14ymedio, Justo Mora, Cienfuegos, 13 February 2018 — Regla Nicolás works in a polyclinic in Cienfuegos but every day she has to slip out to chase food in the city’s undersupplied “Hard Currency Collection Stores” (as the state has chosen to formally name its chain of stores where items are not rationed).
“With the money you have in your pocket, you can’t find what you’re looking for,” she says with annoyance while standing in front of Mercado Habana, one of the largest hard-currency food stores in the city’s historic center.
Some shelves are empty. There are others in which the same product is repeated to exhaustion to hide the lack of alternative foods.
“Since the hurricane [Irma, in September], there is nothing, not in the stores in CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, i.e. hard currency) nor in the state markets in CUP (Cuban pesos),” complains Regla Nicolás. Basic foods like eggs have been missing for weeks. Fruits and vegetables are the privilege of those with greater purchasing power.
“The food for a small family for a week costs five times more than an ordinary Cuban’s monthly salary. I always look for the cheapest,” she adds.
At any time of the day, the city center is full of people who go out in the street to look for food, detergent, deodorants and other basic necessities. Arasay Pérez, a worker at the Railway Company, is one of them: “I went out to look for something for lunch about one in the afternoon. After going through most of the stores on the boulevard I returned to work, marked my time card and went home to ‘invent’ in the kitchen,” she explains.
Slipping away from work to try to locate products for sale is an every day reality for Pérez. At her workplace the women agree to take turns, one each day, and to buy food for the others.
The State response has been to put out calls to combat “labor indiscipline.” Among the government’s other measures are the creation of Agrosur, a store to sell agricultural products with capped prices, and a special stand specialized for the direct sale of pork.
“Last week Agrosur only sold coconut water and dried coconut,” says Hilda Estrada, a neighbor of the store located at the intersection of Argüelles and Gacel streets. Estrada believes that local managers smuggle the vegetables and root crops to dealers.
The specialized stand, which sold pork meat with ‘defects and accidents’ from the Porcino de Cienfuegos at capped prices, closed its doors in December after the scandal unleashed by the selling of places in line. “The old people arrived at dawn and took the first 30 places. After that they were out of meat,” explains El Negro, a regular customer of the center, who is now forced to survive “on the minced meat sold on the ration book.”
Dreams were awakened in the provincial capital by the inauguration, near the General Hospital, of the Imago store – which customers call the ‘shopping’, using the English word, and which also has a hard currency bar-restaurant. Jorge García López, commercial manager of the Cienfuegos Cimex branch (the country’s largest import-export company, run by the military), told the official press that with the remodeling of this store it would be possible to supply the area near the Medical Sciences University and the hospital “because before there was nothing.”
“The main objective is to create a complex that meets all the needs of the people,” said García López.
However, 14ymedio visited the brand new facilities and found, despite the promises, shortages were still obvious and the prices of the products that were available were unaffordable.
The blackboard in the meat section offered five products. One kilogram of filet of claria cost 4.60 CUC, while a kilogram of raw whole lobster was quoted at 28.60 CUC, which represents almost the entire average monthly salary (29.60 CUC) in Cuba.
“Everything is very expensive. It is a market for the rich,” says one of the customers who nonetheless is happy because, at least on the first day, “they have bags to carry your purchases.”
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