By Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES – I’ve just received a combo package of personal hygiene items. For those of you who don’t know what this is, combos have become a trendy term in Cuba. It is used instead of package and includes a series of items.
My combo includes toilet paper, soap, deodorant, two small bags of detergent powder and a bottle of anti-dandruff shampoo. It also has a bottle of cooking oil. I didn’t have to leave my house, as the store home delivers. The total price, including delivery, was 12.85 CUC, which if we were to convert into Cuban pesos, is around 300.
I immediately thought about Nerys, a neighbor. She has a 13-year-old daughter and she works as a security guard at a company in Old Havana, receiving 420 pesos per month. With all of this COVID-19 chaos, the company gave priority to employees who live nearby and Nerys has had to stay at home, in Alamar, receiving 60% of her wages, less than 300 pesos. Belonging to this overburdened generational segment of society, she also takes care of her mother, a pensioner with a pitiful pension.
It would be hard or even impossible for Nerys and her family to buy this package. The same thing has been happening with food. She might be able to buy a package of food once, but how does she manage the rest of the month? Foodstuffs sold via the ration booklet aren’t enough.
I always ask myself. How does Nerys, and everyone else out of work, get by? It isn’t only a matter of spending hours in lines anymore, but not having any money to buy with.
Nerys has already sold everything she could. She has already traded sugar for rice. She has walked several times to Parraga, in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality, where she has a friend who helps her with food. There is more than 15 km between Parraga and Alamar. She also cleans a neighbor’s home for a little bit of money. There are days when Nerys doesn’t know what she’s going to put on the table.
There are many people here in the same situation. Maybe some people have more than help than Nerys, and others are older, with less options. You can see tormented and disappointed faces on the street. People have taken out their savings, plus their wages, the help they receive and whatever they can invent, to get food.
You can’t buy anything else right now. If your shoes give in or you need a fan in these warm nights, you’ve got a big problem. Unless you have an account in dollars because those stores are regularly stocked.
The State can’t ensure stable food supplies, so you have to turn to the illicit market that continues to exist in spite of being attacked.
I bought a packet of 115g Cubita coffee a month ago for 5 CUC (=USD), and yesterday somebody offered it to me for 8. A bottle of liquid detergent also cost 5 CUC and didn’t last long, because it had been watered down.
However, more importantly still, if Nerys needs milk for her daughter or elderly mother, she would have to pay 6-8 CUC for a 1kg bag (on the illicit market, you can’t find it in state-run stores). The price was stable up until a few months ago: 4 CUC.
I feel lucky receiving so much help from friends and relatives. They have made this time a little less sordid, less of a headache, allowing me to help people like Nerys.
When Cuba reported its first COVID-19 infections in March, it also announced corresponding measures, including changes in the workplaces. Workers who didn’t qualify for remote work and had to stay at home, would receive 100% of their wages in the first month, and 60% afterwards. Six months have now passed, and full wages never allowed any Cuban to cover all of their needs, so it’s a lot worse now that people are only receiving 60% and the economic crisis is a lot worse because of Coronavirus and other factors.
There is an important group – part of the active working population who are now in a limbo. They are surviving with great material shortages, mood swings, only thinking about the fateful future. Many are women who are looking after children and elderly relatives at the same time. Many are single mothers, and many are the sole breadwinners in the family. Friends and neighbors help as best they can, but the State needs to keep them more in mind.