knew her brother, sister and mother, and had even met her alcoholic father, all of whom Luz helped out economically with her job at the marketplace.
Walking out with her bag full of jeans would make myself directly complicit in breaking legal regulations, right under the eyes of the police. According to my formal research guidelines, I was on thin ice. Yet in retrospect, I think I instantly knew what I had to do, not only in the name of maintaining the trust of my study participants, but more acutely out of concern for the wellbeing of my interlocutor. Like other vendors who stood on the lowest rung of Cuba’s private sector, Luz was already scrambling to get by. If she were caught selling contraband, she faced a potential fine of several hundred dollars, and could lose not only the bag of jeans, but also her job at the market and her license as a vendor.
I grabbed the bag and headed for the exit, soon noticing how the policeman at the door eyed me from a distance. With my pulse racing, questions started flashing in my mind. What would I answer if the officer asked where I got the goods? Should I try speaking in English, as Luz had suggested? If he discovered that I spoke Spanish, what would I say? Was I now jeopardizing my research visa? Was I being a complete idiot?
Halfway to the door, the wife of the market administrator caught up with me. Perhaps she sensed danger and intervened to provide cover, or perhaps she was on her way and joined me by coincidence. When we got to the door, the police officer took his eyes off me, and turned to the market administrator’s wife asking, “Does he speak Spanish?” He pointed at me. I could see from the corner of my eye that she slightly shook her head. With my gaze towards the floor, and uttering no words, I slid through.
Outside, two police trucks had parked by the sidewalk. The “cyclone” was a major operation, with simultaneous inspections and arrests across all seven retail markets in the street. Inspectors loaded confiscated goods onto one of the lorries. Arrested market vendors filled up the other vehicle, their faces brimming with desperation. Luz, it turned out, would not be one of them.
Looking back at the event, it seems clear that a blanket prohibition of breaking the law during fieldwork makes little sense. Respecting the laws of one’s host country is a crucial rule of thumb, but ethnographic research can lead researchers into difficult ethical terrain, where the principle of not exposing our interlocutors to harm comes into conflict with the ideal of upholding the law – in short, where an illegal act can be morally justifiable.
Additionally, committing minor crimes may be the only way for a researcher to gain enough credibility and trust to enter into an environment where people live on the legal margins. As Elliot and Fleetwood (2017: 3) have observed, simply to offer verbal or practical encouragement, to keep “watch” or make video recordings of criminal conduct can make a researcher criminally liable. These are all activities that overlap with what researchers do as they hang around, unassumingly doing their job.
Finally, it is crucial to consider the desirability of the law itself. Today, few would scold researchers of apartheid South Africa for breaking the laws of racial segregation. The Cuban prohibition on selling industrially produced consumer goods is not as obviously unacceptable as apartheid regulations; yet to many Cubans these regulations make little sense, and therefore deserve little respect.
After I hid Luz’ goods in a safe location, I returned to the marketplace, where traders vented their frustration towards being treated like “drug dealers” by their government. Meanwhile, the story of my escape had spread, becoming one of the humorous anecdotes that vendors told over cups of sweet coffee in their stalls, hours after the “cyclone” had passed. As for Luz, she remained a key local witness, interlocutor and friend throughout the rest of my research period – and remains so to this day.
Adler, P.A. (1993). Wheeling and Dealing: An Ethnography of an Upper-Level Drug Dealing and Smuggling Community. Columbia University Press.
Elliott, T., & Fleetwood, J. (2017). “Law for ethnographers.” Methodological Innovations, 10(1), doi: 2059799117720607.
Goffman, A. (2021). On the Run: Fugitive Life in An American City. University of Chicago Press.
Holmes, S. (2013). Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. University of California Press.
Ståle Wig is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo. He conducted ethnographic research among retail traders, housing intermediaries, taxi drivers and fruit sellers in Havana over a period of eighteen months between 2015 and 2018. Wig is currently writing a monograph based on his research.
Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org / or on twitter @StaaleWig
Featured image: “View over the neighbourhood Centro Havana” by author.