Ivan Garcia, 7 June 2018 — Despite the cloudy sky, the rains and the fact that the sun has been hidden for two weeks, the flow of people into the private farm market at 19th and B in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood does not diminish.
The market, painted green and yellow, with neat stalls and corny drawings of fruit, vegetables and pork legs on the walls, is probably one of the few places in Havana where you can buy oranges and grapefruit, citrus fruits that, at least in the capital, appear to be heading to extinction.
Or delicacies like strawberries, soursops, canistels, mangoes, pineapples, fruits and vegetables out of season and strings of gigantic onions. Also, shavings of guayos and shelled or ground peanuts.
The bananas do not have black spots and the guavas are not bruised or semi-rotten. The pork loin is fresh, as are the rams’ legs and the rabbit. Luisa, a chubby brunette with feet swollen by diabetes, who lives in a tenement on Calle 17, calls the market “the museum.”
“Mi’jo, you come here to look, not to buy. This market is for millionaires. Five years ago, in Havana, a pound of unroasted peanuts cost 7 to 8 pesos. Now it costs 17 or 20 pesos and is almost never available. Here at 19th and B they always have them, at 18 pesos. I sell roasted peanuts on the street and it is not a business to buy peanuts at that price to sell them by the paper cone for a peso. That’s why you see very few people selling peanuts now. It occurred to me to make plastic bags and sell them for 5 Cuban pesos or 25 cents in chavitos (0.25 cuc). Foreigners who rent in this area pay me 0.50 cents and that’s how I get by.”
But it is not only peanuts that have doubled its price in the last five years.
“It’s all foods,” says Alberto, a retired engineer. And he offers details: “Except for sweet potatoes and yucca, to which we should build a monument, the prices of the rest of the agricultural and meat products have skyrocketed, and even at those very expensive prices you can’t find them. In 2013, a pound of pork loin was 35 pesos and now it costs 50. If you want to eat tomatoes out of season you must pay 20 pesos a pound. Two pounds of clean shrimp costs 10 CUC. And the pound of fish like hogfish, needlefish or emperorfish isn’t less than 2.50 CUC. I have my two children in the United States and each one sends me $200 per month. And all the money goes into food, maintaining the house and paying for electricity, because I have two air conditioners and the bill is around one thousand (Cuban) pesos a month.”
The official press, benevolent to the point of indolence, in its news and newspapers usually smothers Cubans with crop statistics and pork production records.
According to the regime’s media, in 2017 more than 190 thousand tons of pork were produced and by 2018, 250 thousand tons are forecast.
Eugenia, who cleans the floor in a polyclinic and earns a monthly salary equivalent to $19, packs pork liver for her children’s lunch because it is cheaper than meat, and asks: “Where is the trick? The list doesn’t line up with the cost. On television they say that the production of almost everything increases, but the truth is that prices do not stop rising. If the prices of food continue to rise, we will have to snack on the money, because in this country they sell to everybody very dearly: private individuals, state food markets and foreign currency stores. ”
Putting four plates of food on the table in Cuba is a titanic task.
Deborah, a dietitian, explains that “the quality of food leaves much to be desired. We eat too much flour and foods that provide very little nutrients. People have to eat what they have, not what they want. Dieting is very difficult, due to the high prices and because in the markets they do not sell specific foods for those who need or want to diet. That statistic that 40% of the population is overweight or obese is deceptive. Even families with fat wallets do not eat well. There are leaders who are fat because they eat a lot, not because they eat healthily. ”
Carlos, a sociologist, points out that “80% of the household budget is spent on food. Those who earn little buy the cheapest and most harmful, such as carbohydrates and fats. Those who earn more, eat more, but not always with quality. Above fruits and vegetables, meat is prioritized, especially pork, the most abundant. Fish is barely eaten. The fundamental proteins eaten by Cubans come from pork, eggs and chicken.”
Relative to the prices of ten years ago, all food has gone up between 15 and 40 percent.
“This means, says Sergio, an economist, that if we add the price increases in other products, and look at the purchasing capacity of 100 dollars in the year 2000, in 2018 it is equivalent to 55 or 60 dollars. Families that receive remittances need more money to buy the same amount of food they bought 18 years ago. That is one of the reasons, among others, why the sending of dollars from the United States increases. And to this we add that they are sending their relatives money not only to feed themselves, but also to pay for their cell phone and internet, and sending them medicines that are scarce in the Island.”
Olga, a high school math teacher, hopes that newly appointed president Miguel Diaz-Canel “does something to solve the food issue. I have seen that he is talking to people in neighborhoods and workplaces. It is good that he has gotten out of the office and is watching and listening, but so far he has not said what he is going to do to make it so Cubans live better.”
And in Cuba, people usually spend several hours scouring markets and stores in search of food. Sometimes they have the money but there isn’t any of what they are looking for. Or there is, but they do not have money or they do not have enough.
Cubans want prosperity to be something more than a slogan of the regime.