Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 1 April 2019 — It’s Saturday morning and The Carlos III Shopping Plaza in Centro Habana recently opened, but already the butcher shop, in the interior of the establishment, is packed with people while, beyond the windows of the front door, another crowd swarms, expectantly waiting their turn to come in.
The customary shortages, made worse during the final months of 2018, have become chronic in hard currency stores, so that in the few markets where there is some assortment, large crowds gather. People in Cuba devote a large part of their time to the search for and acquisition of food.
“This is the only place I’ve found chicken and ground beef after looking in lots of other stores”, says a mature woman while placing the desired products in her shopping cart. Like her, dozens of people lean over the refrigerators gathering food to buy and take home.
In comparison with the empty shelves of previous days, this weekend the market has released products of dubious nutritional quality but of popular acceptance, due to their more modest prices: beef burgers, meatballs, sausages, various types of chopped meats, mixed with soy and starches — all of them imported — and artificially flavored and sweetened yogurt produced domestically. Chicken, which has become an obligatory character at the Cuban table and enjoys great popular demand, has reappeared after being absent for several days in this market. Nobody knows when the food supplies will be restocked, so everyone tries to hoard food as far as their limited finances will allow.
The endemic food shortage in Cuba has been joined by a subtle but steady increase in the prices of some foods. At the back of the butcher shop, next to the glass case, a blackboard displays what looks like science fiction for the Cuban pockets. The notice board is insulting: Marbled, bone in Beef Loin 20.25 CUC* / Kg (equivalent to 506.25 CUP). The same boneless product is also offered at 19.30 CUC / Kg (equivalent to 482.50 CUP), in addition to “super” ham at 10.25 CUC / Kg (256.25 CUP), bacon at 3.00 CUC / 250gr (75.00 CUP), Siboney brand processed cheese 4.95 CUC / Kg (123.75 CUP) and several types of sausages produced nationally with mixed capital of State companies and Spanish partners, in tubes of 500 grams whose prices range between 4.65 CUC (116.25 CUP) and 7.10 CUC (177.50 CUP). Most customers are buying only processed cheese, while a large stale piece of beef worth 88 CUC (2,200 CUP) continues to age, dark and forgotten, behind the vitreous refrigerated showcase.
Concerning the agricultural markets, they have joined the upward prices spiral that, usually high, continue to shoot even higher without mercy in the agricultural demand and supply (i.e. unrationed) markets, whose products are of greater variety and of superior quality to the ones offered in the small kiosks of other private sellers. As for the agricultural markets of state cooperatives, they usually have a poor supply, and their products, with some exceptions, are usually of the worst quality, and even their more modest prices do not have a realistic relationship with the purchasing power of the common Cuban.
Although not everyone is aware of the complexity and depth of the economic crisis that grips them and threatens to worsen in times to come, the perception of the deterioration begins to be felt on the minds of the people. The uncertainty about the near future continues to grow, along with the certainty that the government does not have a viable alternative to address the growing problems of the economy and society.
The most recent meetings of the Councils of Ministers have uncovered some of the huge cracks through which finances disappear, as well as other serious ills ailing the national economy that have forced the government to make public certain deficiencies that years ago would have remained hushed. However, far from implementing reforms to end with damaging centralism and to free up the productive forces leading to the development of private initiative, the authorities have opted for the formula, largely unsuccessful, of “control increases,” savings “as source of income” and the eternal calls for the productive efficiency of workers.
However, in crisis situations nothing is as useful to the official script as a villain. And, since the “blockade” (the embargo) is still useful but no longer enough to justify internal failures, in recent issues the television news program has been focusing precisely on the “hoarders-speculators” — that fauna, the natural daughter of scarcity and unproductiveness — as if it were about a new phenomenon and had not been a permanent character of our existence for at least the last half century.
Thus, in order to remedy the shortages, the hot potato has been launched at the population by the Castro media: “the people” have been invited to go onto the National Television News (NTV) website and other lampoons to present their proposals as to what measures the authorities should take to curb this scourge of parasites that make the lives of the most humble Cubans so expensive by appropriating large quantities of basic goods and then reselling them at multiplied prices in the informal market.
With that amusing touch of modernity — a sign of the new style of media-focused governance with which they have been refreshing the image of the failed Castro experiment in the hands of the “young” commander without command — the power cupola not only evades its direct responsibility in the economic catastrophe into which it has plunged Cuba, and its obligation to present a proposal to mend it, but suggests to the servants of the ruinous medieval village to disburse a part of their already meager pockets to connect to the Internet (also with the onerous prices of its connections) and declare on the official page of the NTV what to do with these lesser delinquents, that is, the hoarders.
What the plan is really about is to set an example by punishing, not the true and biggest hoarders-speculators who have been squeezing all of us for 60 years, but to chastise those petty rascals who engage in small-scale mercantile fiddling and who, in the last instance, also survive, protected by the general corruption of the system.
Because, in a good fight, the State-Government-Party is the first link of the chain of speculators dragging Cubans to poverty. They are officials of the Castro regime — many of them proven corrupt over the years — who are responsible for the ever increasingly insufficient purchases of food at the lowest price abroad later sold for prices that are multiplied several times in the state retail trade networks, in which Cubans must necessarily buy to survive, and it is the economic paralysis of state centralism that fosters the proliferation of those markets and these speculators, in a system that reproduces its own basic vices time and again.
The inefficient and unproductive State-Party-Government is the parasite that sets low prices for food production by peasants, imposes what kind of crops they must develop, monopolizes harvests, which often deteriorate or are lost in the fields or in storage warehouses, and thus pushes producers to sell to intermediary speculators, who offer better prices for the farmers’ harvests, but raise consumer costs.
Thus, by diverting attention to the effect to mask the causes of evil and, at the same time, manipulate national public opinion, the leadership creates a false impression that popular participation is part of the decision-making of the economy and in the solution of the problems that afflict the population, at the same time that it increases the time to implement the essential apertures that, sooner or later, would mark the route towards the inevitable end of the socialist experiment in Cuba.
*Translator’s note: The CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is roughly equivalent to one U.S. dollar. Monthly wages in Cuba average roughly 17-30 CUC a month, thus this price for 2.2 pounds of beef is more than many Cubans’ monthly wage.
Translated by Norma Whiting