Basic Cuban food staples such as rice and beans have become scarce and prohibitively expensive in communist Cuba, leaving some families with only one meal a day. Between food shortages and skyrocketing inflation due to 64 years of failed socialist policies, Cuban families are struggling to find enough food to eat.
Rice and distress: Cuba’s national dish
Five families in Cuba share their struggles to put food on the table under the trying circumstances of 2023. Some households have gone from three meals to one.
Mireya Linares gets out of a taxi in the municipality of Playa, but she’s not out for a walk. Rather, she’s looking for food for her family. Although she lives in Centro Habana, she has gone to a private store some eight miles from her home, where her friends told her they’re selling rice and eggs at a better price. She takes her cell phone out of her purse, writes a few lines in a Telegram group, and quickly puts it away again. She has just ordered a box of chicken and tomato sauce to be delivered to her doorstep.
The scene described here might seem normal if this 54-year-old Havana native lived in an inhospitable part of the island, or if she were looking for caviar, but this is not the case; she is searching for basic groceries, and lives in the heart of the Cuban capital. A few years ago she could find all those products without having to leave her neighborhood.
In spite of all this, this Cuban describes herself as “fortunate” for two reasons: she is paid in euros for her work as a translator and has a sister who sends her a monthly remittance of $300.
She says that she was lucky this time out, and was able to buy what she wanted: rice for 180 pesos per pound and eggs for 2,700, for a carton of 30. “I paid through the nose, but there’s no other way. It’s not like I can eat the bills either, and at home or in El Vedado it would’ve cost me much more, because rice is at 200 pesos a pound, the carton of eggs, 3,000, or 100 pesos an egg,” Linares told DIARIO DE CUBA by phone.
“It’s horrible, I have to spend twice or even three times as much money, time and effort to getting food as I did five years ago. The price increases have been brutal and what affects me most is that it’s a daily task, it’s impossible to shop for the whole week, the way things are,” she added.
Norbis Pérez, a 72-year-old retired university professor who lives in El Vedado, says that the money with which, a year ago, she used to buy two one-kilogram bags of milk, today she can only buy one. “Everything’s gone up a lot, the most terrible thing is that even the most basic things, such as rice, beans and sugar, have skyrocketed,” she says.
She explains that very close to her house a small business selling food was opened. It is called Reyes Manso, and is located on the Calle 12 between 25th and 27th. “They opened it a few months ago and the prices are sky high, very similar to those in the stores in MLC, but the problem is that at those stores there’s almost nothing, they’re always empty. Yesterday I bought a kilogram of chicken breast for 2,000 Cuban pesos, a one-kilogram package of powdered milk for 2,000, a package of soda crackers for 1,000 pesos, and a medium-sized bottle of mayonnaise for 1,300,” he said.
Doing the math, Pérez spent 6,300 pesos on groceries, which is three times the monthly payment of almost 2,000 pesos she receives as a retiree. And what she bought, she says, “isn’t even enough to start the month.” Another of the Havana markets Pérez goes to is the one at 19th and B, where she has paid up to 400 pesos for a pound of beans. “Horrible,” she says. This retiree can make a purchase like this only thanks to the fact that she has kept working since she officially retired: “Luckily, my health allows me to do so. I work at a young woman’s house helping her with her children when they get out of school. I cook, do homework with them, clean a little, and that’s it. She pays me well because she’s married to a Frenchman who works in a company and they have a much higher standard of living than the average in Cuba. Even so, I can’t afford anything special. I can only pay for the basics, to eat.”
A Holguín man who preferred to remain anonymous told this paper that his case was exceptional in his province, explaining that he eats like a bird and does not stop “fighting” to support his family (wife, three children and his elderly parents). “When I say exceptional, I say that with pain. People are going through hell,” he says.
“People eat what they can, because it’s not only a matter of lack of food, and a variety of it, it’s mainly a matter of cost versus salary. Agricultural products are in short supply and expensive: a banana for 30 pesos and a pound of cassava or sweet potato also for that price,” he explained.
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