Buying New Shoes, Another Mission Impossible in Cuba

A display at the Sport shoe store in Havana’s Carlos III shopping mall (14ymedio).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 6 October 2021 — Sandra stands at the display window of the Sport shoe store in Havana’s Carlos III shopping mall, where a long line has formed outside. On display are the two cheapest pairs of children’s tennis shoes, for $22.50 and $22.68 respectively.

They are not brand names, and outside of Cuba they would be considered inexpensive, but they are not easy to get for most Cubans because they are priced in foreign currency. But at least they are in style, easy to wash and could potentially be worn in physical education classes.

The school term just started and Sandra’s two children need footwear. She herself has not had a decent pair of shoes for a long time either but there are only thirty dollars on her hard currency debit card, which she had to buy at the exchange rate of 75 pesos to the dollar. In other words, 2,250 pesos, almost a full month’s salary. She thought about buying some handmade shoes at a craft fair but the ones sold there are expensive and the styles are more traditional.

Though she was hoping to pay for the shoes out of her meager budget, they are beyond her means. She will have to give up her place line because, for now, she cannot afford them. She will have to make do with some used ones her neighbor is selling. “There’s no other option. We’ll have to settle for the ones Mercedes has,” she says with a sense of resignation. “They are a little big for my son but the ones for my daughter fit like they were made for her.”

Though students are required to wear uniforms until the end of middle school, differences in social status and purchasing power has always been expressed through the quality of footwear, backpacks and the snacks students bring to school. Converse brand shoes, a Vans backpack and a can of cola at recess are signs a student is from a family with financial resources or with relatives overseas.

Conversely, showing up on the first day of school wearing the same tennis shoes as the previous term, carrying books in a mended bag or having bread with oil as a snack are markers of a student from the lowest socio-economic classes in the eyes of inquisitives classmates. So much so that children and adolescents often pressure their parents to project a high-status image.

The differences could become even more accentuated in the coming months. Due to a shortage of raw materials used to make them, the Ministry of Education is relaxing rules on school uniforms. Students will be allowed to attend classes in conventional clothes, a situation that could encourage the “fashion catwalk” trend in educational centers.

With his job on hold due to the pandemic, Sandra’s husband is in limbo, neither employed nor unemployed. He collects 60% of his regular salary as he waits for things to get better. If it was hard for the couple to feed and dress their family on two worker’s salaries, it is impossible on one and a half.

When the Cuban government eliminated its tax on the U.S. dollar and expanded the sale of food and personal hygiene products in July 2020, it did so with the promise that it would be a temporary measure, that the number of these stores would be limited and that they would only sell “high-end” products, as President Miguel Diaz-Canel described them.

More than a year later, and most notably after currency unification rollout in early 2021, most the country’s major retail outlets have become hard currency stores. You can get everything there from cigars to flip-flops, from shampoo to a rice cooker. The other option is the black market but prices there are even more exorbitant.

“I bought what I need for my daughter’s school from a woman who brought merchandise in from overseas. It cost me 3,000 pesos for the shoes and 2,000 for the backpack,” recounts another customer waiting in line to buy a bag. “But now I can breath easy, at least for a few months.”


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