14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 2 August 2020 — While concerned coffee consumers confirm that the product has disappeared in stores that accept Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), Serrano and Cubita packages abound in the newly opened foreign exchange markets. Owning dollars now makes the difference between having a little morning eye opener or resorting to an herbal tea.
It is almost unthinkable to imagine the daily routine of most Cubans without a good coffee. Every morning the Island seems to start waking up to the sound of a brewing coffee pot, and there are those who say they cannot even go outside if they do not have a cup filled with this popular drink beforehand.
But in recent months, acquiring the product has become difficult because it is scarce in state markets and its price has risen considerably in informal networks. “I’ve had a week when the only thing I have to drink when I get up is an infusion of oregano or sugar water,” Nora, a housewife from Cerro Havana tells 14ymedio.
“I was stretching the little bit of powder that they gave me and made the coffee watered down now I don’t have even that. Now when I get the smell of a neighbor who is brewing some coffee, I get like a caged lioness,” laments the woman. “Yesterday I went to the foreign exchange market on Boulevard de San Rafael and there is Cubita coffee but I have no dollars or family abroad to send them to me.”
A source from the Ministry of Internal Trade consulted by this newspaper says that the problems of distribution are caused by several reasons. “The packaging has not reached us in time because the entire supply of raw material from abroad has been greatly affected by the pandemic,” says an employee who preferred anonymity.
Although coffee is one of the products that is still distributed through the network of warehouses with rationed and subsidized food, the package contains only about 7 ounces, each consumer can only buy one a month, it costs 4 national pesos (roughly 20¢ US), and it is 50% other grains, most commonly peas.
“We are also having difficulties with the supply of beans because part of our mixes are made with national products to which is added coffee beans or other types of beans that are imported, but now we have no money to buy them,” added the Ministry worker.
The country imports about 8,000 tons of coffee annually from Vietnam and the rest brings it from other countries in the area in order to satisfy a demand that is estimated at about 24,000 tons a year. Of this, the island has commonly produced barely a third.
The last coffee harvests have barely exceeded 6,000 tons, in a nation that during the 1960s managed to reach up to 62,000 tons of the bean. Despite attempts and official calls to raise these numbers, over the years the sector has experienced stagnation in some aspects and frank deterioration in others.
Before the Covid-19 crisis it was not difficult to find imported coffee on the black market. With a wide assortment, informal networks offered packages of the brands La Llave, Bustelo and Pilón, with a little more than 280 grams (roughly 10 ounces) and that cost around 8 CUC, the salary for a whole week of a Cuban professional.
With the closure of the borders and the travel ban for residents in the country, the supply of the product brought from abroad is practically exhausted and the few examples that are for sale exceed 12 CUC. Previously, coffee was “diverted” from the official warehouses and available in the “informal” market, but even that supply is no longer available.
Near 26th Street, a few yards from the Havana Zoo, a neighborhood of wooden and metal houses has survived for decades from the sale of coffee stolen from the nearby roasting facility. In small houses they separate, pack the merchandise and distribute it to informal vendors who have a wide network of contacts with coffee shops, paladares (private restaurants), and private customers.
“We are dry,” a vendor tells several families in a block of nearby buildings; for years he has brought them “quality coffee cheaper than in the shopping but with better flavor than that in the rationed market.” The small merchant says that “the roasting machine is not grinding because there is no coffee and there is still no date for the situation to recover.”
A few yards from the roasting machine, one of the markets where food is sold in foreign currency opened its doors last month. Dozens of packages of Cubita and Serrano coffee are seen on its shelves, priced at more than $4. Outside the store, an informal vendor proposes to ’rent’ his magnetic card to customers who want to enter but have no currency. “Buy everything you want and for every dollar spent you pay me 1.25 CUC.”
A package of coffee bought through that intermediary reaches 6 convertible pesos. “A fortune but I am going to pay because in my house there may be a lack of food and even soap, but without coffee we cannot function,” lamented a customer who, finally this Saturday, decided to accept the reseller’s offer.
Meanwhile, in the peso markets, as soon as the rumor is heard that they are going to sell coffee in a few minutes, a long line of people eager to get the product is created. Most of the time the supply that reaches these shops is limited and many of those who wait leave empty-handed.
The on-line TuEnvío platform is one of the few legal paths that remain to be able to get hold of the product, but it can only be bought in combo packages, accompanied by other merchandise with less demand, and the total price can exceed 24 CUC, an impossible sum for many families who live entirely on their salaries.
“To buy a package of coffee, I also had to buy two tomato sauces and a bottle of oil that I didn’t need, but well, at least tomorrow when I get up I will be able to put on the coffee maker,” says Viviana, a customer of this on-line commerce site which, since its opening, has suffered much criticism.
“I have to divide the package I bought between my mother, a neighbor who gave me a little last week and an aunt.” For Viviana, “Life makes sense again because without coffee I was like a zombie.”
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