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Cuba: State Measures Prompt Food Shortages

Restrictions intended to prevent hoarding have just made matters worse.
By Laura Rodríguez Fuentes

Before the coronavirus crisis hit, semi-retired couple Guillermo and Magdalena lived a modest life in their small apartment in Villa Clara.

They just about managed to make ends meet with the money Guillermo earned as a part-time watchman at a state-owned warehouse, combined with his pension of 24 US dollars a month from his previous occupation as a small-scale farmer. Magdalena brought in a little extra sewing clothes, especially during the school year.   

But in March, Guillermo was forced to stop working his three weekly night shifts after the government ordered public transport suspended. Guillermo found it impossible to walk the eight kilometres between his home and work and back again.

Aged 63, he also decided it was best to stay home to reduce the risk of being infected; Villa Clara has experienced the highest rates of infection and deaths on the island.

The couple now try to live on Guillermo’s pension alone, and Magdalena also makes some money selling masks she sews out of old sheets and clothes.   

“I make more than 20 a day,” she explained. “People come and buy them. I sell them for three or five pesos, depending on the size and the material I use.”

All this means that the couple struggle to put food on the table each day, a situation exacerbated by restrictions on sales of basic goods. Guillermo and Magdalena say that they have resigned themselves to eat whatever they can find and afford, often just a steamed vegetable and a piece of bologna for their main meal. 

Many Cubans say that restrictions imposed by the government to avoid shortages and hoarding during the pandemic have actually served to make matters worse.

Before the lockdown, it was possible to buy products such as chicken, sugar, eggs or rice freely – although in Santa Clara, items which were part of the essential food basket were already scarce in the regulated markets. Now they can only be acquired with the ration card, and some foods are sold without the usual subsidy.  

(See also Pandemic Highlights Cuban Chaos).

The maximum amount of rice that people can buy in Santa Clara is seven pounds per person per month - an increase of only two pounds from the usual five in the ration card - for 90 cents of a local peso.

In many households, this amount of rice is not enough to last for a whole month. The situation is very similar with other staples, such as black beans or peas, which are only allotted at ten ounces per person per month. 

“I ran out of rice some time ago. We now substitute rice for a puree of mashed plantains,” Magdalena said, clearly embarrassed. “Most of the time, we share one egg between the two of us.”

The restrictions should have been accompanied by an increase in availability in the shops where goods are sold for convertible Cuban pesos (CUC), a parallel currency pegged to the dollar. But in Santa Clara, these shops lack meat products or grains to complement the subsidised products the state provides every month, such as rice and pasta. 

In late March, the minister of internal trade, Betsy Diaz Velazquez, announced that the government would allow the sale of a pound of chicken per person per month at a non-subsidised price of 20 pesos using the ration card.  

However, distribution problems meant that a month later, chicken was still not available in Santa Clara shops. 

Some items now available are low-quality products such as a mix of minced bologna ham and soybeans. People are allowed to buy half-a-pound of this mix every month, plus six eggs per person at 15 cents each. 

In Santa Clara butcher shops, the only products available are soya yogurt and a mass of minced animal guts at six pesos (25 cents) a pound.  

A shop assistant who asked not to be identified said that many refused to buy the meat product because they did not know what was in it.

“We are indeed in such great need, but this thing has a weird smell, and it doesn't look good,” she said.

Given the regulations, the only freely available food is that sold by street vendors or the shops that are part of the Cimex and TRD Caribe chains. These shops – managed by the Armed Forces – sell imported goods in CUC.

But, from April onwards, these shops stopped selling products not included in the categories of food, cleaning, and toiletries, as well as baby items such as nappies and bottles. 

In Santa Clara, these chains - penalised by US embargo laws - also faced problems due to product shortages. The only products visible in shop windows were canned items such as olives, jams and mayonnaise at exorbitant prices - a can of tuna, for instance, costs more than 75 pesos (three dollars).

None of these products help Cubans to put the traditional meal of meat, rice and beans on the table.

A document published recently by the Spanish Economic and Commercial Office in Cuba estimated that Cimex and TRD Caribe shops operate with profit margins of between 180 and 240 per cent. This is also a way for the government to collect hard currency money from those who receive remittances from abroad. 

LONG QUEUES AND EMPTY BASKETS

In Santa Clara city centre, two long queues form every morning. One is in front of the Western Union office, where remittances from abroad are cashed, and the other is at the entrance to the Praga shop, part of the Cimex chain. Here people spend the money they have just received. 

Amid the coronavirus crisis, the Western Union queue became so long that people had to arrive there before dawn. 

María de la Caridad Cueto is once again trying to cash the cheques her nephew sends her from Miami. Although she is at extra risk from coronavirus due to her diabetes, she still needs to leave the house to buy food.

Although she has been to the remittances office twice, on both occasions she had to leave without any money. There were always too many people waiting at the entrance.  

“[My nephew] works hard over there, and I never ask him for anything, but this time I have to accept his help,” Cueto said, standing in a line for the remittances office alongside 30 other people.

“The first time I came, I spent two hours queuing, only to be told that the office's connection was down. I came again yesterday, but I went back home because there were too many people. You see, I suffer from diabetes, I can't stay too long without eating and drinking water.” 

Maribel Santana, a 35-year-old cook who lost her job at a restaurant because of the pandemic, managed to collect her remittance of 75 CUC but had to return home without spending any of it.

“I came to Praga, but there was nothing in the refrigerators,” she said. “Only several cans of peaches and other things that aren't of any use when trying to put together a proper meal. Only costly treats and goodies.”

She continued, “I am lucky that I get help from abroad, but money is just paper, and as such, you can't eat it.

“Cubans have always gone hungry… I am going to invest what I have to buy wheat flour to make croquettes and sell them in my neighborhood. That's how I'll survive.”

The authorities have created an online shop, tuenvio.cu, selling products from Cimex and TRD Caribe. But social media has been full of Cubans complaining about the difficulties of accessing the website, which collapsed on its first day of operation due to the high traffic.

One of the reasons there are such shortages in the Cimex, Praga, and TRD Caribe shops are the increase in the number of hoarders and resellers. 

On a late April morning, more than 20 people were already queuing in front of the Cimex shop located on the road between Santa Clara and Sagua - all of them "coleras" a job that emerges in Cuba in moments of crisis or during the hurricane season. These women are organized to queue at certain shops to ensure supplies that can be resold.

The shop assistant explains to the group that there is nothing available inside.

"There's no cooking oil, chicken, tomato sauce or soap," she said, asking them to leave and warning them she would call the police if they refuse. However, no one has seen a police agent around in quite a few hours.  

A thirtysomething woman, who organises all the queues in the neighbourhood, writes the names of all those in the queue on her notepad and gives them a piece of paper with a number on it to determine their place in line.   What she is doing is illegal, and she could be fined 3,000 pesos and taken to jail. But she does not seem afraid of the police. 

Although the woman declined to identify herself, she explained that when a truck with merchandise arrived at one of the Cimex or TRD Caribe shops, the coleras tell their friends and contacts so they can join the queue together with other family members. 

Usually, the most sought-after products are cooking oil, detergent and packages of frozen chicken.  

“We take note of what people want the day before depending on the product because we always know in advance what items will arrive at the shop,” she said. “You may see only one person in the queue, but soon five more join. We take turns for our people, our family and friends.”

The majority of those who manage to be first in the queues are hoarders and resellers. They even use social media channels for advertising their home delivery services, charging very high prices. To protect their identity, many of them create fake profiles on Facebook, receive orders via Messenger and only make the delivery once they are sure the customer is genuine.

Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel has repeatedly urged action against the illegal resellers, warning recently that "these people are making the situation even more complicated".

Despite the complaints and several high-profile arrests publicised by the state media, the authorities have failed to stop these activities.   

Many Cubans cannot understand why products meant to be sold freely end up in the state shops that only sell regulated items, suggesting that these items could be included in the ration card to more easily control what people buy and help reduce queuing.

Some people believe that the state has not proposed this as it would affect one of the most lucrative activities of the business consortium managed by the Cuban Armed Forces. 

“[The government] say state shops are not enough to distribute everything, but it is possible, I tell you,” a manager at a Cimex shop in Santa Clara said, asking to remain anonymous.

"If what comes to my shop was to be distributed in this area by the state shops and the butcheries, I'm sure there would be enough food to feed every household,” she continued. “We would eliminate all these problems. Sometimes, not even us managers know which products are going to be delivered to the shop, and already there is a queue of people waiting outside.” 

For residents of Santa Clara, the experience has been painful.

“This is an abuse,” said one elderly man, returning home empty-handed after a fruitless shopping trip. “One feels like a child looking through the shop window at something you know you can’t buy.”

Laura Rodríguez is a journalist for Cubanet and Tremenda Nota. 

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