HAVANA, Cuba.- In order to eat a little better than the average man and woman in Cuba, Orlando says he doesn’t need the so-called “hard-currency-only” stores, the only retail establishments in the island that are somewhat better stocked, and where the only people who can shop there are those who receive hard-currency deposits in their personal bank accounts either because they earn their money in hard currency, legally or illegally, or because they receive remittances from relatives and friends abroad.
Orlando, who has no access to these advantages, but who makes good money as a cellphone and computer repairman, goes to what he calls “the other stores”, a strategy he describes as more efficient, in order to eat and drink like a normal person should, amidst an economy that is rife with anomalies where the survival of the fittest is actually the survival of those with FE, which, in addition to meaning “faith” in Spanish, also means “Family in Exile”, FE, in Cuba.
“I don’t stand on lines nor do I buy US dollars on the street. I no longer worry if there is chicken or cooking oil available in the state stores. I set up my contacts and now they bring me everything to the house: chicken, soap, cigarettes,” Orlando assures us. He has had the good fortune of landing a few hotel employees or intermediaries, who bring in extra money to their personal economy by selling merchandise that they surreptitiously take from the hotels where they work, at the risk of being caught and charged with theft.
All kinds of meats and beverages, seafood, fruits, vegetables, the best quality condiments, soaps, detergents, bed sheets and towels, everything comes from the well-stocked hotels, where, in addition, everything is silently trafficked on a daily basis in the informal market, at prices that are much lower –even available in Cuban pesos- than prices for the same items sold at the hard-currency-only state stores.
Marlene, who resides in the vicinity of one of Havana’s more emblematic hotels, also follows Orlando’s strategy of buying only what she can obtain by way of the city’s contraband through the hotels network.
Contrary to Orlando, she does receive regular remittances from abroad, which gives her financial solvency. She assures us that she also doesn’t waste time in store waiting lines, because even with present shortage circumstances being what they are, she gets “good merchandise” that she couldn’t find before, not even at the convertible pesos –CUC- stores.
“For me, it’s great to buy smuggled items because in the stores, they take your dollars at the rate of one US dollar for 24 Cuban pesos; also, you don’t buy what you want, but only what is available after an awful waiting line, whereas this way, you can select from various items because there is always a steady variety of goods (…) I sell dollars by transfer at a rate of 1 (dollar) to 50 (Cuban pesos), and I pay with national currency; everything is delivered to my doorstep,” states Marlene as if there was nothing illegal about what she’s doing, as if theft and smuggling were part of the natural state of affairs in Cuba. And, undoubtedly, they are.
Enrique is a young waiter, one of the many workers who have been affected by the general paralysis of the tourism industry. Due to a relative’s influence, and not by chance, he managed to not be fired nor reassigned to agricultural duty when more than half of the staff at the hotel where he worked was laid-off. Instead, he was relocated to do maintenance work at another location in the city. The new job did not compensate him for the tips he earned in the previous job, but at least it gave him indirect access to a well-stocked pantry.
“If my salary were sufficient for me to buy monthly what I have to buy, of course I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing,” says Enrique. “The fact is I never did, but there are no tourists, no tips, and we are all in the same boat. From the grocery-keeper to the security guards, everyone is involved, because everyone has to eat (…) and besides, it’s shameful that the pantry is full of everything, but when you step out into the streets, there isn’t even drinking water.”
“You have to be there to witness just how much food is wasted,” Maribel, a young cook, reveals. “Sometimes, they will sell us food products that are already expired, or whose expiration dates are coming up soon; but they also throw out a lot of it, boxes and more boxes of food that has gone bad because there are no tourists (…) or food that isn’t used to prepare the take-out menu, which is something else (…) because these are expensive products and they use them for that purpose, even though it drives up the price of the take-out, or you can’t charge for it in Cuban pesos because it wouldn’t be profitable. And so it goes, it’s a crime that they’d rather throw food out than donate it to community kitchens or nursing homes,” stated Maribel with regret, while justifying what transpires on the black market.
Maribel continues: “During normal times, things have always been removed surreptitiously from the hotels, but never like today, when there is nothing and even the most insignificant item can be sold easily. If you take out ten boxes of shrimp, you’ll sell the ten boxes in a second. Before, you’d think twice about removing such an amount because it was difficult to sell them, but now you have a waiting list of buyers that’s a bedsheet long, you don’t even need to advertise it on Facebook. Anything you have to offer, people will buy (…) Are we talking theft here? Of course, we are, but in Cuba, if you don’t steal, it’s difficult to survive. With more and even with less possibilities, everyone who has access to something that he/she can steal, will steal. And I dare anyone to tell me differently.”
In contrast with the promised paradise sold to foreign tourists through promotions that lead one to think that hunger in Cuba is a myth created by detractors of the Communist regime, there is the evidence of total shortages on the Cuban pesos stores network. Add to that the difficulties most Cubans face in their attempt to access the few hard-currency-only stores. As a consequence, the informal market has become the main source of goods and supplies for people who battle, on a daily basis, the noisy and long waiting lines, the violence, the despair, the perpetual shortages, inflation, and the uselessness of state salaries.
Our greatest challenge in Cuba today is the task of feeding oneself and one’s family, in the context of an economic crisis that, without ignoring the true effects of the U.S. embargo, does not stem exclusively from the embargo, nor does it stem from the present health crisis. First and foremost, the crisis stems from the errors and blunders that have accumulated through time, and which have been repeatedly committed over and over again by those who hold power in Cuba.
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