Cuba’s Foreign Currency Store Prices Are Prohibitive for the Majority of the People of Matanzas

While some people enter stores to see what’s there, others beg for alms to survive / 14ymedio

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Julio César Contreras, Matanzas, May 12, 2024 — The idea that stores that only take payment in freely convertible currency (MLC) were created to supply markets in pesos is a mantra that Valeria repeats, ironically, when she enters one of those stores in Matanzas. The half-empty showcases, the labels with unthinkable prices and the beggar who sleeps in the doorway makes one doubt whether to enter or not. But in a country without supplies, which move in dollars, there is no other option.

“Honestly, I can come and shop from time to time because my son sends me some money from the United States. If that weren’t the case, I would have to settle for looking into the windows from the street of the many stores that have opened, most of them where locals can’t even enter,” Valeria tells 14ymedio . According to the woman from Matanzas, in the city foreign currency businesses proliferate “as if they were hotels” although there is no merchandise or clients with pockets deep enough to allow themselves to be a regular at these establishments.

This store, located in the old Ten Cent on Medio Street, remains much of the time without customers purchasing products at MLC / 14ymedio

“My nephew, who works as an architect, has told me that many projects have been stopped because the place they imagined was going to be used for cultural presentations or social enjoyment becomes a store in MLC. The very corner of Ayón Street, where we all thought they were going to open a cultural center, from one day to the next they surprised us with another of these stores,” she laments.

For those who do have the currency, finding what they are looking for is not an easy task either. “These businesses always have problems supplying themselves and many times we receive products that no one is going to buy because of their high prices or because they are not to the taste of Cubans,” explains the manager of one of these stores. “I myself get tired of asking for replacement of out-of-stock products and I don’t receive any effective response. So, what we do is fill the shelves with the same products so that the room doesn’t look empty,” he says.

The stores in MLC are within the reach of the minority of the town, whose income does not allow them to purchase the products sold in said stores / 14ymedio

“Not too many people come either – those who have family abroad who send them remittances and those who get dollars on the street to buy a specific item – so many times the most expensive products stagnate,” he adds. “Look at this four-burner stove with an oven, how good it is, but it costs 395 MLC. Even changing an entire year’s salary into dollars is not enough to buy it.”

Shortages are is part of the stores in MLC / 14ymedio

“To make matters worse, with normal purchases you also have to be careful and look at the receipt. Several times I have had to complain to the clerks who charged me more than the product is worth,” he adds. Another common trick is the sale, “on the left,” of appliances in high demand, such as refrigerators, freezers , microwaves and air conditioning consoles. “I have been on a list in the store for two months to buy a refrigerator, which is also very expensive, and they have been re-supplied twice and I still have not been able to buy it,” summarizes Antonio, who is trying to purchase the equipment for his daughter.

“The thing is, if 15 kits come, the store sells five to people and the other 10 are sent to friends or people who pay them with money or favors for their refrigerator. At this rate I’m going to die before I can buy it,” he says.

Lining up to enter the cafeteria located in the store on Ayón Street. It is the only space in the establishment that sells products in pesos / 14ymedio

Part of these appliances end up being sold through black market networks, at higher prices, often in cash in dollars, although with the advantage of transportation to the customer’s home. Informal merchants also accept payments through a wide range of channels, including some such as Zelle from the United States or Bizum from Spain.

For their part, the workers of these businesses report that they also have their own set of problems. “In addition to controlling customers who gather furiously when a requested product arrives or receiving complaints and insults from others due to shortages – which is not our fault – the portals of MLC stores have become places frequented by beggars,” says Miriam, who has worked for 12 years as a salesperson, first at a Panamericana and now at a local currency store in the Caribe chain.

The stores in MLC have also become points of sale for basic family basket products, such as the long-awaited packages of chicken or the, now missing from the rationed market, bottles of oil / 14ymedio

To this we must add that card payment has almost completely eliminated the tip that state store employees received when people paid in cash and the convertible peso was still in circulation. Now, in many of these stores in MLC, workers have placed a box with bills in national currency to suggest to customers that they can leave some money, but the generosity of the buyers is scarce.

“I feel very sorry for the people who come to ask for alms, but here they have us, who, no matter what we sell, we earn the same: a pittance,” she explains. Miriam particularly remembers an old woman who often settled in the doorway of her business. “She told us that she had to beg because she had no pension and she needed to buy food for her daughter who was sick with nerves. That day I helped her with what I could, but life doesn’t give much more. Better or worse, almost everyone who comes to this store – whether for what it costs or for what they can’t find – is to be pitied.”


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.