Vicissitudes of Crisis & My Experience at Dollar Stores

By Irina Pino

HAVANA TIMES – My situation hasn’t been the worst during the pandemic. Friends and relatives have helped me by sending remittances, a gesture of solidarity that I am grateful for.

I survived the first few months by buying grains, root vegetables and fruit at the agro-market, as my diet is mostly vegetarian.

I don’t stand in kilometer-long lines to buy chicken, I stopped eating it a long time ago, I prefer to buy cans of tuna or sardines. Nonetheless, I had to stand in one line or another, against my will, because they would also sell cooking oil at these places. I’d also end up buying chicken at the same time, for my son and cat.

I was getting worried because I only had a little bit of shampoo left. I started looking up recipes on the Internet on how to make homemade shampoo. But I gave up because I couldn’t find all of the ingredients.

Thanks to the fact that I don’t normally throw out empty bottles, I found a bag full with little bits of shampoo left, which got me through another few weeks.

I thought about shaving all of my hair off, as if I were living in a mass extermination camp. It was an option because I can’t go anywhere, plus, I always cover my hair when I go out anyway.

Then, the madness came, grains began to disappear from the agro-market, detergent disappeared from CUC stores.

Enter the dollar stores

So, I decided to only wear white clothes. Light-colored clothes are easier to wash and they don’t lose their color. I would joke with my friends and tell them that I already had my uniform. A couple of T-shirts, leggings and hat. Everyone nearby thought I had done the Iyabó initiation process, which is becoming a saint in Afro-Cuban religion.

Word on the street was that you could get lots of things at dollar stores. So, I had no other choice but to get a card, and take out some dollars I had saved away. I asked whether I could buy dollars with the CUC I had, and they told me I couldn’t.

I went to FINCIMEX first. The bad news was that they weren’t issuing any new cards. There was a great backlog of applications from previous months. People were complaining because they had gone to pick them up and they still weren’t ready.

Therefore, I decided to go for the BPA (People’s Saving Bank) card. It allows clients to put dollars in and receive transfers from abroad, except from US bank accounts.

As soon as I had the card in my hands, I went to stand in line at the supermarket on 3rd and 70th streets, here in Miramar. Once inside, I could see the shelves full of detergent powder and washing liquid. There wasn’t any shampoo though.

I bought it and ran out. I didn’t want to see everything they had because I couldn’t spend money on food.

I walked back from 70th street to my home on 0 and 1st streets, because public transport isn’t running. It was a lot of blocks and I was exhausted when I got home, I went straight in the shower.

I then put the washing machine on, to start working through the pile of dirty laundry I had. In fact, it almost reached the ceiling.

A chance to buy shampoo

Last week, my brother-in-law told me that they were going to sell shampoo in CUC at the store at Hotel Monte Habana, and he took his place in line at 5 AM. I got there just before 6 AM.

At 9 AM, when they started handing out turns, there were over 80 people ahead of us. To cut a long story short, I only left there at 1 PM, and they were only selling one bottle of shampoo per person.

Inside the market at La Puntilla US dollar shopping center.

Last Sunday was extraordinary though. A friend had asked me to put his dollars on my card so he could buy what he needed. I said yes, of course.

We went to the La Puntilla store (another dollar store), which is around the corner from my house. It was stocked with lots of things, from grains, rice, ham, evaporated milk, different kinds of cheese, jelly, tins of sardines, tomato sauce, crackers, detergent, deodorant, hair dye, toothpaste… and what I was really looking for: shampoo! Toilet paper was the only thing that was missing.

I made the most of this opportunity and bought the personal hygiene items I needed. My friend was kind enough to let me use some of his dollars for food.

A brief spell of calm. Something as trivial as shopping for these kinds of things has taken top priority in our lives.

I hope this doesn’t go on for longer than a year.


Irina Pino

Irina Pino: I was born in the middle of shortages in those sixties that marked so many patterns in the world. Although I currently live in Miramar, I miss the city center with its cinemas and theaters, and the bohemian atmosphere of Old Havana, where I often go. Writing is the essential thing in my life, be it poetry, fiction or articles, a communion of ideas that identifies me. With my family and my friends, I get my share of happiness.

5 thoughts on “Vicissitudes of Crisis & My Experience at Dollar Stores

  • The answer to the question that J Szarka poses, is that the Castro regime dare not give the people of Cuba the opportunity to seek change. It is so easy for those who live in democratic societies to assume that freedom of choice is available to all. The Castro dictated Constitution of Cuba, commences by emphasizing that Cuba is a ONE PARTY STATE – that Party being the Communist Party of Cuba, There is no choice in a totalitarian ruled country with compliance ensured by the MINIT State Police and the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution.

    Sending remittances does at least ease the pain for the recipients. Yes, the regime takes its cut, but remittances are not the reason for it retaining power and control which is not a “nonsense” for those who suffer it, but daily reality. Do not abandon those for whom you care!

  • When Obama was in Habana, He made a statement that, “the Cuban people have the government they want”. When and if they want a change, they will decide. I can only assume that they are not yet ready to change. As long as we continue sending money to family/friends, we are only enabling them to prolong their agony and put up with this cruel inhuman government nonsense. J Szarka

  • It is a wise move to avoid waiting in line to buy chicken.
    A lot of the chicken sold in Cuba is from the USA.
    This U.S. chicken is banned from Europe as it does not meet the appropriate basic standard. Best avoid it if possible and stick with the sardines.
    I think this article is wonderful. It seems that Irina has not lost her wry sense of humour in the midst of this strange new world. I like the reference to Santeria.
    Makes me smile.

  • Hello: I am sorry the Cuban people is going through this. It is very hard and upsetting to stay in line for hours and hours. Nevertheless, as someone from a poor country, very respectfully, let me share that in my country I saw children ask me for the leftovers on my plate, after eating in a chicken restaurant. This is something that one never sees in Cuba.
    There are millions of people in India who do not have even the basic needs. They are malnourished and without access to education and basic health care. They lack electricity and running water.
    Poor people in Cuba are better off than the Indian groups in the Guatemalan and Bolivian Highland or the poor in Haity.
    Thank you

  • I could imagine the stress all of this has caused you and your fellow citizens and even worse Mr.Trump has banned Fincimex and AIS because it belongs to the military how in sensitive can a person be it’s not enough the struggles that the Cuban people have already he has to add more my thoughts are with you Jesse

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