Living in Cuba, a Surreal Chronicle of Post-Pandemic Times
Lots of things have happened in Cuba since 2020: the ravages of the pandemic, a sinking economy with tourism on hold, currency reunification within the framework of the so-called Tarea Ordenamiento (economic reforms), a build-up of social pressure and days of protest on July 11th and 12th 2021. Cuba is changing at a dizzying pace, and what was once legal can suddenly stop being legal overnight, products that have been banned become very popular on the black market, and what was once unpopular could become a means of survival.
You adapt to this routine of more and more absurd laws and regulations that Cubans follow like robots and sound so ridiculous if you’re coming from a different country. For example, I left Cuba and came back two years later. A close circle of friends had left the country and rebuilt their lives abroad. Those that stayed behind in Cuba advised me not to come back. Others warned me “to be ready”, because “things are getting worse every day.” I had plenty of messages saying, “bring powdered milk for the baby,” “get vitamins, antibiotics, antihistamines,” “get antigen tests.”
The first thing I noticed when I came back, was the radical change in the city’s human geography. Going-out spots (Vedado, Malecon, Old Havana) were empty. “People don’t have money,” I was told when I asked about well-known spots. After the reforms and subsequent inflation, a beer can cost 250 pesos, a margherita pizza, 300. With an average wage of 2100 pesos, these products are totally out of people’s reach. On the other hand, places that always had people coming and going are now full: people sitting down, people standing, people in different waiting positions. Waiting for transport, or to buy bread, crackers, minced meat, cooking oil, eggs… The elderly, young people, men, women and children.
Some friends that are a couple came to visit me once. We talked about meeting on Saturday. “Not Saturday, we’re planning to line up for chicken that day, in Vedado.” When I asked why in Vedado, if they live in another municipality, they told me: “Lines are calmer in Vedado, safer. People don’t get into fights as much. You wait the same 6 hours, but it’s relaxed.”
Three weeks after that conversation, my friends no longer had this choice. The Havana Government decreed basic essentials can only be purchased in municipalities of residence and at allocated retail points according to the rations book, which ordinary Cubans can’t imagine their day-to-day lives without.
It’s also hard to imagine Cubans’ everyday lives without lines, at least for Cubans without access to the magnetic card USD equivalent called MLC.
Nevertheless, the Cuban people’s resistance is surprising, and there is always someone who learns to dodge obstacles, “paving the way” for others. Several users have made applications to navigate poor functioning online shopping sites controlled by the State such as TuEnvio, so as to speed up purchases: “Combo virtual”, “VirtualShop”, “Tu combo”, “Combo Plus”, “Mi carrito”, “Comprando en Cuba”.
When less is being offered and products disappear from online shopping baskets quicker than usual, Cubans resort to other strategies. A neighbor has developed an algorithm with cellphones belonging to his entire family so they can all access it at the same time, and each of them with their own APK. He gets the combos and anything on offer, and you can hear him shouting afraid the Internet will cut out: “Click now, quickly it’s going to cut out!” It’s like a lottery, and it’s his everyday job. If he buys more combos than he was expecting, because of errors in the system itself, he resells them to neighbors who don’t have MLC or megabytes to access online stores. If he isn’t able to “catch” a combo, my neighbor insists the next day, as soon as things appear online.
It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but these strategies mean survival for regular Cubans: a packet of chicken can cost 8 MLC at a store with prices in USD, but 250 CUP in a store selling in Cuban pesos. The difference of over 700 Cuban pesos convinces many people to go at the crack of dawn to wait to buy cooking oil, chicken for more affordable prices at stores destined to sell them in a regulated way. Plus, this has serious ramifications if you take an individual’s economy into account. Let’s give you an example from the famous Economic Reforms: a person who had 1000 CUC (approximately 1000 USD) in the bank in December 2020, would change it at the 25:1 exchange rate before its imminent disappearance, and they would have 25,000 Cuban pesos. With the devaluation of the Cuban peso, just over a year later this sum at the 1 USD:107 Cuban peso exchange rate, is the equivalent of 221 USD, a quarter of the initial sum in CUC.
But it’s not only people who have swapped their finances, ways of doing things and rituals for precarious survival practices, the city itself has changed to its core.
In one municipality, at least seven retail points and six state-led chains (like Ditú, Sylvain, Trimagen, Dulcinea, Cupet) and other stores that used to sell in the now-extinct Cuc and are now selling in Cuban pesos (and not in MLC), but not functioning at the moment. They remain “open”: they are open with shelves full of some non-essential product, they have the electricity on, two-to-five employees, who are normally sitting down and chatting away. Fridge-freezers that used to conserve perishable foods are still switched on, some of them with the door open even to help “sales assistants” to cool down from the heat.
Government decisions didn’t only change where and how Cubans buy, but also what they eat. This happened with pork for example, which was so popular in Cuban cuisine, but national production has dropped by two thirds in the past three years, according to figures from Cuba’s Office of Statistics and Information.
In 2020, the State decided to recentralize food production sectors, one of the measures linked to imports was cuts in pig fodder, at least for the private sector. The private pork industry lost almost all of its production: the number of slaughter animals delivered fell by 74% in 2021. The Government not only decided to modify pork production from an economic point of view, but it also changed an important component of Cuba’s food identity. Ever since then, Cubans’ meat consumption is more and more chicken in the many different and creative ways it can be cooked. My neighbor protests in a humorous way and says “we’re going to get wings”, “now, we’re going to cluck.”
As a result of decades of incompetent administration, but especially in the past two years, there is so much inequality in Cuba that there is a very small group living a good life: it’s normal for them to travel, they get around in a kind of Cuban Uber, get food delivered to their homes, visit organic businesses, go to yoga class, go to VIP parties. Another vast group has lost average economic access (to food and other services) and is beginning a juggle act. While a third group, made up of the elderly, pensioners, vulnerable groups, are finding it harder and harder to have physical, digital, and economic access to the stores I’ve mentioned above.
The depression and resignation I picked up in my friends’ messages before coming back can now be seen in the displays of desperation on every corner of the city and in that latter group. There are three homes for sale on my block, with everything inside. Their residents hope to be able to get enough to cover the expenses for their whole family to migrate and start over in a new place, which doesn’t condemn them to a life waiting in line, at least.