Shopping in Cuba during COVID-19

By Paula Henriquez

HAVANA TIMES – Once again, I woke up to go hunting, as we (not) so affectionately call the hard task of trying to find food recently. That’s because finding anything nowadays puts all of your skills, resistence or mental capacity to deal with what awaits you, to the test. I say this because lines outside stores really are completely unpredictable.

Let me explain: ever since September 1st, the State has imposed a curfew from 7 PM until 5 AM, as one of the government’s measures to try and stop COVID-19 infections from spreading. In other words, anybody caught outside their home during this time takes home a hefty 2000-3000 peso fine, which is quite a lot if we bear in mind what regular Cuban wages are.

If you decide to go out shopping, you have to do it at dawn, always respecting the curfew from the day before. People begin to take their place in line hours before most shopping malls, kiosks, stores, etc. open.

Like the law-abiding citizens we are, we have to leave home at 5 AM and head for the nearest store, some 10-15 minutes away. When you get there, you might find 30 or 400 people in front of you.

You wonder what time people have started to line up when there is a curfew… but that’s not the best part. The last person, in front of you, normally comes with several people, and so does everyone in front of that person and so on…

In the end, when you’ve done the math and security agents start to give out turns, you go from being amongst the first 40 to number 287, literally… This is on a good day. On the worst day, social indiscipline and a complete lack of respect for your fellow citizen turn any regular line into a true battlefield, a real fight that even the authorities can’t keep in check.

The situation was a lot different a few months ago, when you could buy anywhere. But now, with the restriction of not being able to go and buy from stores outside of your municipality of residence, this has all changed. This limits your chances a great deal.

Everybody knows that some municipalities are more privileged than others, where you don’t only find a greater variety of items, but they are also stocked more often. These large shopping malls are unfortunately outside of the municipality I live in. The measure may have been well-intentioned, but it is discriminatory and stifling in practice. Without any study beforehand to guarantee its success.

On the other hand, there are people who have taken advantage of the most different and adverse situations Life throws your way. There are people who see a long line like this and see it as a goldmine where they can extract this valuable material. These miners are the line-sitters and resellers that take advantage of people’s needs to fill their pockets by hoarding and then speculating with the few items that are sold at these stores.

“This is supply and demand,” one of these individuals once told me, whilst trying to sell me a packet of chicken thighs for almost three times the price. It goes without saying that I have had no other option to buy this and other things with a surcharge. This, because it is so hard to find food through the traditional retail channels. I’m not exaggerating.

Here’s another example: I took my place in line at 5:07 a.m. Turns were handed out at 9 a.m. and I could only buy two small packets of hot dogs at 4:45 p.m., because the little chicken they were selling was gone before the first 40 people in line were seen.

Really? That’s the question I ask myself. Twelve hours standing in line, putting up with all kinds of unpleasant situations, keeping an eye on the shrewd ones who constantly take advantage, and also exposing my family and myself to COVID-19, just for two measly packets of hot dogs.

Is it really worth it? If I don’t do this and I can’t buy things for twice or triple the price, what can I do? I have found myself at this crossroads, more than once.

Sometimes I think the only option is to go out hunting on alternate days at 5 a.m. I strive to not come home empty-handed so I can feed the family. Other times I realize that I’m just wasting my time. I often come home empty-handed, anxiety weighing heavily on my chest.

Read more diary posts by Paula Henriquez

Paula Henriquez

Paula Henriquez: Since childhood I have been told I should be careful what I say in public. "Think before you speak, especially in front of others," my mother would say, and it was more of a plea than a scolding. Even today I hear her and I obey her, just that I do not speak, I write. Letters and words are my escape, my exit and daily catharsis, which printed on paper, revive me. And this picture is my refuge.

17 thoughts on “Shopping in Cuba during COVID-19

  • Rick, you do not comprehend the reality of Cuba.

    Do you really think that it would be possible to organize demonstrations of 15,000 people in the streets of Cuba? How?

    Have you any concept of the system of controls that exists?

    Have you not read of the travails of the Ladies in White?

    It is all too easy for those with the right to demonstrate, to assume that others are able to.

    Do you comprehend the role and operation of MININT (The Ministry of the Interior) and its tentacles that extend into every single block of every single community in Cuba, with reports upon the activity of every man, woman and child?

    It is all too easy for those who live in free societies with the right to demonstrate, to suggest that Cubans should: “Take to the streets in a peaceful manner.”

    Cubans Rick, live in a totalitarian communist state! There is no comparison with the freedoms enjoyed by those fortunate enough to live in the democratic capitalist societies – they are a world apart!

  • Paula writes about money, greed, corruption, the lines for 2 packs of hot dogs after waiting for near 12 hours, etc. She also indicates she must do this and states what else can I do.
    The people are the real power of Cuba they just do not this. Take to the streets in a peaceful way. No matter what the police use to break ranks the people must remain peaceful. Nothing likes the riots, burning of buildings, weapons being fired, people killed , fires every night, statues torn apart.
    The Cuban people need none of this it will not work, take to the streets by the thousands. If 15,000 people walked down the malecon and another 15,000 walked the Paedo, and huge numbers walked the capital building, any 50,000 walked 23rd street, etc etc.
    I believe the leaders of Cuba might stop building hotels and listen to their people. The leaders in Cuba never stood the lines in their entire life.

  • There are a lot of basket case regimes in the world.
    Most of them are Capitalist regimes.

    The reason that governments spend a lot of time and money on Propaganda is because it works.

  • Dictatorship is the essence of corruption. And Cuba is an obvious dictatorship.

    “Twelve hours standing in line, putting up with all kinds of unpleasant situations, keeping an eye on the shrewd ones who constantly take advantage, and also exposing my family and myself to COVID-19, just for two measly packets of hot dogs.”

    Basket case regime.

  • I relate corruption to both Communism and Capitalism. No question about it. Neither has a monopoly. Which is the more corrupt? I don’t think it’s possible to generalise. It would be on a case by case basis for me.
    I would agree that corruption reflects greed.

  • No Nick, I do not underestimate the extent of corruption which is at least as great in the communist totalitarian states as it is in those which are capitalist.

    Corruption reflects human greed.

    How much wealth does President Xi possess? What about the Castros? What about Kim Jung Un? It is bunkum to endeavour to relate corruption to either capitalism or communism. Neither has a monopoly.

  • Mr MacD,
    So the Canadian Liberal Party has a prolonged history of corruption?
    I think you hugely underestimate the extent of problem. The entirety of Capitalist American countries have a prolonged history of corruption. Canada arguably less so than certain others.
    Corruption is both a cornerstone and symptom of Capitalism.
    Democracy, to an extent, can reduce this phenomenon. But there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that Democracy will ever cause this phenomenon to disappear.

  • Brad, you can reel off a bunch of countries at the top of the Capitalist ladder. Several of those you mention are currently experiencing a disturbing resurgence of the far right.
    You got nothing to say about the fact that 15 of the 20 highest murder rate countries in the world are American Capitalist countries? How about the countries at the bottom of the Capitalist ladder Brad? The ones that people flee from – often on rafts or other sea going vessels……..
    How about the people fleeing Capitalist countries across dry land? The people who flee from Capitalist countries and prompt the likes of trump and his propaganda-victim followers to start chanting about building walls?
    Are you also victim of the propaganda Brad?

    Pointing out the reality is not Communist Pumping as you lamely suggest – it’s pointing out the reality.

  • Stephen,
    I previously had the great good fortune to reside for a good while and even earn a half decent income over in Canada. That was when I was younger than I am today but I shall always remain an admirer of your country. My impression has always been that there is an entirely reasonable blend of Capitalism and Democracy in Canada.

    Cuba has an individual and specific history in which it suddenly went from being basically a nobody to being a player on the world stage.
    It is somewhat stuck in the sense that it is one of the few countries in the world that had the temerity to stand up to the Uber-powerful USA but is now running out of allies that are likewise inclined.
    It pays a heavy price for having been a David against the regional Goliath.
    No-one wants to go on as they are but at the same time no-one wants to get on their knees and beg.
    I just wish for the best possible outcome with zero spilling of blood.
    Cuba is never gonna switch from being Cuba to being a Cuban version of Canada overnight. And do bear in mind that there are certain positives in Cuba compared to Capitalist Latin American countries.
    But if Cuba were to eventually go down a Capitalist kind of road, then Canada, Scandinavia and New Zealand would be good examples to try and emulate.

    There’s a wonderful joke that they tell over in Ireland:
    A tourist pulls up his car and shouts over to a guy working in a field ‘Hey there my friend – what’s the the best way to get to Dublin City from here?’
    And the guy in the field stops working, has a think, strokes his chin and says ‘Well now…. If I was wanting to get to Dublin City, then for sure I wouldn’t be starting from here’.

  • We all agree that Cuba is a totalitarian communist state and that corruption is rife. That corruption is obviously a consequence of communism, not capitalism. But speaking of corruption, the Liberal Party of Canada has a prolonged history of corruption, including the current Prime Minister and the recently resigned Minister of Finance. None of the political systems have managed to avoid corruption, some are however more corrupt than others.
    As a Canadian, I have some respect for Canada and the quality of life, but recognize that it also has faults – no room for being complacent or smug.

  • You’re very naive Nick western democracies with free market economies have the best quality of life on the index scores they are online.
    Canada, France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland are great examples the list is long.

    Your communist pumping isn’t working it’s a very poor system with no other political parties.
    It’s garbage the people try to escape on rafts.

  • Nick, yes, I am Canadian. My contribution is definitely colored from a Canadian perspective where we are fortunate to enjoy a humane style of capitalism. I consciously made a point to not venture to the United States economic model in my discussion because, you are correct, that country is, or certainly has been, and is evidently moving more and more towards laissez faire capitalism that many Americans (mostly Democrats) disapprove.

    With a current Republican President who prides himself in lying and cheating, not paying his fair share of taxes or no taxes at all, exploiting his employees/contractors by not honoring legitimate business contracts clearly defines laissez faire capitalism at its worse. In the United States the rich can get away with dodging the law with no legal repercussions and the President is a prime example.

    You make a legitimate point in that in Cuba today corruption, unfortunately, is endemic and that is not a good starting point to begin a humane move towards a Canadian style of capitalism not to say that the Canadian style is any better than other capitalist style, but at least in times of crisis like the pandemic today the ruling Liberal government looks after the least capable, the most vulnerable in society and that is what Cuba needs to strive towards.

  • Brad, your comment makes a limited amount of sense.
    Some of the countries with the best stats have market economies. Some of the countries with the worst stats have ‘market economies’.
    Murder Rate: 16 of the 20 highest murder rate countries in the world are American countries with market economies.
    Regarding ‘western’ – this again makes limited sense. West and East depend entirely on where your starting point is. All countries on God’s earth are west of somewhere else.
    If you mean ‘western’ in some sort of old school, imperial or cultural sense then you are somewhat out of date. Furthermore the stats, which are indeed online as you point out, would refute your claims as many countries traditionally regarded as ‘Eastern’ are way high up on any quality of life index. But way low down on the aforementioned murder rate index.
    As you say: ‘plain and simple’.
    Except it ain’t.

  • The highest standard of living and best quality of life index scores are readily available online.
    It’s western countries with market economies.

    It’s a fact plain and simple.
    Communism is garbage the Cubans would vote it out in a second if they could.
    Incompetent tyranny.

  • Stephen,
    You make some good points and I would agree to an extent.
    I believe that you are from Canada. I know for a fact that Canada is a relatively good example of a capitalist country. Canada is an advanced country and is aided by a big resources/small population ratio. Capitalism in Canada is tempered by democracy. Democracy is pretty effective in Canada. The same can be applied to many European countries.
    However in larger, perhaps less advanced and more populous and powerful Capitalist countries such as India and Brazil the same rules do not apply. Certain European countries are heading in the same direction. Raw Capitalism, race based nationalism and crude, venal greed are the drivers and democracy is largely a bit of a charade. Sadly the USA is currently stuck down the same path in that it’s way more laissez faire capitalist than it is democratic. The majority of people in this world who live under some sort of capitalist system do not live in nice homely examples such as Canada, Scandinavia or New Zealand.

    Cuba is a different story altogether. The Covid death rate is tiny in comparison to some of the capitalist countries I mentioned. But at what cost?
    We have all, regardless of viewpoint, agreed that Cuba could and should be food self sufficient. Food distribution could and should be better organised and better policed.
    But what of the future?
    I’ve never really detected any big desire in Cuba for a crude, laissez faire, style of capitalism. But in the long term that’s just what they may end up with if they’re not watchful about it. The first building block of such a system is already firmly in place – corruption.
    And to move toward such a system would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

  • If Nick, you are referring to laissez faire capitalism, yes, you may be right. Unregulated, adulterated, unbridled, brutally exploitive profiteering at any expense surely defines laissez faire capitalism. In such a state the swindling of the state’s citizens by unscrupulous exploiters certainly defines this form of unbridled jungle financial exploitation.

    However, not all capitalism is the laissez faire type. Advanced societies have ditched the survival of the fittest financial mentality and have incorporated a more humane model. The financial exploitation of the citizenry by unscrupulous underworld exploiters would not be tolerated in all capitalist societies. Significant jail time would be doled out to those attempting to swindle and those caught swindling red handed.

    The unfortunate part is that Cuban society is in such a complete financial collapse the consequences forces the citizenry into this microcosm of daily unbearable lineups causing some individuals to behave in a dog eat dog jungle mentality. The exploitation of fellow citizens is obviously allowed, or seems to be allowed, by the police. Where are the Cuban police who are suppose to enforce the no hoarding or profiteering so called laws enacted to prevent the obvious? Shouldn’t the Cuban police, or any Cuban law enforcement brigade, publicly prosecute those who take advantage of a disadvantageous situation for the benefit of the majority of the population. In most capitalist societies the police are there to protect the population from obvious harm.

    The Cuban situation is so mismanaged that probably the police, underpaid and overworked, do not care and the central elite authorities really do not care either in what takes place among the citizenry in those unbearable lineups as long as the populous do not riot against the government and the police are perceived as doing something. Laissez faire in English, let them be, loosely translated – the citizens and those exploiters do as you please!!

    During a cyclone disaster are some Cubans “allowed” to disadvantage their neighbors when the nation, public authorities, medical authorities, police, civilians in general, must cope with the disaster yet watch as the unscrupulous types profit from the devastation? That would be laissez faire capitalism exactly what is transpiring in the line ups but that never/rarely happens. The elite authorities would not allow that to occur. And if some Cubans do financially exploit their compatriots during a cyclone devastation no doubt the civil authorities, the police will publicly prosecute and admonish the perpetrators who will be spending a significant amount of jail time. It is not good publicity nor positive propaganda to the outside world to witness a cyclone devastate an island and on top of that to watch and witness fellow citizenry profit by exploiting their neighbors. Never happens at least it certainly is not in the public sphere as the outright exploitation in the public sphere of lineups.

    So, yes some laissez faire capitalism is unfortunately occurring in these long arduous daily lineups but that egregious situation cannot be extrapolated to mean unadulterated capitalism, in general, is slowly making its entry into the Cuban society and psyche because properly practiced, and it is humanely practiced in the majority of countries globally, capitalism does not operate in such a brutal, exploitative jungle fashion. As human nature evolves unbridled capitalism does tend to veer to the “good” otherwise we would all be dead by now from historical laissez faire capitalism.

  • It’s no surprise to see that some folks are trying to see the potential for a nice little rise in this situation. Human nature can be good, can be bad, can be ugly, but mostly it’s somewhere in the middle.
    Survival of the fittest….
    That great movie character Gordon Gecko famously said ‘greed is good’.
    This article describes embryonic capitalism strutting around and on display.
    ¡¡ Cuidado Cuba !! – There’s a lot more on its way…….
    It’s gonna be good, it’s gonna be bad and sometimes it’s gonna be ugly.
    Just like human nature.

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