14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 18 November 2019 — Economists and analysts will say otherwise, but Amalia, 68, has her own version of events. This Saturday she decided to visit the Mercado de Cuatro Caminos, in Havana, to observe with her own eyes the reopening of the most important commercial center in the Cuban capital. “When I saw the tumult I didn’t want to enter but the crowd pushed me inside and I climbed the stairs, without moving my feet, to the first floor.”
Driven by the human energy of an avalanche of customers, the retiree ended up in front of an appliance store although she did not want to buy “neither a rice cooker nor a refrigerator,” she says. After being closed for five years, the so-called Single Market was the scene on Saturday of a popular escalation, a taking of the Bastille with a commercial touch, a revolution of customers desperate to buy everything that is lacking in other stores on this island.
The responsibility for what happened — several injured, dozens frustrated and hundreds disappointed by the temporary closure — rests primarily with the authorities. In the next few days the official press will try to convince us that it was “social indiscipline” or the hand of “counterrevolutionary elements” that caused the collapse of such a grand opening, but you just have to live in the Cuban reality to know what happened.
For weeks, the depressed Havana markets, especially the stores in selling in hard currency, had suffered an intensification of their shortages. One only had to ask the employees to hear something like: “They came and took the chicken breasts and the toilet paper for Cuatro Caminos.” Using the old strategy of “undressing one saint to dress another,” the Government played the card of using the reopening of the commercial center as a showcase to demonstrate an economic capacity it does not possess.
Although a “smart platform” was installed inside to control electricity and climate, as the State newspaper Granma hyped with great emphasis, it occurred to no one to design a simple mechanism to organize the line outside the premises, at least for the opening day of sales to the public. Thin ropes could have helped manage the line that began to form at dawn on Saturday. The human storm surge was already a tsunami by the time the market opened.
It is not possible to create a bubble of efficiency, prosperity and cleanliness in the middle of a city and a country that is falling to pieces. Previous examples, such as the Plaza de Carlos III, the Trasval Hardware Store on Galiano Street or the Ultra Store, one of the first department stores to open after the decriminalization of the dollar in the 1990s, are today a sad memory of what could have been. The shortages, grime and deterioration of their infrastructure complete the day to day of these businesses.
The Single Market is also located in one of the areas with the highest population density in the city, not to mention Cuba. It was enough to calculate that the surrounding neighbors would come on the first day of operation to know that the number of customers at the time of opening the doors would be counted by thousands, not tens or hundreds.
If you add to that the triumphant images that they broadcast on the TV News, with varieties of frozen chicken that right now can’t be found anywhere, some pristine pallets with malangas that mothers spend weeks trying to buy for their babies, shelves with packages of powdered milk, bags of detergent and the mundane cans of beer that are so scarce, the perfect storm was ready.
After two in the afternoon, Amelia tried to leave Cuatro Caminos and the inferno it had become. A can of wall paint overturned by the crowd had turned part of the halls into a series of footprints that ran desperately in one direction or another. The sandals she was wearing couldn’t take it and broke while she was trying to find the door to escape from there. With the empty bag, her painted feet and the conviction that “no one will come back here,” she returned home.
Its story is just one more, but Cuatro Caminos failed on its first day mainly because in Cuba the political class lives very far from reality, does not step foot on the streets, does not line up or know how long a liter of cooking oil or a can of tomato sauce lasts. They, up there, have not only lost the economic north a long time ago, but also the ability to intuit how people will act.
COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.