The Consumer Revolt

The arrogant disdain with which communist party ideologues mock “the hoaxes of consumerism” has been diminishing in response to the public’s growing demand to be treated with respect. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, June 4, 2019 — In spite of official slogans calling for “continuity of the revolutionary process,” there is a disconnect between the reality of today’s Cuba and its ideological paradigms. Deprived of the right to elect their own leaders and prohibited from proposing any political alternatives, citizens have been reduced to being mere consumers.

The generation that sacrificed its youth to create Utopia must now rely on an uncertain pension. Their grandchildren, who grew up with the country’s dual currency system, have graduated from university, have their own children and feel no commitment to the past.

What unites these people, who are weighing the threatening prospect of another Special Period on the island, is simply their shared interests as users, customers and consumers. It is very risky to hold onto the notion that “no one will be abandoned” while people are beginning to push back against the abusive way the state treats them.

How has the relation of the customer to the marketplace evolved over the last sixty years?

The rules of the market were upended in the 1960s. The concept of selling goods was replaced with the concept of distributing them, with the stated intention that everyone would get a little of everything equally, at subsidized government-controlled prices. The rationing system, under the direction of the Office of Control and Distribution of Supplies, officially came into being on July 12, 1963.

Five years later the Revolutionary Offensive did away with all vestiges of private-sector retail. Throughout the 1970s the only things anyone could buy that were not rationed were newspapers and magazines, along with prescription medications. Everything else — from shoelaces to ballpoint pens — was listed, along with corresponding quantities, in the ration book for industrial products.

Over time, various reforms and counter-reforms were carried out. The reforms recognized the rules of the free market and acknowledged the existence of social differences as a natural phenomenon. The counter-reforms were efforts by a paternalistic state, which was inclined to see itself as the champion of egalitarianism, to keep controls in place.

The 1980s saw the birth of the “liberated market” in which some goods were not subject to rationing. Stores sold clothing and footwear, people sold handicrafts on Saturdays in Cathedral Square and farmers markets sold produce at prices set by supply and demand. It was also the era of the so-called diplo-tiendas, stores catering to diplomats and other foreigners. Cubans were not allowed to shop there but could ask their foreign friends to buy things for them. Interpreting the old Leninist expression “one step forward, two steps backwards” in his own unique way, Fidel Castro decided to do away with most of these “weaknesses.”

This was also the period in which, if you wanted to buy a household appliance, you not only had to pay for it but also had to present a voucher, which employers gave to workers who had earned the most merit points. Fulfilling certain requirements expected of a socialist, racking up voluntary work hours and participating in political activities became part of an invisible currency without which you could not buy a refrigerator, a television or a washing machine, almost always Soviet made.

All this changed unexpectedly after the fall of the Soviet bloc. The Cuban government was forced to allow the US dollar to circulate and established a network of hard currency exchanges and stores known as TRDs*. The invisible currency disappeared overnight. Now if you wanted to buy anything of value, you no longer needed merit points; you only needed dollars. Curiously, the strategies for earning hard currency were very different from those required for the revolutionary point system.

Being able to buy things at shopping malls — partaking of the “hoaxes of consumerism” — became the ultimate status symbol. For die-hard Communist Party loyalists, going into one of these places represented an ideological transgression, a possibility only for those who had maintained cordial relations with their relatives overseas, who in turn generously sent fresh cash to maintain “the sacred victories of the Revolution.”

Reality has forced Cubans to develop a new and considerable appreciation for the market, especially if the market prices its products in convertible pesos (CUC). Perhaps because the least dynamic sector of the market is to be found in what is referred to as subjective aspects, these changes have been slow, almost imperceptible.

Because of reductions in the inaptly named “basket of basics,” which is supposed to guarantee distribution of essential rationed goods, most Cubans have come to rely on shopping centers. Though items there are also in short supply, their stores do accept Cuban pesos (CUP) at an exchange rate of 25 CUP to 1 CUC. Bars of soap, sausages, vegetable oil, detergent and, when available, chicken are the most popular commodities at the nearly 2,000 TRD stores throughout the country.

Though TRD changed its name last March to Caribbean Store Chain, perhaps to make its obscene goal of getting the most money it can from its customers seem less obvious, the prices it charges consumers remain excessively high, as much as 200% of what it costs to acquire or produce an item.

In other words, the widespread perception among the consuming public is that these are no longer stores selling superfluous luxury goods but rather their only outlet for acquiring essentials. The decision makers, however, continue acting as though they are stores geared exclusively towards the rich.

The policy for setting prices is based on a notion of social justice that involves penalizing the possession of money so that the disadvantaged may enjoy the benefits of social programs. The absurdity of this policy is that the disadvantaged must turn to these markets, where they are stripped of a significant portion of their salaries.

Just a few years ago it would never have crossed any voter’s mind to file a complaint with his or her local representative over supply shortages or price gouging. Such actions might have been seen as ostentatious by one’s neighbors — a problem only for a minority who can afford shopping malls — and possibly a cause for reproach. But times have changed. Things are not the way they used to be.

Now the fight takes place in the ring of social networks, where consumers refuse to meekly accept what some would have them believe — that ostrich meat is an option for feeding one’s family. They openly protest the illogical distribution of “liberated-controlled” fish. They even reveal their identities in a tweet campaign demanding that the Cuban telecommunications monopoly Etecsa lower its prices.

In the globalized village where the market economy operates, things have evolved and expanded quite differently. Black Fridays, spring sales and membership cards that accrue points based on purchasing volume are features found in most countries.

You can almost watch in real time the quality and variety of products evolving along with the way they are displayed and the way in which the shelves are arranged. Home sales, online orders and delivery by drones or unmanned vehicles will perhaps become the latest milestones of modernity.

The system’s critics characterize all this as “the dictatorship of the market” and never tire of warning Cubans not to be tempted into renouncing the benefits of socialism by succumbing to the traps of capitalism.

The arrogant disdain with which communist party ideologues mock “the hoaxes of consumerism” has been diminishing in response to the public’s growing demand to be treated with respect. Tired of being hearing, “It’s your turn, comrade,” they look forward to hearing, “How may I help you, sir?”

It is the revolt of the consumers.

*Translator’s note: TRD stands for “Tiendas Recaudadoras de Divisas” — literally “Hard Currency Collection Stores.” 


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