14ymedio, Havana, 2 March 2020 — Construction materials will only be sold with the use of a magnetic card in four Cuban provinces and one municipality. This measure seeks to prevent the corruption and theft prevailing in the so-called rastros [flea-markets], the common moniker for the state-owned outlets where construction materials are sold. Mayabeque, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and Isle of Youth will be the first territories where cement, sand, water tanks and bricks will no longer be acquired in cash.
According to the Ministry of Internal Commerce, this measure will be extended to Havana in the following month and in May, it will be implemented in all the provincial capitals.
The report also points out that the use of other means of payment will be authorized on an exceptions basis by the Central Bank of Cuba for the beneficiaries of subsidies and credits approved between 2012 and 2019 or due to any weather situation during the time specified.
According to the Ministry, this resolution seeks “to acheive a better transparency in sales and in the way the cash is handled, using e-commerce platforms.
Depite the new local production programs for sand and gravel and construction blocks that have received plenty of attention by the official media in the last few years, the so-called rastros are unable to meet the high demand of a country where more than 60% the housing units are in a fair or poor condition.
This situation has contributed to theft, wrongful management, the arbitrary variation of prices and shortages of the most in-demand items, such as cement, steel bars, fibre cement tiles and zinc boards.
In these outlets that sell in Cuban pesos there is usually lack of doors, windows, bathroom fixtures, paint, plastic pipeline pieces and hydrolic and sanitary connections. The situation is even worse when it comes to ceramic tiles, concrete joists and water tanks.
Another alternative is the stores that sell only in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), where they have a limited offer of construction materials at high prices. At the so-called ’shoppings’, a P350 bag of cement, used for concrete roofing and kitchen counters, is worth 6 CUC (roughly $6 US). Depite this price, which equals the wages of one week’s work for an average professional working for the government, the demand of this product is still high.
Since the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the end of the Soviet subsidies, the national cement industry has suffered decades of decadence. In 1989, 3.7 million tonnes of cement were produced in the Island but by 1993 the number had dropped to 1.04 million.
Although slightly recovered, the recent years show disturbing data; such as 2017, when a little over 1.4 million tonnes of gray cement were produced in Cuba. According to a report by the Association of Producers, the numbers are still very far from the 5.2 million achieved by the Dominican Republic that same year, and also far from the amount produced by the Island itself in 1958, with a record of 4.27 million tonnes, according to Foresight Cuba.
It has been more than a year that this product has almost disappeared from the retail chain that sells in CUCs, while in the rastros it has been limited to customers who have been granted subsidies for the restoration of their houses damaged by hurricanes or tornados, like the one that impacted more than 3,000 houses in Havana in January 2019.
After the hit of the tornado, the government granted a 50% discount on the cost of the construction materials for those affected by the natural disaster in the neighborhoods of Luyano, Regla, Guanabacoa, and Santo Suarez, and a 70% discount on water tanks. However, the damages were way greater than the country’s capacity to produce or import many of the materials.
“It is necessary that the rastro in the Plaza de la Revolucion district starts selling products for the people who cannot count on a subsidy, as most of the buildings, especially in the Vedado neighborhood, are more than 60 years old and need some restoration and at that rastro they always say that they only have construction materials for those receiving subsidies,” complains Maricel, an internet user who reacted to the press release about the new measure from MINCIN (Ministry of Internal Commerce, for its acromyn in Spanish) published by the state newspaper Granma.
Others, such as Yunior, hope that the new measure “eradicates the smuggling of materials and we can all acquire them according to the needs of each one.” Smuggling materials is a widespread practice and one to which families who decide to repair their home must frequently appeal. In the informal market of the Island you can find many of the products stolen from the rastros and also other diverted from the state buildings.
“Everything for construction materials,” says an ad on one of the most popular classified digital sites in the country. “We have galvanized glazed doors and windows, cement, bricks, glass blocks, large slabs and all of the best quality, the best prices and the best deal in the market. Our stock is impressive and stable, and we have transportation available,” it adds.
Customers who are in a hurry and have more economic resources turn to this informal sales network, as they tire of waiting for products to appear in the state outlets.
“They gave me a subsidy to buy sand, cement and a water tank,” says a resident from La Timba neighborhood in Havana whose roof did not withstand the rains last summer. However, they have not yet supplied all the products needed at the state sales office closest to her home. “It does not matter if it is with magnetic card or with cash money in hand, the fact is that the materials are not there,” she laments.
At the entrance door to the premises, a sign indicates: “We are closed to the public and we are only attending to victims.” Outside, a dozen informal sellers approach the frustrated customers who arrive and do not qualify for materials. With the informal sellers, payment can be in “Cuban pesos, convertibles, dollars, euros or pounds sterling,” one boasts.
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