In Cuba: Beef Fillet for Forty-Dollars that Doesn’t Look Very Good

A line outside a hard currency store in Havana.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, August 6, 2020 — “No, we are almost completely out of personal hygiene products,” reiterated an employee at the Double Nine store in Havana on Wednesday. She said it dozens of times over the course the day to customers looking for shampoo, bath gel and hair conditioner, products that are already out of stock in the city’s newly opened hard currency stores.

The shops, which seemed like islands of abundance in the sea of scarcity that is the Cuban retail market, have begun to feel the weight of urgent demand and the absence of new merchandise. In less than two weeks many of the items that were initially available have disappeared. Even the way customers are treated by employees has changed.

At the nearby La Arcada, a grocery store on the same street, the only items available in the meat section this week are expensive cuts of beef, “and not much at that,” acknowledges an employee. “When we first opened, we also had fish, cold cuts, cheese and cocktail sausages but now we only have beef fillet.”

The shelves, which were full when the store first opened on July 20, are now empty despite the fact that the store’s customers come from only a small segment of the population: those with access to foreign currency and a magnetic cash card. “I came the first day, as soon as they opened, and I am back now,” says Ricardo, a 72-year-old retiree at the Boyeros y Camagüey store.

“On opening day there was a line of more than three hundred people outside the store. But it was worth the wait because I was able to buy sausages, beef, shampoo and a few packages of dried beans,” he says. “When I came back on Tuesday, the meat department only had some very fatty, very expensive pork loin. In the cleaning section there are no personal hygiene products, only things for cleaning bathrooms and floors.”

Ricardo recalls that on his first visit “the whole store was very well air-conditioned but it’s turned off today.” He also notes, “The connection between the card reader and the bank was down and you had to wait forty minutes for them to get it back. And all this in a place where you are paying dearly for every item.”

Outside the store a man dressed in a military uniform scans the ID card of everyone going inside. The process is repeated at the cash register. Employees continually repeat the same mantras: Maintain discipline; wait your turn; do not speak loudly or take pictures. The loudspeakers, which on opening day promoted tour packages and appliances in foreign currency, are now silent.

Meanwhile, the murmur of complaints can be heard. Cooking oil that a customer has accidentally spilled is still on the floor. Other customers are demanding that someone come clean it up once because “this store has a lot of ’greenbacks’ and takes in a lot of money every day.”

“We do not have a cash card at this store to buy cleaning supplies,” an employee carrying an extremely old blanket and piece of cardboard finally says.

On his second visit to the store, Ricardo planned to do some shopping for several acquaintances. “The woman who sells me milk, farmer’s cheese and butter she gets from Güira de Melena told me that, if I could buy her some shampoo and hair conditioner, she would lower the price of my next purchase, and she would also give me two extra liters of milk,” he explains. Bartering has emerged as a very popular way of dealing with the crisis and those with money to spend in hard currency stores are a first step in the process.

Outside the Boyeros and Camagüey store, several people are on the lookout for someone with a bank card willing to buy them what they want in exchange for the purchase price in convertible pesos plus a service charge. “I came here for deodorant, toothpaste and shampoo but they’ve already told me there isn’t any,” says a young man who has been to three other hard currency stores in the city. “I’m going to wait here anyway to see if someone can buy me two cans of sardines that I was told they have.”

When the hard currency stores first opened, there was a wave of indignation. Many people were outraged that merchandise was scarce in stores that accepted Cuban pesos but abundant in stores where you had to pay with foreign currency. But over time both types of retail outlets began to see their supplies dwindle.

La Puntilla, a hard currency store with one of the widest assortment of goods in the Cuban capital, is experiencing a similar situation. Leaked photos of shelves fully stocked with canned goods on opening day caused outrage on social networks due to their high prices. Now those scenes are just a memory. Every morning a line forms outside with people waiting to enter the store.

“I came here thinking I could find a wider variety of meats but the only thing available was a beef fillet for almost 40 dollars that didn’t even look very good, as if it had been in the refrigerator too long,” explains a customer who got a Visa debit card on a trip to Panama that can be used at the new stores.

“It’s all very expensive but that’s no guarantee you’ll find what you’re looking for or that you’ll get good service,” she says. She complained to the cashier that the package of sausages she wanted to buy, the last one in the cooler, did not a have price tag. “Everything has deteriorated very quickly. I came on July 20 and imagined that I was going to see the shelves well stocked for awhile, but thy don’t even have half the items I saw that day.”

Customers are spreading the word about which hard currency stores still have good assortments. “I’m told that the frozen food selection is better at the 3rd Avenue and 70th Street store but you have to get there at dawn,” she says. “If I have to pay in dollars and I also have to have to wait in line for hours without knowing whether or not they have what I’m looking for, then what’s the difference if I pay in pesos?”


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