Cuba and Its Perennial Shortages / Iván García

Diario Las Américas

14ymedio biggerIvan Garcia, 17 October 2017 — Chest pains, migraines and inflamed feet alerted Oneida’s family that the 82-year-old with a long history of diabetes and cancer was not well.

Her children rushed her to the emergency room at Miguel Enriquez Hospital, in the Luyano neighborhood in south Havana, where their mother was admitted to intermediate intensive care.

The team of specialists who attended Oneida asked if the family had relatives or friends abroad who could buy medicines unavailable in the country, because after two months without the required treatments the lady was experiencing imbalances in her body.

“This time she was saved from death, but if she continues not taking the required medications, the story may be different,” said one of the doctors who attended my mother,” says Ernesto, Oneida’s son. “For four months now, three of the medicines the old woman takes are missing from pharmacies and hospital supplies. I have no relatives abroad. I’m working with the church people to try to get it. My mother, moreover, must follow a strict diet and because of the scarcity of food, it is very complicated. ”

Diario Las Américas asked Yanisbel, the administrator of a pharmacy in the municipality Diez de Octubre, the most populous in the capital, how many medicines are missing and whether it was known when the public health authorities think they might remedy the deficit.

“I run a main pharmacy and there are about 162 drugs missing. Some have been missing for a year. Others arrive at intervals and in small quantities. Essential medicines, such as salbutamol sprays for asthmatics or Enalapril for hypertensives, didn’t come in for three months. A group of 40 to 50 medications ranging from antihistamines to those intended for diabetics for circulatory problems, which are distributed through a card to patients who must take them consistently, haven’t been available for months,” she says.

Eugenia, a retiree, spent about eight months without treating an eruption on her arms, legs and back for lack of Clobetasol lotion. “In the end, I had to spend almost 10 chavitos (CUC – Cuban convertible pesos) from the money my niece sent me and buy it at the international pharmacy in the Habana Libre Hotel. She recently sent me several tubes of Clobetazol and the rash went away. Many medicines are gone and you can’t even find them under the table.”

The underground market, where there is generally a better supply than in the state retail network, doesn’t have the medications either.

“The reason is simple. If there are no medicines in the Public Health warehouses, you will not find medicines on the street. All medicines sold [under the table] come from hospitals and state stores. A few of us live off those sales. But for almost a year the shortage of medicines has ‘kept us quiet’,” says a  worker at a drug store.

The absence of medications is not attributable to Hurricane Irma. “Several Chinese suppliers who sold us the raw material have stopped the imports because of repeated defaults on the payments. That is the fundamental reason our pharmaceutical industry has entered into crisis,” says an official of the Reinaldo Gutiérrez Laboratory.

But shortages go beyond medicines. If you make a tour of the country’s shops and markets you will notice the absence of essential foods in the Cuban diet.

In a small foreign exchange establishment located on Calzada de Diez Octubre at Lagueruela, the shelves are packed with three products: vegetable oil, rum and mayonnaise imported from the United States. In the meat fridge, there are only pork burgers, at 0.70 CUC each.

“Before Irma there was already a shortage, but after the hurricane passed, shortages became more acute. Now we are lacking ground meat, chicken, sausages, canned sardines, spaghetti and soda crackers, among others. At one meeting they told us that these products were destined for the victims of the cyclone, as if the rest of us Cubans don’t have mouths,” says a clerk.

Yamila, a 55-year-old engineer, told me that she visited “all the markets of Centro Habana, Habana Vieja and Vedado to buy food and all I could buy was two packs of chicken and one of beef liver. They had toilet paper for sale in La Época, on Galiano Street, and the lines were tremendous. It looked like they were giving out visas to the United States.”

With the extraordinary capacity of government officials to evade reality, Diario Las Americas spoke with a manager of TRD Caribe, the network of stores run by GAESA, the military emporium that controls 80 percent of Cuba’s hard currency businesses, the causes of shortages and their possible solution.

The man cleared his throat a couple of times, answered a phone call on his cell phone and then started to answer. “First we have to take into account that Irma was not an ordinary hurricane. It affected 13 of the 16 Cuban provinces, almost the whole country,” he says, opening his eyes. After a pause he adds:

“Having said this, then we must take into account that a certain existing shortage is attributable to the transfer of products to areas most affected or to hoarding by unscrupulous people who are then dedicated to resell it.” 

“But the shortage has been going on for over a year. And toilet paper, which is sold exclusively in hard currency, is not essential for families who lost their homes. Or is it because Hurricane Irma affected several warehouses of tourism supplies, they were forced to transfer toilet paper to the hotels?” I ask him.

“There is no such shortage, and if it exists it is occasional. It happens that with the increase of private businesses, demand exceeds supply. As for toilet paper there was a problem in its production for lack of imported raw material. But the ship is already in port and in a few months the deficit will be overcome. It has nothing to do with tourism,” said the official with an optimistic speech.

Two Cubas coexist. That of the official narrative that the country has the winds in its sails, and the real one, where the price of food is high, many medicines scarce, and the substitute for toilet paper is usually torn pages of the newspaper Granma.