Cuba: A Year Without New Clothes or Shoes

Clothes hang from the front porch a building that had been a successful high-end restaurant before the pandemic.(14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana/Miami, 10 April 2021 — This week a “venduta” [small commercial space] opened on the front porch of a building in Havana’s Vedado district. Second-hand clothing now hangs a few yards away from the entrance of what had been a successful high-end restaurant before the pandemic. It is an attempt by desperate entrepreneurs on 23rd Street to generate some income.

Among the items are evening dresses that cannot be worn for their intended purpose due to Covid-19 restrictions. Pants that might have been used for strolling down a boulevard or dancing in a nightclub are now just everyday wear. For the past year state-owned stores have been selling little more than groceries and cleaning supplies. Customers can buy household appliances in hard currency stores but, because they are not considered emergency products, clothing and footwear are not available there.

Supplies on the black market, normally the island’s steady supplier of fashionable clothing, are very depressed because the ’mules’, who get their merchandise from overseas, have been unable to travel. “You have to dress in whatever is available,” explains a woman looking at some clothes hanging at a makeshift front-porch store on the Avenue of the Presidents. “No matter how much I look, I just end up going from place to place. And you can forget about finding anything even remotely elegant,” she says.

On the sidewalk a young man hesitates, unsure whether or not to reach for the hangers. A year ago he would have been looking for brand-new clothes but now it’s this or nothing.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Reinvention or Death: Private Businesses Try to Overcome the Crisis in Cuba

A line of people in front of a cafe in Havana’s Vedado district, which is looking for new ways to increase its clientele (14ymedio).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, March 31, 2021 — If the ball is yellow, the customer gets a discount. If it comes out green, he will also get a free sausage sample. The friendly roulette wheel is operated by an employee of a private cafe in Havana that offers takeout items. Faced with the restrictions of the pandemic, businesses must reinvent themselves or perish.

The young man who fills sandwich orders at El Torpedo, a place located on Calle J Street in Vedado, is halfway between a cashier and an entertainer. “Come on, try your luck and get a head start. The worst that can happen is that you don’t win anything but your options are many,” he enthusiastically explains to customers in line.

Although several yards away there are several other private businesses on the same street, the one with the roulette wheel has the longest line. “I know that anything they might give away is probably already included in the purchase price but I enjoy trying my luck,” says a young man waiting his turn. “And it shows they’re making an effort.” continue reading

The employee spins the wheel and a white ball pops out. “This means that you have the right to try your luck again,” he explains. On the second try, the customer gets 5% off her final bill. Laughter rings out and shortly thereafter a lady wins a free juice. The next buyer hits the jackpot: a package of chorizo pieces to “make some beans.”

Games of chance were outlawed on the island decades ago, so any element of coincidence in the buying process provokes smiles, knowing glances and a certain queasiness in customers who feel like they are “in a casino,” as the experience is described by a woman who is here on Tuesday to buy a Cuban sandwich. “It’s like the bolita [lottery] but legal,” she explains.

A few yards further down, towards the sea, a privately owned ice cream parlor advertises “a free scoop for the price of two.” The upper floor of a big house near the water advertises “a shave and scalp massage with relaxing music.” More emphatic posters with exclamation points appear on doors of several of these businesses, which are now operating at only half capacity because of the coronavirus.

“All our takeout bags are recyclable,” announces one restaurant that makes home deliveries. “We don’t generate any plastic waste so every dish that you buy from us helps save the environment,” reads an ad published on several classified ad sites.

“Back when we were waiting on tables, we knew how to get people to stay longer, order more dishes and have a good time at the restaurant. Now everything is done through a window,” says a worker at El Toke, a place located on Infanta Street in central Havana. “We have less opportunities and have to take advantage of the few seconds we spend with a customer.”

Threatened by a steep decline in tourism, a rise in the cost of raw materials and the economic crisis, Cuban entrepreneurs are getting creative. They are relying on theatrics, informational videos and an endless search for anything that will give them a leg up on the competition. Having an electric scooter helps but knowing something about social networks is even better.

“I never thought I would be able to sell plants without people coming here to see them,” says Roxana, a 41-year-old businesswoman who manages a small garden where she sells succulents. “Buying a plant to keep for your house is something very personal. People come here and spend a lot of time thinking about an orchid or deciding if they should get a ficus.”

After pandemic restrictions were imposed, Roxana and her husband had to restructure their business. “We put together a catalog which you can browse on WhatsApp. If a customer chooses a plant, we send him a short video showing the specimen from several angles. We also provide care instructions. After the sale is made, we deliver it to his living room.”

One carpenter is selling furniture that promises to make people “confortable during the pandemic.” Using a mobile app, customers can choose items “à la carte.” Choices might include a sofa, a bed and mattress, or some wooden armchairs for the patio. “We deliver to people’s homes and anyone who buys a dining table and at least six chairs gets a set of dominoes for free,” he announces.

“We help keep people entertained while they are cooped up at home,” adds the friendly carpenter. If you buy a big bed from me, we’ll give you the sheets. And if you decide on some patio furniture, it will come with some ferns planted in a beautiful pot decorated with colored tiles.” The combinations are endless, seemingly as infinite as the creativity of the self-employed and the long days of the pandemic.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Electric Tricycles Sell Like Crazy for Dollars in Cuba

The motorcycles will begin to be sold in the coming days in the network of state stores. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 23 March 2021 — Those who visited the store that sells in hard currency (MLC) on Infanta Street, in Centro Habana, on Monday, could not believe it: for sale were the first electric vehicles for private sale in more than half a century. Two models of electric cargo tricycles were on display, at prices that were also astonishing: one, at $3,895, and another, with more capacity, at $6,900.

The vehicles will begin to be sold in the coming days in the network of state stores, although for weeks they have been marketed on government digital platforms.

“I believe that these tarecos don’t cost that anywhere in the world, they are bandits,” lamented a curious man who came to see the tricycles, which must be paid for in a single transaction and with a magnetic card in foreign currency.

The prices of the motorcycles are unattainable for most workers, much less in foreign currency. Among them, the farmers, a sector that cannot raise its head in an agricultural country, need this type of transport but do not have access to dollars. continue reading

“They are very expensive and there are no payment plans, so there is no one who can buy that,” complains Gerardo Cabrera, a farmer from the Guanes area, in Pinar del Río, who assures that “such a tricycle is essential for what we do on this farm, but between the costs of electricity, fertilizers, bureaucratic payments and other costs, it is impossible.”

However, despite the prices, these types of vehicle sell like crazy. This is confirmed by the vendors in the shop on Calle Infanta. “These don’t last at all here, people have their ways of finding out [they’re going on sale] and they line up. The tricycles that we have sold don’t last 24 hours on display and the problem is that the demand is high; this type of thing hasn’t been for sale for a long time,” he explains, and specifies that the fact that they are electric does not matter to the customer: the main attraction is that “it is a light vehicle.”

“They are prices for rich people, but at least there is that option. Before you used to die with old bills in your pockets and you couldn’t buy anything that rolled, but we don’t even have horses left because they were stolen to eat them,” says the farmer  Cabrera by telephone. “I would feel like Alain Delon on one of those tricycles, but I wake up and realize that I’m not even Panfilo.”

Tricycles are also widely used by private couriers to transport products, especially fruits, vegetables and meats, but so far most of those that perform this function are pedal powered. In less than a year these electric vehicles in private hands have begun to be seen circulating on the streets of Havana.

Outside the Luna restaurant in the town of Guanabo, curious people stop to look at a blue convertible tricycle belonging to a nearby self-employed person. Boastful of his vehicle, the man tells 14ymedio that his brother bought it from abroad through one of the most popular sales portals the sends products to the island.

A tricycle similar to the one owned by the self-employed man from Guanabo, without a dumping mechanism. (porlalivre.com)

“The good thing about having these types of tricycles in Cuban stores is that you save yourself from depending on an emigrated relative to do you the favor of buying it for you and that you do not have to wait the whole bureaucratic process for it to be delivered to you once its bought, which in my case took more than six weeks,” explains the man, who is self-employed.

“Those for sale now are more multipurpose, because they have a cab and you can put a good cover over the back, so they can be used for more things, but still very few arrive,” he explains. “People line up for weeks and it’s not easy to buy them.”

The $3,895 model is assembled on the island by the company Vehicles Eléctricos del Caribe (Vedca), which began operating last year in the Mariel Special Development Zone. It is one of the most promoted brands in recent months both on social networks and on other digital platforms.

According to the administrator of Vedca’s Facebook page, who calls himself Ray Motos [motorbikes], the vehicle has a “strong and resistant chassis, giving the vehicle a load capacity of one ton.”

The $ 6,900 model is from the Ming Hong brand, based in the Chinese city of Suining. Although they have not been as publicized by the Government as the Vedca, Cuba’s official press published a few months ago that three motorcycles of this brand were on tour in the Cienfuegos municipality of Abreu, donated, incidentally, by the United Nations Development Program to the 26th of July Farmers’ Cooperative.

On the island, the Ángel Villareal Bravo Industrial Company of Villa Clara, known as Ciclos Minerva, has produced this type of tricycle since 2019. It currently has another five models for heavy cargo and passengers in the testing phase and is studying the incorporation of two quadricycles, according to a story in the local press published this Monday. The new tricycles could be commercialized before the end of 2021.

Since the end of last year, electric tricycles have been incorporated into public transport in the capital, and according to official newspaper Granma, by 2021 the Government plans to manufacture new vehicles in the country with the same objective.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Even the Stores Selling in Dollars are in Crisis in Cuba

A line this Monday outside the MLC store on Boyeros and Camagüey streets, in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 15 March 2021 — Not a year has passed since their opening and the stores that sell food and cleaning products in foreign currency are already going through a crisis. Little supply and very long lines mark the days in the most criticized shops in the country, the only ones, however, that still have more than a dozen products on their shelves.

“It is not worth coming here, among the resellers and the shortage of supplies, this looks like a bodega,” as the ration stores are called, a customer told 14ymedio, this Monday, while waiting on the outskirts of the market that sells in freely convertible currency (MLC) on San Rafael Street in Havana. “I arrived at 5:15 in the morning and the line was was doubled back. Where were so many people going out to if the curfew is until five?”

The markets in MLC have become the new modus vivendi of thousands of Cubans who have a magnetic card with foreign currency. They buy grains, meat products, dairy products and preserves that they then resell in the informal market. Eager customers pay others to wait for them in the long lines, to avoid contagion by Covid-19 and also because they don’t have access to hard currency. continue reading

“They are out of stock, but if you compare them with the stores that sell in Cuban pesos, they seem luxurious,” a customer reflects on the outskirts of the Boyeros and Camagüey markets. “Everyone who has gone out today, the only thing they have is peas and malt, but I’m here because I need to buy yogurt and flour,” he says. “A few years ago I didn’t have to stand in a line for beef, but now you have to stand in line even for bouillon cubes.”

The resellers do not use the official exchange rate for the dollar, set at 1 in 24, but instead are guided by the price of the fulas [dollars] in the informal market. “People complain that the merchandise is expensive but I’m selling this large can of concentrated tomato puree for 800 pesos because it costs me about 18 dollars, plus a whole morning. I put the dollar at 47 CUP [Cuban pesos] so I’m almost giving away the merchandise.”

Currency stores have caused deep discontent among broad social sectors. Faced with the avalanche of popular complaints about the social differences that these markets deepen, the Minister of Economy, Alejandro Gil, tried to calm things down last December and assured that the opening of foreign currency stores for the sale of food and cleaning products was “a decision of social justice and socialism.”

“An undersupplied market does not attract foreign currency,” the minister explained then, referring to what many Cubans have classified as a “monetary apartheid” that divides society between those who have dollars to buy products in these shops and those who must meet their needs in the network of stores that sell in national currency.

However, to the same extent that a large part of Cuban society criticizes the opening of these shops, others have seen their resources grow, serving as a bridge between merchandise in dollars and anxious customers who cannot find these products in the stores that sell in Cuban pesos or convertible pesos.

“Call me for more details on what I’m getting tomorrow. Top-notch merchandise from the dollar stores,” reads an ad. “Leave the Line to me and avoid leaving the house, from the market to your table,” adds the classified. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” specifies the short text that invites you to follow “the offers on WhatsApp.”

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

La Epoca Opens its Doors for Dollars on March 8th With a Very Long Line Waiting

On the corner of Galiano and Neptuno, in the centre, the place has been typical of a location with the most shops per square metre in all of Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodriguez, Havana, March 8th, 2021 – For weeks now, it has been known that the shop La Epoca, in Havana, was going to open its doors this Monday, and in dollars. And everybody has known that to be able to get in there you would have to join the line several days beforehand. This time the International Woman’s Day gift will arrive wrapped in greenbacks.

The morning of March 8th arrived, cold and humid, and with strong gusts of wind in the Cuban capital. But, in spite of the bad weather, and before the clock struck seven, the line to get in La Epoca was already nearly 1,000 feet long. Most of the people had spent days getting themselves organised to enter one of the most emblematic shopping centres  in the city.

At that time, the police got the shoppers to go three blocks back from the main entrance of the place, to avoid crowd build-ups outside of the markets. But the distance and the fact that they could not see the entrance door, increased their anxiety and their fear of possible irregularities, and gatecrashers. continue reading

Situated on the downtown corner of Galiano and Neptuno, the shopping centre has symbolised one the areas with more shops per metre than anywhere in Cuba. With its breathtaking window displays, now hidden by metal shutters, its escalators which haven’t worked for years, and its several floors which used to be full of merchandise, La Epoca lived up to its name and became a symbol of business effort in the city.

But today’s La Epoca has little resemblance to its previous glamour. Two workmen up on a scaffold were still touching up the facade while the line was getting longer on Monday, the police keeping a close eye on the line and, at nine in the morning, the business still had not been able to open, producing protests and frayed nerves in the line. The agitation led to several trucks with black-capped troops arriving at 10 am to try to control the chaos.

The police make those waiting in line move three blocks back from the main entrance to the shop (14ymedio)

Many of the people waiting outside were women. “I came to see if I could get some cheese and yogurt for my kids, because the price of these things on the black market is more than I am prepared to pay,” 14ymedio was told by Yamile, a 42 year old woman from Havana. “But, to tell the truth, if I had thought about all the time I was going to waste here, it wasn’t worth it.”

Aymara is another one who spent days standing in line. The worst part has been hiding from the police patrolling the area in the early morning to enforce the strict curfew imposed by the city because of the pandemic. Between nine at night and five  in the morning, you are not supposed to be out in the streets, so they had to look for other ways to avoid losing their place in line.

“We used a digital line, and, although every day you have to come to confirm your place at six in the morning, the rest of the time you do it through Whatsapp and also on a physical list held by the first people in the line,” explained a young woman. “And I have made all this sacrifice because I was told there is a much greater selection of things in this shop than the others and that they are going to open up with everything.”

But Aymara says she’s tired of waiting all this time and worn out by the situation. “I told my mama not to send me not one dollar more, because instead of sending me money to spend in these shops where everything is expensive and poor quality, she should save the money there so I can get out of this country, I cant stand any more.”  The people around her agreed with her.

“And it isn’t worth going to the other dollar shops either. They have created a resellers mafia, employees who get paid to let their friends, or the coleros*, in first,” complains Luisito, who lives in nearby San Miguel Street. He tells me he started to wait in the line last Wednesday, when “a neighbour went past taking names of people who wanted to get in when the shop opened.”

“They told us early on that they were only going to open up the food market, home appliances, and perfumes”, says the man. “But nobody knows exactly because there is no notice or any detailed information on which parts of the shop are open this Monday. The blind leading the blind.”

After 11 in the morning, some employee came out and spoke to the people at the front of the line and said: “The shop isnit ready. Its going to open but we are still putting stuff on the shelves. The appliance section won’t be open today, but we’re doing everything we can to open the market”. They took the ID cards from the first people in the line.

Luisito wants to buy “detergent, some beans which have disappeared from the shelves of other shops, and a bag of milk powder”. But, from the start no-one has been clear about the new way of selling stuff in freely convertible currency. “Some people thought it was going to be a national currency. A bit naive. Been a long time since they opened any new peso shops in the city, hasn’t it?”

The shops selling in pesos are almost empty. Bottle of water, packs of dried fruits which look old, and extremely expensive bottles of tequila are all that is offered in a shop a few yards away from La Epoca. “They’ve been unloading trucks and trucks of stuff since early morning,” said an employee of the shop with nothing in it, indicating the new dollar business.

“Here they seem to have forgotten to stock up on the things that are going to these stores” complains an employee of the state store. “When customers ask, all I can tell them is to cross the street and buy things in the dollar stores.” She is interrupted by the shouting around La Epoca and she looks around to see what’s happening.

“It’s disrespectful. People are paying in a strong currency and they still think they are at liberty to hang about before they open the doors. It’s ten in the morning, and it.s cold.” “Why don’t they open up?” shouts a man who is there with his partner at the front of the line. The people up front are having a row with the police accusing them of “sneaking people in.”

In nearby Concordia the police start to separate out the first group who are going to go in, but time passes and their relieved faces change to frustration at the delay. It’s eleven in the morning and still nobody has managed to get in La Epoca.

*Translator’s note: Coleros are people paid by others to stand in line for them.

Translated by GH

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Run Over in Havana by a State Car While in Line to Buy Yogurt

The white car, with official registration, ran over a man in his 40s who was line to buy yogurt on Ayestarán street, in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 5 March 2021 — Lines are no longer news in Cuba until they are. This Friday, a man who was waiting in a long line outside a store on Ayestarán Street, in Havana, was run over by a state vehicle. Anxiety to purchase some product in the Trimagen Complex had caused the crowd to overflow from the sidewalk around the door of the store.

The individual, in his 40s, was hit by a car with official registration and belonging to the National Archives of the Republic that was traveling in the direction of Avenida 20 de Mayo. By the time the vehicle passed the Trimagen store, a crowd of people filled the entire sidewalk and part of the street.

The shopping center, located in the municipality of El Cerro and managed by the military, opens early with hundreds of customers outside anxious to buy food. This Friday, the only things for sale were aerated soda, mayonnaise and yogurt, but the line stretched for almost two blocks. continue reading

“One minute we were all focused on the line, making sure that no one got in front of us, and a minute later it was all shouting,” a witness to the event tells 14ymedio. “The wounded man was taken to the hospital in a taxi that was behind the car that hit him and the police patrol took a long time to arrive,” he adds.

The National Archives vehicle was parked at the scene of the accident, which further complicated the organization of the queue, which was quite chaotic from the beginning. Despite the fact that only residents of the municipality can buy in these stores, due to the mobility restrictions imposed after the rebound in Covid-19 cases, the influx of customers is constant.

“Around here there are several areas that were in quarantine for more than a week and when the tapes were removed, people went out like crazy to buy anything,” says a resident. “There were many days of confinement and you have to take whatever you find.”

Others blame resellers for the crowds that are created every morning in front of the Trimagen Complex. “This place is full of coleros [people who others pay to stand in line for them] and people who come to buy as a business. They buy a bottle of a liter and a half of soda here and then sell it at three or four times its value in other neighborhoods. That is why this line is chaos,” comments another customer.

“That poor man, he went to the hospital today probably with a broken rib or clavicle and left without the product for which he had waited many hours. A real tragedy,” says a person who started the line at seven o’clock in the morning, and after noon he still had not managed to buy anything.

According to official data, in Cuba there is an accident on the public right-of-way every 55 minutes, one person dies every 15 hours and there is someone injured every 75 minutes. The accidents involving vehicles in poor condition, precariously patched together, in use as public transport are numerous and many times end with multiple deaths in a single accident.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

In Havana, Carlos III Plaza Closes Again Due to Covid Outbreak

The Carlos III is closed due to a Covid outbreak, according to a worker at the shopping center. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 25 February 2021 — For the second time in less than a year, the Carlos III Plaza, in Centro Habana, has closed its doors again due to a Covid-19 outbreak. The largest shopping center in the Cuban capital will not provide service “until further notice” and at least seven store workers have tested positive for the disease, an employee told 14ymedio.

“We have been told that they will open at the weekend but it has not yet been confirmed, and it seems almost certain that at first there will be no food services of any kind to avoid crowds within the premises,” adds the worker who preferred anonymity. “They are doing PCR on all of us and, at the moment, we are at home waiting for the results.”

The line to buy potatoes on Jesús Peregrino street in Havana. (14ymedio)

Outside the premises, on the centrally located Carlos III street, several uniformed members of the Prevention Troops, with their red berets, guard the area, but do not give customers details about the epidemiological situation. “Closed until further notice,” one of the soldiers repeated this morning to an elderly woman who was inquiring about the reasons for the suspension of service. continue reading

On one side of the building, which occupies an entire block, a military vehicle, a van, is located from the early hours of the morning just where, until a few days ago, the long line began to enter the supermarket located on the ground floor of the Plaza. Last week the place was abuzz with people waiting, but today it is deserted.

“Better not even ask, because if you start to investigate a lot they will look at you with a frown, as if they were expecting to buy” some chicken and a little oil. “A few minutes later, a radio placed in a nearby doorway could be heard playing this Thursday’s update with the Covid-19 figures on the Island.

Of the total of 670 new positive cases announced on Thursday, 364 are in Havana, which continues to be the epicenter of the current upturn in the pandemic on the island. According to Deputy Prime Minister Roberto Morales Ojeda, “from the explosion of cases” positive for Covid-19 in recent months, the territory “no longer has the capacity to isolate all the contacts” of the infected.

Quarantine zones and closures of markets or public institutions contrast with long lines to buy food, which have become even longer as shortages increase.

Black market potatoes sell for 120 pesos for five pounds. (14ymedio)

This same Thursday, on Jesús Peregrino Street, a few yards from the Plaza de Carlos III, dozens of people waited to buy the potatoes from the rationed market that have begun to be distributed in the neighborhood at three pesos a pound. With two pounds per capita, the arrival of the tuber has become an event due to the fall in the supply of other products such as rice and bread.

“You have to have something to put with the little you can put on the plate,” complained Amarilys, a 79-year-old retiree who started the line before “the sun came up.” Despite the authorities’ calls for the most vulnerable people not to go out in the streets, most of those waiting were elderly and there were also some people with disabilities.

Others, however, have not had to line up to get some potatoes. “It hit the black market first,” says a young man from a balcony. In the same area yesterday, five-pound bags of potatoes began to be sold at 120 pesos. The price can go up if the customer wants the purchase delivered to an area closed by confinement, as is the case of the Aramburo block between Zanja and San Martín, which has been closed with metal quarantine fences.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Barbers Rebel Against Price Controls

Barbers complain that government mandated prices will not cover their expenses. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, February 11, 2020 — A few months ago it was farmers, then independent taxi drivers, and now it’s the barbers’ turn. The government’s attempts to impose price caps on the “scissors sector” has met with fierce resistance from self-employed workers.

An article in the official press criticizing the rise in prices at barbershops that began at the end of last year has unleashed a torrent of criticism, both from hair professionals and from customers who say they cannot afford their services.

“I am a barber. I live in Ciego de Alvila and have to pay 1,500 pesos for a packet of one-hundred razaor blades,” says Alejandro, a self-employed worker on the outskirts of the city. “My clients inisist I use a new blade each time, so that means I have to spend fifteen pesos on each customer.” continue reading

From time to time Alejandro pays 250 pesos for a bottle of cologne to refresh the skin and send his customers off smelling like lavender. He pays 40 pesos for a box of talcum powder. The hairspray he uses on those who want to look impeccable hours after they leave his shop costs him between 375 and 500 pesos.

“It doesn’t stop there,” he says. “A single jar of wax costs me 250 pesos. Every month I have spend around 4,000 pesos just to stay in business. That’s after paying for my business license, social security and the supplies I need. And that’s not in Havana.”

In addition to the costs for “the here and now” Alejandro’s initial investment was almost 94,000 pesos, raised with help from his domestic partner, mother and emigré brother. “The government does not take this into account but everyone knows that the businesses that are respected here are financed with money from overseas.

Invisible investments of capital from abroad are very common. It is rare to find a successful business that has not received an infusion of dollars from the owner’s relative, friend or third party who lives abroad. Though there are no official statistics to confirm it, many believe that, without this foreign oxygen, most Cuban entrepreneurs would not survive.

For the barber from Ciego de Avila having a clientele means serving customers who come to his salon.”It’s a small city. You don’t have a lot of options. If they force me to cap my prices, I will have to give up my license,” he says.”But this is an art. We’re not factory workers. Every person who sits in that chair wants something different, something personal.”

Given the city’s wide internet coverage and a booming market for in-home services, some Havana entrepreneurs are trying to avoid heavy fines by making clandestine visits to their clients’ homes or practicing their craft on the black market, places beyond the reach of government guidelines and decrees.

“I still have options so let’s see how things turn out. For now, I pay my taxes, go to my customers’ houses for 100 pesos apiece and that’s that,” said a barber on Monday morning while working on one customer’s beard. When he was done, the man paid him the price he had been quoted, without complaint

“Fighting with the barber is like fighting with the cook. He can make your head look like a pile of cockroaches or spit in your food,” acknowledges Lárazo Miguel, a young man who agreed to pay 75 pesos for a quick haircut after much haggling with a barber on Marquez Gonzalez Street in Central Habana.

One of the barbers at the salon where Lazaro Miguel was getting his hair cut voiced a common complaint: “They want us to charge 25 pesos for a haircut but there are people who sit down in that chair and expect miracles. It’s not fair to expect us to charge the same for a once-in-a-liftime haircut as for a basic cut.”

“I know what my services are worth. The son of two doctors, who together earn more than 12,000 pesos a month, comes in, sits down in my chair and asks for a special cut. He wants me to use electric shears on one side of his head and scissors on the other. But I have to charge him 20 or 50 pesos for that. It doesn’t make sense for me, for him or for his parents,” as a self-employed hair stylist.

“A shave with cream, lotion and a facial massage is 100 pesos. A beard trim is another 50. I cannot do it for less than that,” adds Reynaldo, a self-employed barber. “What more do they want?” he wonders. “This is more than a barber shop. It’s a parliament,” says the owner of a salon on Neptuno Street.

“Everyone who comes here spends stays for at least an hour. They don’t just want to look good; they want to feel good. Customers come in, they sit down, they have some water, charge their phones, and even use the bathroom and toilet paper. Who is paying for all that?” one of them asks.

Fighting with the barber is not like complaining to a chef. At a restaurant, they just take the plate away but a few misplaced snips to your hair can stay with you for days.

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Two Lines in Gervasio Street: Sitting to Buy Detergent, Standing for ‘Fruta Bomba’

People standing are in line to buy ‘fruta bomba’ and those seated are lined up to buy detergent. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 17 February 2021 — Any product can already provoke “a demonstration as big as May Day,” a customer who waited for more than two hours to buy fruta bomba* on Gervasio Street joked this Wednesday in Central Havana. In front of that line, dozens of neighbors were sitting on the sidewalk in another line, waiting to buy detergent.

In the municipality that for days has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the Cuban capital, yellow ribbons or metal fences divide the areas with long lines from those where residents must wait for official delivery people to bring food to them at home, due to the strict quarantine decreed in neighborhoods like Los Sitio. Neither envies the fate of the other. While some wait for hours outside bakeries and farmers markets, others may end up receiving bread for breakfast around noon.

In terms of food costs there are not many advantages within the quarantined areas either. “So far they have sold us two types of modules with food. One that costs 282 pesos and that brings a piece of chicken, detergent and two soaps,” a resident of the quarantine zone details from the vicinity of Rayo Street. “The other module costs 700 pesos and contains chicken, minced meat and oil, but many neighbors have not bought it because they have no money,” he laments. “We’ve only been at this for three days and I’m already counting the pennies.” continue reading

“No low-priced food, much less free feed. Besides being locked up, they are charging us dearly for what they sell us at the door and, on the other hand, distribution is very slow. Yesterday at my house we ate at ten at night because between the time they sold us the food and we were able to cook it, they took the one thousand and five hundred pesos from us,” adds another neighbor who lives in one of the streets perpendicular to the central Reina avenue. “Who would have told me that I was going to miss the lines? But I miss them, because at least that way I could look for more options, but here is what I got.”

A few meters from his house and on the other side of the fences that define the quarantine area, almost a hundred people wait to buy cleaning products. They are sitting next to each other on the ledges of the steps and the doorways of the houses. The line are not the same as before: now the whole city is a long line, regardless of what they are selling.

*Translator’s note: ‘Fruta bomba‘ is ‘Cuban’ for papaya – which in Cuba is a rude word for a part of the female anatomy.

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Being Cold or Fear of the Electric Bill

The entrance to Roseland in Havana, a store selling appliances in hard currency. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, February 4, 2021 — On Thursday the corner of Neptuno and Águila in central Havana seemed different. Since a store which only accepted foreign currency was opened in the iconic Roseland store, the place has been filled with eager customers looking to buy appliances that have disappeared from the nation’s network of retail stores. But despite the abundant supply of air conditioners, the place was practically empty.

The air conditioners known as ’splits’, which have a one-ton refrigeration capacity, cost $310 at Roseland, but can be sold for double the price on the black market, are in high demand not only from those who want to cool some part of their house but from resellers. This has resulted in long lines every time there is an announcement that the units have arrived.

What’s happening this February to dampen customers’ enthusiasm is not so obvious? Are the low temperatures the western part of the country is experiencing making them forget the rigors of the island’s long summer? The answer can be found in the new electricity fees that went into effect at the beginning of the year and that are generating hefty bills in those houses where at least one room has an air conditioner. The prospect of getting bills in the four-figure bills is frightening for Cubans. continue reading

Last January, an avalanche of demands forced the government to reduce the increase in electric rates, especially for residential customers who use between 251 and 500 kWh a month, the largest group affected by the new higher rates. However, consumers who use more than 300 kWh, mainly those whose homes have air conditioning, remain among those most impacted by the increase.

Splits have gone from being a status symbol to being a headache. Buyers now know they have to both shell out a considerable sum of money to buy a unit and be ready to pay a high electric bill. “It doesn’t make sense,” says a curious passerby on Thursday, surprised to see there was no line to buy them outside the store.

Piled up next to the boxes of splits are electric ovens, air fryers, electric skillets and rice cookers. All are home appliances that until recently were in high demand but today “are black holes that gobble up money,” as the same passerby observed after watching one customer carry off two boxed air conditioners in a pedicab.

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“Water And Rest”: The Prescription in Cuba in the Absence of Pharmaceuticals

Grandmothers’ remedies are gaining popularity in the face of drug shortages in Cuban pharmacies and hospitals. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 2 February 2021 — It started with a small wound on his foot, but as the days passed, infection and fever set in. Luis Álvaro, 25, went to the emergency room at the nearby Freyre de Andrade hospital in Centro Habana. After looking at his foot, the doctor concluded: “I can’t prescribe antibiotics because there aren’t any. Rest, drink plenty of water and keep your foot elevated.”

Four days later, with a large red area around the wound, the young man posted on Telegram: “I’m exchanging a Nintendo wireless remote for a full course of oral antibiotics and a tube of Gentamicin.” Shortly thereafter, an interested party responded. Luis Álvaro obtained several blister packs of amoxicillin, a drug manufactured in Cuba.

His skills with instant messaging, having something to exchange on the black market and the fact of living in Havana, which has a dynamic informal commerce, played out in favor of this young man, but in regions far from the capital the options are much more limited, and “you can’t find medications even if you have money,” says María Victoria, a resident of San Antonio de los Baños. continue reading

After several days of uncertainty, the health of María Victoria’s relative has evolved favorably, but she hasn’t stopped worrying. “I see sick and chronically ill children and elderly people who can no longer find the medications they need,” she warns. “It’s a desperate situation.”

“We’re very concerned,” this resident of one of the most populated municipalities in the province of Artemisa tells this newspaper. “I have a niece who they thought had leptospirosis, because there were several cases in one part of town,” she says. “She was prescribed rest and water because there wasn’t anything else. We spent days of anguish, and all we could do was wait.”

To avoid crowds in pharmacies, hospital officials have warned doctors not to prescribe drugs they don’t have. “Before, I ran out of prescription pads very quickly, but for months I’ve hardly used them because there’s nothing left to prescribe,” acknowledges a doctor from the Miguel Enriquez hospital in Havana.

“We’re seeing patients who arrive with an infected lesion, and if a topical medicine is used in time there won’t be any pain or complications, but there’s nothing to prescribe,” laments this graduate in Comprehensive General Medicine. “A few days ago I treated a woman with severe ankle pain, and I knew that with a painkiller she would feel better, but I couldn’t write the prescription.”

“As a doctor, I’m aware of what’s happening with the lack of medicines and the risks of the pandemic. I tell my family and friends to avoid going to hospitals unless it’s something serious,” she laments, “because we can’t give them anything to help them and the danger of getting coronavirus is high. ”

In some consulting rooms for family doctors, there are signs posted explaining how to use natural remedies that range from infusions to calm anxiety to the use of softened leaves to treat skin lesions. Grandmothers’ remedies are gaining popularity as the pharmacies remain empty.

Herb growers who offer their products in the city have seen a rebound in the number and variety of plants that their customers request. “Before, what we sold most was basil for Santeria rites and some sticks that are also used for spiritual work, but now this has become a pharmacy,” Ramón, a herbalist from Monte street, tells this newspaper.

“The most requested herb now is chamomile, the leaves of the plant that people call Meprobamato (Plectranthus neochilus Schltr), prickly pear leaves for issues related to foot pain, horse liniment for those who have kidney problems, and I also sell a lot of rosemary for sore throats,” he explains. “There are days when I close at noon because I run out of products.”

But Ramón’s herbs can do little or nothing when a serious illness is involved. “In recent months the situation has worsened, and although the problem has been going on for a long time, we’re now in negative numbers. Medications for chronic patients can’t be found, or only half the dose that the patient needs arrives. If there’s an emergency we have to appeal to social networks,” explains the father of an oncology patient.

“My daughter underwent a mastectomy and now she’s using cytostatic serums, but from the list of medications that she needs to make the process more effective and bearable, we’ve had to get two of them through friends,” says the man. “We have had to buy other medications, but the price doesn’t matter because it’s a question of life or death.”

Instant messaging for some, herbs for others and money for a few are propping up medical treatments in a country that is still seen internationally as a medical bulwark.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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In Havana, Around Fifty People Wait in Line to Buy Cars for Sky-High Prices

Outside a used car dealership owned by Cimex on 20th Street in Havana’s Playa district. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, January 18,  2021 — When it opened on Monday morning, the used car dealership on 23rd Street between Third and First avenues in Havana’s Playa district was greeted with a line of about fifty people. They were eagerly waiting on a shipment of cars to be sold for hard currency that were scheduled to arrive that day. Despite sky-high price tags, there is a waiting list to buy them.

“People in line are saying they should be here in a few minutes,” a potential buyer tells 14ymedio. “The list is very detailed because some people want to buy as many as two cars. Everyone is waiting for the shipment to arrive but the real scramble is for the Renault Talisman and the Geely CK,” he explains.

The dealership is owned by Cimex, a subsidiary of the military-run conglomerate Gaesa, which has a monopoly on auto sales in the country. At the moment the only cars available are a few “clunkers,” which the buyers ignore. “Everyone is talking about the new arrivals. That’s why there are two lists, one for each model,” says the man. continue reading

Around fifty customers gather to get on a waiting list to buy cars.

“You can come and go as you like, my brother. I’ve got everybody’s name written down on the list here,” yells a man near the front of the line to another who wants to leave for a few minutes without losing his place.

According to the dealership’s notice board, the cars for sale at the moment are the Chinese-made Geely CK for $32,000 and two models from the French manufacturer Peugeot: a Partner for $63,971 and a 508 for $ 72,000. The coveted Renault, however, is not on the list.

“In this part of the block you can hear the money talking. You can really hear it,” jokes a neighbor as she walks by the car lot.

Cimex had been selling the cars for convertible Cuban peosos but as of February 2020 customers could only buy them with freely convertible foreign currency. Prices for the roughly thirty available models range from 34,000 to 90,000 USD.

The car dealership’s notice board showing prices for new models. (14ymedio)

According to the dealership, the new prices come with a 10% discount. Customers must pay for a car in full using a debit card.

Since the new purchasing process was introduced, customers have complained about mechanical problems that arose after shelling out a huge amount of cash.

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Havana’s Alma Mater Bookstore is Flooded With Sewage Waters

A dark liquid comes out of the Alma Mater bookstore, overflowing through the door and reaches the beautiful granite floor at the entrance. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 25 January 2021– A woman with a baby in her arms steps down from the doorway and heads down the sidewalk on tiptoes at the corner of Infanta and San Lázaro in Havana. Without taking her eyes off the ground, the young woman tries to avoid the filth of the sewage waters that have flowed from the interior of the Alma Mater bookstore, which has been closed to the public for weeks because of the foul flood.

The bookstore offers a selection focused on university bibliography, history, philosophy and sociology manuals, while from the building a dark liquid flows out through the door and reaches the beautiful granite paving, with wavy figures, in front of its entrance. Passersby hurry their steps and tighten their masks as they pass.

The scene is not new. The bookstore has suffered several closures over the years due to the deterioration in the drainage system of the apartment building where it is located. The last repair was completed in October last year, but a few months after its reopening, the premises had to close again. continue reading

“You can’t stand here because of the bad smells,” complains a customer of the post office — located several meters from the bookstore – whose line traditionally ran along the covered sidewalk but had to move because of the stench. “You take all this infection home,” laments another customer from a nearby office who has come to buy some stamps.

A “closed” sign can be read on the door of Alma Mater, although its old opening hours are still written above it: Monday to Friday and part-time on Saturdays. In the stained-glass windows, dirty and covered with pieces of brown paper, is a faded poster with the face of José Martí, who curiously has his gaze directed just towards the most flooded area of ​​the portal.

From outside you can hear the sound of sewage dripping into the premises. The leak has destroyed most of the false ceiling and pieces of it are on the ground. However, the bookstore’s Facebook page does not mention its current status, showing only past images from its collection, where books on Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara abound.

In the stained-glass windows of Alma Mater, dirty and covered with pieces of brown paper, is a faded poster with the face of José Martí. (14ymedio)

A local employee tells 14ymedio that the warehouse located in the basement is flooded. “Efforts have been made by the workers to get that water out of there, but they have been unsuccessful so far,” laments the worker. “I don’t understand why they don’t come with an engine to extract it, the situation can turn into a serious health problem.”

The residents of the building are desperate. The bad smell is spreading throughout the area and they feel like they are living a “cyclical curse,” with similar breaks from time to time. At the beginning of last year, a neighbor tried to solve a blockage in his apartment by putting a metal bar through the pipes and ended up causing a break that also forced the bookstore to be evacuated. The current break is attributed to the poor condition of the infrastructure and the lack of maintenance of the property, but one never knows in a block with dozens of residents.

Where the battered bookstore is located today was once the famous Quesada Lamps store, a symbol of Havana from the middle of the last century, where appliances and other home decor were offered. The firm had subsidiaries in several Latin American countries and was nationalized after the Revolutionary Triumph.

But beyond its commercial life, the location of this corner made it one of the emblematic points of the Cuban capital, surrounded by businesses and food service options, on the border between the glamorous neighborhood of El Vedado and the popular and bustling Centro Habana. Even the most famous vagabond in Cuban history, the Knight of Paris, frequented the portal that today has become impassable from the plague.

After a long time of neglect, in 2013 the Alma Mater cultural center was inaugurated on the premises, which had an intranet navigation room on the mezzanine and a small room for events and conferences. In its early days, interesting volumes could be found on the bookstore floor, but as time passed ideological excesses and political pamphlets littered its shelves.

The decadence continued its course and the trade began to sell poorly produced handicrafts and clothes with official slogans. And then, again and again, came the floods. Sometimes it forced them to close for a few days, then weeks that turned into months without service to the public. The wreck of the Alma Mater bookstore has been long and harrowing, and the blame should go not only to the sewage leaks.

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Cuban Convertible Pesos Not Accepted, Even in Cuba

A Caracol store located on the ground floor of the Havana Libre hotel (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, January 13, 2021 — Faced with complaints from citizens that they could not find places to spend their Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), the Cuban government announced that no fewer than 500 stores would accept the old currency. The list included the Caracol chain of stores, the Palmares Company, and the Artistic and Literary Promotion Agency (Artex). 14ymedio confirmed on Tuesday, however, that these businesses are now only accepting Cuban pesos (CUP).

At the Caracol branch in the Habana Libre hotel they had not even heard the news. “We only accept CUP here,” said an employee when a customer asked if she could pay in CUC.

“I still have 20 CUC and I would like to spend them on something useful without having to wait in line at the bank. I heard the news on television and came to this store, which is on the corner near my house. But as you can see, either Murillo was lying or these people don’t know how to do their jobs,” said the customer, waiving the rejected bill. continue reading

Marino Murillo, the so-called “reform czar,” said it himself during a Roundtable broadcast and reiterated it on his official Twitter account: “The conditions have gradually been created so that, starting today (Monday), CUC will now be accepted in more than five-hundred establishments of the Caracol, Palmares, Artex and Egrem chains throughout the country.”

In addition to the establishments newly designated to accept CUC, he claimed that stores run by Cimex corporation and the Caribe chain were already following the new policy.

At Arte Habana, an Artex store located on San Rafael Street, the employee was blunt: “Look, I don’t know what they said on the Roundtable but here we’ve been told we can only charge in pesos, no CUC.”

“I don’t have that information. Call back tomorrow,” said an employee of the Tropicana nightclub, a subsidiary of Palmares, in response to a question posed during a phone call.

Handmade signs that read “CUC not accepted” have become a common sight in private businesses and taxis since late December, days before the new economic measures took effect.

Despite the Cuban government’s announcement that it would expand the network of businesses that accept CUC, a sign in a Caracol store suggests otherwise. (14ymedio)

As part of the monetary unification process being implemented throughout the country, the government had stated that the CUC would remain in circulation for six months. In practice, however, very few businesses are accepting it.

“A lot of people come here expecting to pay in CUC because they heard on television that they would have up to six months to spend it. But the truth is that we as private businesses are under no obligation to take them,” an employee of a privately owned cafe in Nuevo Vedado told 14ymedio.”I don’t accept CUC but, look, in addition to Cuban pesos, anyone who so desires can pay me in dollars or euros.”

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Hundreds of Undercover Agents Monitor People Waiting in Line in Havana

Hundreds of undercover agents wait in long lines, on the lookout for people making “counterrevolutionary comments.”(14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, December 27, 2020 — Two men in civilian clothes approached a police car on Havana’s Infanta Street on Saturday morning to report on the people in line. These days hundreds of such undercover agents monitor people waiting in lines, on the lookout for anyone making “counterrevolutionary comments.”

The informants are easily recognizable in spite of the efforts they make to blend into the crowd. “Look, the one with the blue cap is a security agent,” warns a retiree to another customer waiting to buy frozen chicken outside a store on Belascoaín Street.” I know because the only thing he’s done since he got here is eavesdrop on people.”

Several minutes later a patrol car pulls up and the young man in the blue cap points out two people to the uniformed officers. The police ask the couple for their identity cards and arrest the man. The reason: a few minutes earlier he had made a comment that “this New Year there’s no meat or shame in this country.” continue reading

Faced with an increase in public criticism fueled by economic shortages and the severities of the pandemic, Cuban authorities have been twisting the ideological screws. Propaganda has become more assertive in state-run media while so-called “acts of repudiation” and heavy surveillance of public spaces are becoming more common.

Lines to buy food, especially items intended for year-end celebrations, are now the center of police attention. State Security agents, Communist Party die-hards and members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) have also been involved.

“Reactivate the rapid response brigades in every CDR willing to deny a platform for disaffected elements,” reads a document distributed among the organization’s members. It includes instructions to “support the authorities” during the difficult economic situation in which the island finds itself.

“At the meeting they said imperialists were out to destroy the Revolution [while people wait] in lines and that we have to be vigilant,” says a retiree from the Plaza of the Revolution district who was summoned to “go after anyone who speaks ill of the leaders and the currency unification process.”

Among the duties assigned to the retiree is “preventing people from taking photos for the purpose of uploading them to social networks and denigrating our system,” he explains. “Anyone who sees someone taking a photo with a mobile phone or recording a video can call the police because we are authorized to do so.”

With the arrival of the phone-based internet services in December 2018, reports and complaints by citizens on social networks have increased significantly. Many Cuban internet users employ the new technologies to report corruption, point out problems with the political system and share memes against officials.

Among the most closely watched queues these days are those to buy pork and beer. The government is selling these products at subsidized prices and distributing them to every family in Havana upon presentation of a ration book and identity card.

“No one says anything because everyone knows that there are lots of prying ears in these lines,” admits a customer in line at 26th Street on Saturday for the chance to buy pork at 40 pesos a pound.”A little while ago they arrested a young man for taking a photo and a female Party member shouted at him to leave the country if he didn’t like what the Revolution was doing.”

The quality and quantity of what is for sale has contributed to these complaints. Most stores are not allowed to butcher the meat. Nor has there been enough to go around, as the coordinator of provincial government programs, Julio Martínez, told reporters during a recent broadcast of the Roundtable program, admitting that supply “is very far from being able to satisfy the needs of the population.”

But the criticisms will have to wait for the family dinner table. Any disparaging remarks said in line could lead to a fine or a stint in jail, something no one wants to close out this difficult year.

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