14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 26 January 2022 — What one day was, will not be. A song by José José says it and it was repeated this Tuesday by a peanut vendor looking nostalgically at the remains of the DiTú located at Zapata and C, in Havana. The decline of these establishments, which once shone for their wide range of products available for convertible pesos, has been visible for a few years, but the ’Ordering Task’* has given them their final coup de grace.
There were hundreds of establishments belonging to the Empresa Extrahotelera Palmares SA throughout the country, which in the past were popular for their sale of fried chicken, croquettes, sausages, carbonated soft drinks, ice creams, beers and cigarettes of different brands. Now, those that remain standing sell only a few products for Cuban pesos.
The bottles of water of the national brand Ciego Montero are practically the only product that is to be found on the DiTú counters. They rarely sell cigarettes and only in the most central ones are ice creams or bottles of rum sold, generating huge lines and selling out instantly. A few sell natural juices and even “timba cubana” (a guava bar with cheese), at the initiative of the same clerks who are looking for a little extra.
Workers spend long hours sitting, surfing the internet or making video calls with their families. “It’s horrible having to spend all day here doing nothing,” says a DiTú saleswoman on Calle 23, between 28th and 30th, in the Vedado neighborhood of the capital. “Hours go by without anyone coming to buy and it’s very boring having to be here just to sell sparkling water and a brand of cigarettes that no one smokes,” she lamented.
“The days of fat cows are over for us,” Rafael, a former worker at another DiTú, tells 14ymedio, adding that they used to make very good profits thanks to the variety of merchandise in their inventories. “In good days we could make up to 60 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), but now everything has changed, and ’inventions’ can be expensive,” he says.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Rafael decided to use the money he had collected to leave the country. “I had two paths: go to another country or invest my money and not spend it.” But the flights were suspended and he never liked the idea of crossing the 90 miles of the Florida Straits in a rustic boat. “I opened my electric motorcycle repair shop, and to this day I make a living from it,” he adds.
In the midst of the economic crisis that the country is going through, the Government has transferred many of the products that used to be sold in the DiTú to stores that only take payment in hard currencies, which has caused discomfort and protests among the population, who longingly remember the “abundance” that could be found in these small premises.
In Havana’s early mornings and especially on weekends, the DiTú were greatly frequented by night owls who came to get a cold beer and something to snack on, since they offered 24-hour service.
“Before, I would go at any time and with 3 CUC I would buy cigarettes, an assortment of croquettes and sausages, a Tukola, and they would give me change,” recalls Adrián, a resident of the municipality of Marianao. “Even so, before we used to complain because nobody was paid in that currency, but at least one could go to the bank and buy CUCs with Cuban pesos. We were rich and we didn’t know it,” he laments.
With its metallic structure painted white and red, the DiTú became the lifesaver of countless lunches. On Tulipán street in Nuevo Vedado, one of them supplied its products to parents who came looking for something cheap to add to their children’s snack at the José Luis Arruñada school, but shortly after it opened the quality of the products plummeted.
“They used the frying oil countless times to be able to steal the rest [i.e. sell it on the black market],” laments the mother of two girls who was a regular customer of the place that was closed several years ago. “The croquettes were good at first, but later they were pure flour and gave you a terrible acid stomach. People made jokes about it: that you had to go with a little baking soda in your wallet if you were going to buy them.”
Among the most demanded products of these striking kiosks was the canned beer produced on the Island, which consumers accompanied with the freshly fried food that came out of their stoves. In the DiTús that had more space, the tables located outside were often full of groups of friends who, not infrequently, provoked the annoyance of the nearby neighbors by talking loudly until late at night.
The DiTú name was one of the first to appear in a family of state-owned stores that also brought the DiMars, specializing in fish and shellfish, and the DiNos, which offered pizzas and sandwiches. There is not much left of those relatives either, converted into other types of snack bars, closed or with a very poor offerings.
Now rust has taken over the metal plates that make up the few DiTús that remain in operation in the Cuban capital. That smell of fried food that came from them disappeared, the side tables show their age with their deterioration and the pandemic finished them off with its distancing measures. The croquettes that were once the target of ridicule now populate the nostalgia of those who tried them.
*Translator’s note: Tarea ordenamiento = the [so-called] ‘Ordering Task’ which is a collection of measures that includes eliminating the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), leaving the Cuban peso as the only national currency, raising prices, raising salaries (but not as much as prices), opening stores that take payment only in hard currency which must be in the form of specially issued pre-paid debit cards, and others.
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