Ivan Garcia, Havana, 4 April 2022 — After shaving his incipient beard, Sergio, 36, a software programmer, gets his smartphone and goes online. Using the WhatsApp tool Infotienda, he tracks down which market in Havana is stocking cheese, toilet paper, and milk powder.
His 10-year-old daughter and two of her friends play The Sims on a state-of-the-art PlayStation in the living room, while Mildred, his wife of 34 years and owner of a hairdressing business, seasons chickpeas in the kitchen. Sergio can’t complain. He lives in a two-story villa with a patio and garage in El Casino, a quiet suburb of the Cerro municipality thirty minutes from the center of Havana.
His house is equipped with all the comforts of modern life: appliances, air-conditioned rooms, and a small jacuzzi. He drives a 2018 KIA Picanto that cost him $55,000 on the informal market. This young professional couple, successful entrepreneurs, would probably not attract attention in any other country. But in Cuba, where on average people stand in line four hours a day to buy bread or food, that comfort level is the exclusive domain of foreign residents, or of the opulent olive-green* bourgeoisie who preach social justice while living the high life.
Sergio has shielded himself in these times of crisis. Gates, security cameras, burglar alarms and a pair of intimidating Rottweiler dogs protect the property. But “resolving”** the food problem, even with money, is a not-infrequent problem. “Getting food is a very tough battle in Cuba. You can buy beef in government hard currency stores, but it isn’t always available. They also run out of chicken breast sometimes as well as quality sausages, and the seafood costs an arm and a leg. On the black market you can buy some things like fresh fish and shrimp. If you buy beef you have to have a trusted contact, because many times the meat that is sold is not suitable for human consumption,” he says.
“The other big problem is the high prices and minimal variety,” Sergio continues. “For example, two weeks ago I bought eight kilos of beef and six kilos of veal from an MLC [hard currency] store and it cost me $237. Or, I could buy it in one of those places that sells food to Cubans living abroad. Some have better deals than others. For me, the two best are Supermarket and Katapulk, which sell food imported directly from the United States such as chicken, pork, rice, milk powder and toiletries, among other things. But the prices are scandalous and these places have a discriminatory policy against Cubans who live on the island, because you can only pay with Visa, Mastercard or some other foreign bank card.”
I’ll give you a price list. Katapulk, a mysterious agency founded by Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American who presents himself as a businessman and also runs the online site OnCuba News, sells a pack of four five-kilogram bags of milk powder for $279.96. A 25-kilogram sack of long grain rice at $60.79. A small pig for roasting, 12 to 16 kilograms, for 131 dollars. And two pigs’ legs of 24 to 26 kilograms at $178.47. All Made in the USA.
Despite the vaunted economic embargo, Katapulk offers everything from frozen chicken, juices, compotes, smoothies, instant soft drinks, soaps, Colgate toothpaste, Palmolive shower gel and shampoo, to cereals and frozen green plantains*** brought directly from the United States. Cuban food producers sell beef, seafood, pasta sauces, juices, sausages, dressings, ice cream and cookies on Katapulk. This last fact is a reason for discontent among the population, because such items are rarely found in the poorly-stocked “peso” markets, or even in the so-called “MLC” [freely-convertible currency] stores.
Such is not the case with Sergio, a Havana man who in a month can earn up to three thousand dollars selling software and can afford to have cards from foreign banks that allow him to buy on sites enabled for Cubans living abroad, especially in Miami.
“If you travel to another country, what you do is open an account there, or you get a relative who lives abroad to send you a Visa or Mastercard. When I get paid, I deposit part of the money directly onto the card. You must use an address, email and telephone number of a relative or friend who resides outside the country. For home delivery they charge you between 15 and 18 dollars, depending on the site. You have the advantage that you can buy food that is not sold even in the MLC stores. But the prices are outrageous. Even for me, who makes a salary much higher than the average salaries in Cuba, buying in those markets is unsustainable. What I do is combine my sources. There are things that I get on digital sites, others on the black market and others in MLC stores,” Sergio confesses.
For María Elena, an 80-year-old retiree, her children in Miami send her food and personal hygiene products purchased on one of the more than 25 digital e-commerce sites designed for the Cuban emigration. “My children spend a fortune, from 400 to 500 dollars a month on food and toiletries for their family on the Island.”
A former foreign trade official comments that “most of these sites are camouflaged businesses of high-ranking government officials. The Council of State, with its Palco enterprise, is behind many of these businesses. COPEXTEL, owned by Ramiro Valdés, has also set up a beach bar. All these stores sell food at between three and eight times higher prices than in any Western country. They squeeze the pockets of the emigrants as though they were oranges. They are extremely lucrative businesses.”
The question that ordinary Cubans ask themselves is where and how does the regime spend all that money. The water leaks that abound in the country, the cracked streets, and the 50 percent of houses that cry out to be renovated, are a sign that these profits are not invested in improving the quality of life of the people.
The only investments in Cuba right now are the construction of four- and five-star hotels. These are executed by GAESA, a military company that is a parallel State within the State. It’s likely that part of the foreign currency that enters the country through this route stays there.
* “Resolving” is how Cubans refer to dealing with, or surmounting, the many daily impediments they face in meeting their basic needs.
** “Olive-green” is a reference to the color of the combat fatigues worn for years by Cuba’s top echelon of leaders.
*** Green plantains are used in Cuban cuisine to make the popular chips, tostones, and other dishes.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison