14ymedio, Luz Escobar / Mario J. Pentón, Havana / Miami, 1 January 2021 – With New Year’s Eve scenes lacking the brilliance of the festivities of previous years, Cubans were introduced to 2021, worried about the rising prices and inflation being experienced in Cuba. On this holiday, those who ventured to use public transportation, to eat at a cafeteria or to recharge their mobiles came across the new rates.
“Fixed-route taxis now cost five pesos, before they cost 40 cents and the prices at supermarkets have gone through the roof,” said Margot Martínez, a 68-year-old retired teacher from Cienfuegos.
“With what I get from my retirement I will barely be able to eat. The prices of electricity, water, transportation, medicine and gas have all risen from one moment to the next. They say they are needed to eliminate subsidies but, what subsidies do they dare to talk about in the midst of so much poverty?”
The national economy is going through its worst crisis in three decades as the Venezuelan subsidies of the Nicolás Maduro regime collapse, the traditional inefficiency of Cuban State companies is accentuated and the arrival of tourists plummets due to the coronavirus pandemic. The government has said that the economy declined 11% in 2020, but independent economists estimate that the damage has been even greater.
Without foreign currency to sustain its unproductive economy and pay the foreign debt, the Government of Miguel Díaz-Canel announced an aggressive program to cut public spending that includes the elimination of the convertible peso (CUC), the partial dollarization of the economy and the end of subsidies for many of the State companies.
“People do nothing but talk about the country’s situation. This does not improve no matter how the years go by and they continue to make promises. The only place where food is seen is in the television news,” Martinez said.
In public transportation buses in Havana, a poster, repeated several times, warns that the “new price” of the ticket is 2 pesos, five times what it cost on December 31st. For the clueless who are still trying to pay with some convertible peso coins, another poster warns that CUC’s are not accepted.
“This is abuse. I don’t live on my retirement; I am a messenger and that’s my livelihood. Now I will have to charge more to get ahead,” said a man who was talking at a bus stop in El Vedado on Friday morning. When the transportation arrived, the Havana citizen only paid the driver half the amount, 1 peso. “Forgive me, but today I can only pay you that,” and the driver allowed him to walk the aisle to his seat.
Meanwhile, clients of the State monopoly communications company Etecsa verified that all mobile telephone service prices now appear in Cuban pesos. Data package purchases, minute usage to call other cell phones, or fees to send text messages, all that and more is now expressed in national currency.
The Mandao food delivery platform, like some private services, changed its prices this January 1st to national currency in its mobile application, although the online version still maintains rates in dollars and is designed for emigrants overseas who buy food for their relatives on the Island.
Learning to live with the new prices is becoming a headache for many who must now handle three or four sets of numbers instead of two. “It is costing me because they are large numbers and it is difficult to figure out how much they equal in CUC, which until yesterday was the reference currency in many services,” acknowledges a customer who, this Friday, was looking at restaurant menu in an Old Havana.
“Here it says that six croquettes are 111 pesos and that a pork cutlet is worth costs 231,” says the woman. “All the time I have to be dividing by 24 to know if it is the same as I paid before or if prices have risen,” she laments. “In other places they have maintained both prices, one next to the other, so that the user does not have to go through so much work, but not here.”
A retiree who worked in the accounting sector for years remembers the arrival of the euro in the Old Continent. “I was finishing my master’s degree in Spain and I remember that it was crazy to leave the peseta behind, some friends of mine took a long time to get used to it, but at least they were going for a strong currency. The Cuban peso, however, is very weak.”
Complaints about the new prices were also repeated throughout the week in the ration stores
Despite the fact that the authorities have established a single rate of exchange of the Cuban peso in relation to the dollar, about 24 for every dollar, in the Cuban black market, US currency exceeds 40 pesos this week, spurred by the impossibility of buying fulas* legally in the State network of banks or exchange houses.
Complaints about the new prices were also repeated throughout the week in the bodegas (ration stores). In the lines of people waiting to buy salt, additional rice and spaghetti, the topic of conversation was none other than the calculation of how much the basic basket that the Government sells through the rationed market would cost starting January 1st.
“Paying six, seven and ten pesos per pound for rice (depending on the type of grain), that is a huge abuse, no matter how they put it,” said one of the ladies. “If it’s going to be worth more, then it has to be of better quality, because the rice that came last November and December looks like animal fodder: dirty and old.”
“The year began and we have already entered the era of hundreds and thousands, soon it will be strange to hear a price that is ten, twenty and, even less, five pesos,” reflected a young woman with a baby in her arms outside a bank. After going to several branches to try to withdraw money from an ATM, the woman found that many are in maintenance or out of service.
*Translator’s note: Fulas is Cuban slang term for US Dollars
Translated by Norma Whiting
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