Ivan Garcia, 25 April 2016 — It is a Black Friday of a different sort. In the United States the morning after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas discount season, where people wait in long lines to buy electronics, computers and clothing. But in Cuba on Friday, April 22 — a date when the military government has reduced prices by 20% on a variety of grocery items — there are no lines
As usually happens at Brimart, a grocery store in the heavily populated Tenth of October district where products are sold for hard currency, employees open the doors fifteen minutes late.
Seven people are waiting outside. Four of them know about the sale on chicken and ground meat but are only planning on buying their usual items, which in the case of Mireya, a housewife, consists of a kilogram of chicken thighs, two packages of ground turkey and, if available, three containers of natural yogurt smoothies. “With the 0.70 centavos I save on the chicken and ground turkey,” she says, “I plan on buying my granddaughter a piece of candy.”
Arnaldo, a carpenter, found out about the sale before going into the store. “I’m going to buy chicken, ground beef, cooking oil, detergent and soap,” he says. “With what I have left over, I’m going to buy two Planchaos (small cardboard containers with two quarter bottles of rum). The only way to disconnect from this country is by getting plastered and watching the paquete.”*
Among the products listed as being on sale, Brimart only has chicken thighs, whole chickens, ground beef and one-liter bottles of cooking oil. Shortages are noticeable. However, the shelves are full of rum, whisky, wine, beer, canned tomato puree and plastic bottles of vegetable oil.
“I was expecting a big crowd, but it is as slow as ever,” says Olga Lidia, a state worker. “A lot of people are happy about the sale. It has a positive impact on the household budget. But the reality is that the discounts are on items sold in a currency to which a lot of people don’t have access.”
Rachel, a store employee, confirms they are waiting on shipments of a wide assortment of canned goods, cookies and cold cuts but, she notes, “according to the manager, they have not arrived yet due to the transportation problem.”
On the lower level of the Carlos III shopping mall, there are people eating hamburgers and drinking draft beer in the food court, while in the meat and cheese department a man with a furrowed brow is looking at prices.
“What sons-of-bitches,” referring to government officials, he says. “They lower the prices by a few centavos on ground meat and chicken — the food of the poor people — but beef, good fish and imported cheeses still cost an arm and a leg.”
Noel, an economist, believes this is new measure is a populist move. It is more a political ploy than anything else,” he notes. “They know how disgusted people on the street are. The price reductions they have put in place won’t even put a dent in the 240% to 400% markups on goods sold in convertible pesos. These twenty-percent reductions are a way to curb discontent.”
Although Susana, a professor approves of the reductions, she claims they will be of no benefit to her. “We teachers earn between 500 to 600 pesos (twenty to twenty-five dollars) a month. That is barely enough to eat on. The government should be thinking about raising salaries and lowering prices of household appliances,” she says as she eyes a washing machine costing 757 CUC, the equivalent of three-years salary for an elementary school teacher.
Gilberto — the manager of a market inside a store in the Flores neighborhood in Miramar, a suburb west of the capital — cannot guarantee that people will always be able to find the lower-priced items on sale.
“Because supply outstrips demand,” he explains,” and generally owners of food and hospitality businesses buy in large quantities. All this suggests the government reduced prices after taking into account its stores’ inventories.”
Selma, the proprietor of a cafe, does not think prices will be lowered at food service establishments.
“If the price of these foods stays low and the prices of other items are gradually reduced, then that might lower the costs for family businesses, but we’ll have to wait and see. In Cuba prices are lowered on things that are in short supply, like potatoes. They used to sell them by the pound and now you can only get them once a year,” says Selma.
In several of Havana’s hard currency stores, things have been in short supply for the last ten months. Chicken breasts, yogurt and domestically produced cheese are scarce almost everywhere.
Dariel, the head of business that occupies one floor of a building in the old part of the city, sees the glass half full. “They say that there will be ships coming into port loaded with food and other things to sell in stores,” he says.
It seems Cuba is always waiting for its ship to come in.
*Translator’s note: the “package,” a weekly compendium of foreign TV serials, soap operas, sports shows and films sold illicitly throughout Cuba.