Cuba: Even the Stores That Operate Only in Dollars Have Nothing to Sell

A line in front of the La Reina store in Santiago de Cuba, where people spent the night in hopes of finding toiletries. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, April 20, 2021 — The shortage of basic necessities endemic to peso stores is also affecting retail businesses where customers need freely convertible foreign currency, known locally as MLC, to make purchases. Long lines from one day to the next and empty shelves are constants in these stores that sell in dollars.

Less than six months after opening, MLC stores in Havana began experiencing shortages of meat and dairy products. The first things to go were beef cutlets, followed by Gouda cheese, butter and yogurt.

“You can’t go to those stores anymore or you risk being infected with Covid. You get there at dawn, wait in line for more than eight hours and then what do you find? Empty shelves,” complains Nuria, a 72-year-old Havana resident who initially saw these stores “as an option, with more choices and shorter lines.”

She explains, however, that “resellers got in on the action and the selection is very poor. Right now you cannot find cheese in any of the MLC stores in Havana. And what little there is on the black market is being sold to customers who can pay in dollars. No one is accepting pesos.”

Nuria, who lives near the MLC store near the corner of Rancho Boyeros and Camaguey, gave up trying get inside after several weeks. “There’s a criminal gang there — employees whose friends pay them to be let in — and they’re the ones who buy up everything. A normal person who wants to get a slice of meat or some cheese doesn’t stand a chance.”

The sixteen MLC stores in Matanzas are also facing shortages. “Of those, only two in the entire province are well-stocked — the ones in Isla de Cuba and Gondola — but I’ve never managed to get inside either one,” claims Alina Lissette Córdoba, a resident of the Pueblo Nuevo neighborhood. “Sometimes La Sirenita has a good selection but, with the police and the long lines, it’s terrible.”

In addition to searching for food, the task of buying clothes, shoes or a simple pack of cigarettes has become an impossible mission here. “The only way to buy shoes is to go to Varadero, to Plaza América, where every store is an MLC,” adds Córdoba. As for cigarettes, which are only sold for foreign currency, it has become so difficult to find them, says the Matanza resident, “that it’s easier to quit smoking.”

“They said that they were going to take measures that would let you buy what you need in your own district’s peso stores, without having to go very far,” she adds, though this has not happened. Now everyone she knows turns to the black market to make ends meet. “Without that, we’d have starved. Or I’d be dead by now.”

Until recently, La Plaza shopping center in Santiago de Cuba was one of the hard currency stores that had remained relatively well-stocked. However, after spending hours in line without knowing if they would be allowed to enter by day’s end, the only things customers found once they did manage to get inside were empty shelves.

“You have to be strong-willed to be able to wait in line at these stores. By week’s end I had spent many hours waiting to get into La Plaza. By the time I did get in, there was no food to buy. What’s even worse is that they don’t put up a sign to tell people what they do and do not have,” one resident of Santiago de Cuba tells 14ymedio.

“What people are looking for is food but it’s nowhere to be found. You leave feeling like you’ve been cheated twice. First, you’ve had to wait in an olympic-sized line since dawn, then you leave no better off than before because you come away empty-handed.

In the same city another establishment, La Reina, reopened on Tuesday as an MLC store. According to its Facebook page, El Chago – Santiago de Cuba,  people began sleeping outside Monday night after it became known the store would be selling face cream, shampoo and other personal care products. The post, created by an independent journalist, was accompanied by a photo of people waiting outside, sitting on the curb. They appear prepared for “battle,” as the reporter described the hours spent waiting to buy things.

In October the economics minister, Alejandro Gil, blamed the situation on “the tightening of the blockade*, the fuel shortage and the fall-off of tourist revenue from international flights and cruise ships.” He also noted, “We need more hard currency to restock store shelves but there is no hard currency. Even if there is consumer demand, it is very difficult to replenish supplies, so the informal economy is becoming stronger.”

Like many of her fellow citizens, Nuria receives money from her two children abroad through a hard currency account she has at a Cuban bank. As Raúl Castro himself admitted at the Eighth Communist Party Congress, “MLC stores exist to generate hard currency from overseas.”

At the same time they are collecting foreign currency, however, they are also generating deep-seated discontent, not just because social inequality is becoming more entrenched but, as one customer observed, “because it is getting worse.” The man, who waited unsuccessfully for hours outside a store in La Puntilla de Miramar shopping center on Monday, noted, “All I managed to buy were some green peas and a package of flour.”

Translator’s note: Cuban officials routinely refer to the US Embargo as “the blockade.”


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