This morning I decided to wander around my neighbourhood in Centro Habana. Piles of stones and rubble lay on the streets. Several building were under renovation. Is this the sign of new developments?
People queued everywhere. At supermarkets, grocery stores, banks, meat and bread shops. A crowd had gathered at an egg distribution shop. Men and women queued along the sidewalk and waited patiently. At a butchers, stacks of beef ribs with little meat were unloaded from a truck into the shop. Inside was just a solid concrete table and concrete floor. The bones were just plunked onto the table. Some fell onto the floor. The butcher just picked it up and threw it onto the concrete table. Where has all the meat gone? When business began, the buyers just collected the rib bones and either put them into a bag or just carted it away in the their hands, exposed. Forget about refrigeration and hygiene. Transactions were conducted from behind grilled doors and windows. Once all of today’s stock or supply is sold, the next delivery is uncertain. You may or may not get one tomorrow. This is the reality on living in Cuba. Everything is limited and supply is sporadic.
Another queue had already developed. This time mainly women. They pulled out their ration card and waited until the shopkeepers were ready. The ration card, “liberata”, determines what and how much each person is entitled to buy as specified by the State. Basic good included rice, sugar, cooking fuels and oils, eggs, bread, beans, coffee and even salt. Prices are listed on the wall. The quality may not be the best but available at discounted prices. Meat products can be obtained from local “carnicería” (meat store) and dry good from local convenience stores, “bodega”. Most of Cuba’s basic needs are imported and controlled by the State.The State incurred high expense to import, store and distribute these goods.
Along a narrow street amongst the dilapidated apartment blocks, I noticed that some front doors had large carved wooden doors. They resembled Indian doors. The interior of builds had high ceilings. Iron grills covered almost all the ground floor windows for security purposes. On the upper floors, there were ornately designed iron grills on all the balconies. Potted plants added green and colours. Clothing hung to dry on lines tied to the walls. The sun hardly shinned onto the surfaces as they were blocked by the closely arranged apartment blocks.
Business were conducted on the ground floors. I loved those business conducted through small windows, mostly grilled. One of these was a tiny cafe. 1 CUP for a sweet espresso coffee. Pizza, ice-cream and even daily sundries and supplies were conducted behind counters. All transactions were in local peso, the CUP, Moneda Nasional. One must develop a sharp eye to view the prices of items displayed on the shelves. There is no such thing as feeling the items, looking at the instructions or reading the ingredients.
Most business are still controlled and conducted with supervision from the central government. However, this is slowly but gradually relaxing. One example is locals acting a agents selling houses and properties on Prado. Advertisement hung on tree trunks and hand held posters had turned Prado as an open-air real estate ‘offices’. Some are merely exchanges, people move into each other’s property mutually. The new ‘opportunities’ included hotels and accommodations like the Casa Particulars, taxis, and restaurants. Mainly seem to be related to tourism.
A clothing store sold seemed like an extensive selection of dresses and shirts. A Che Guvera T-shirt cost 12CUC. Nearby, household equipment including fans and electrical kettle were displayed on shelves. No many to choose from and the cost beyond reach from most Cubans. I passed a supermarket and the shelves were stocked to a minimum. Some empty. Supply is hard to get and if available, it is expensive. So, it made sense to keep the inventory low. Turnover is also low. There is a sense that life here is really hard but basics are available. Education, medical, electricity, water, essential food items, transportation are all subsidized or free. Anything more is considered luxury. There are the well to do Cubans. Those I met at the bars, planes and high-end restaurants.
Despite the hardship, I did not see any beggars or people on the street starving. One thing is for certain, naturally Cubans are friendly and love life. They view these major set-back of government control as life’s challenges. Most don’t like it, but they carry on. What have we got to lose but to be happy, said a man. Despite all the daily hardship of rations, limited freedom of speech, long queues and an uncertain future, Cubans are very hospitable and ready to party. You don’t have to have much to be happy. Just walk down to the Malecón!
There are two set of prices, CUP and CUC, at many retail outlets including groceries, supermarkets and general stores. Prices in CUC are mainly targeted at tourist and rich Cubans. These items are usually considered ‘luxury” by the state. This includes anything that is not basic requirements for living.
A neighbourhood fresh produce and butcher shop close to my Casa in Centro Habana. Prices were quoted in Moneda Nasional (CUP). This shop occupied an empty lot of an apartment block which is completely missing. Around this block, half empty buildings as parts of the structure had collapsed. In some buildings, bricks were exposed and only the facade of upper floors remained. The Cubans are resourceful and make the best of any situation.