By Pilar Montes
HAVANA TIMES — To answer the title’s question, I can tell you it’s almost nothing, maybe two journeys on the urban bus for 40 cents each way and an official Granma newspaper, if you buy it at the stand or if you’re lucky enough to enjoy a subscription, because re sellers sell it for a peso.
With regard to food, this same note or coin with Jose Marti’s picture printed on the front can buy you 20 bread rolls through the ration system if the person has the same number of family members living at home (it’s one roll per person per day).
At the bodega or shop where the head of the family has their ration card registered, a system which has been in place since 1963, a peso can buy three pounds of white sugar – 15 cents – and one pound of brown sugar – 10 cents – per person monthly. A peso would buy around 7 rationed eggs costing 15 cents each, however each consumer only receives five per month. Outside the rationing when available you can opt to buy eggs for 1.10 pesos each, or for 33 pesos a box of 30.
With a monthly quota of only 12 ounces, beans cost 85 cents for each consumer and chicken, when it’s distributed which is normally only twice a month, is sold a pound per person costing 70 cents and in the so-called “chicken for fish” delivery (since there is rarely fish), 11 ounces are distributed for 55 cents each, as well as half a pound of spam for 1.50 pesos per month.
Rice, the grain which the Cuban diet can’t do without, costs 3 pesos for the 7 pounds every consumer receives per month, although you can buy more on the “free” market, where it now costs 4 pesos, down from 5.
Coffee is another one of the highly popular products which, if you look at its price, seems that the government is trying to diminish its consumption, because it costs 4 pesos for a small 4 ounce packet and if there are offers on the free market, this price can go up to 15 pesos.
A very important ingredient to make any kind of dish is soybean or sunflower oil which costs 20 cents for 200 ml (the monthly allotment). Another much-awaited product is spaghetti or another type of pasta, which comes in a 400g packet and costs 85 cents.
Outside the ration system, small bath soaps cost 5 cents and the largest bars 20 pesos, toothpaste costs 8 pesos a tube and washing up liquid costs 25 pesos. You can buy these at the same shop where you get your rations.
These are the products which retired people or pensioners can buy, whose income varies between 200 and 300 pesos (8 to 12 USD) a month, and who start shaking when they hear rumors that they’re going to scrap the 50 year old “ration book”.
Child and teenager consumption
Five decades ago, children in my family used to ask for a peseta or 20 cents to go and eat some kind of sweet or candy. Then, this fifth of a peso became a note in itself. Today, children don’t ask their parents for less than 5 pesos to buy the same thing. Cinemas vary between 1 and 2 pesos.
Even teenagers are no longer “another five pesos” as the popular saying goes. Going out to a club or taking your girlfriend out costs more than 5 CUC (convertible peso or currency equivalent to 125 pesos) for less formal trips out and 10 to 20 CUC for more wealthy families.
Parents with girls approaching 15 and without relatives abroad sending remittances, have to spend years saving up in order to give her a sweet-15 birthday party, a day out or holiday at the beach. You also have to factor in the cost of a photographer and the album so as to keep the memory forever.
Sick or old people
If a family has an old family member or somebody who is receiving medical treatment, the most common diseases being diabetes or high blood pressure, money is blown on medicine, disposable nappies, powdered milk (in pesos it costs about 60 pesos for a 500g bag), which even though root crops dropped in price a little last month, along with fruit and vegetables, you still need 20 pesos worth to make a soup, a salad and a piece or portion of fruit.
Pork meat costs between 30 and 40 pesos per pound at the agricultural market, mutton is a bit cheaper and cow’s meat can only be found in the hard currency store costing 60 pesos a pound. A pair of cheap tennis shoes costs around 300 pesos (12 CUC or 14 usd), to only give you an idea of what clothing needs might entail.
Hospitalization of a loved one puts a huge burden on the immediate family. The few who receive financial aid from outside sometimes pay 5 CUC per night so that somebody can stay with the sick person. However, those who lack these funds, take turns at night and then have to work the next day or look after their young children at home.
The family care givers are the ones who have to face these ups and downs, searching for another job, setting up their own business or working in tourism, or even worse, trying their luck in illegal trades.
Prices are decreasing but what about salaries?
Over a decade ago, when the average salary was a lot lower than it is today, pensions and prices weren’t as high. Some economists figured that a family of four needed no less than 1200 pesos a month in order to satisfy their basic food, clothing, transport needs and for many people, the rent of their house.
The 5th Party Congress (1997) had just ended, where the pressing subject of salaries was addressed. There was even a resolution detailing a salary increase for journalists which went around and would have seen my earnings go up from 450 euros to 1300 pesos, according to my qualifications and job title.
However, this was nothing but an unfounded rumor. Only health workers and teachers saw a small increase in their salary, whilst in other branches, only those with a scientific degree received a bonus.
It’s suspected that the fall in some prices is an attempt to restore the Cuban peso’s buying power, but nothing is being discussed about a raise in salaries and pensions nor has a date been set for joining the two currencies once and for all.
As the journalist Natasha Vazquez points out, “in a country with Swiss prices and the lowest average salaries in the world, this was a much needed measure and it still isn’t enough.”
With “ration cards” almost facing extinction, the majority of these food products aren’t luxury items, but a lot of the time the only alternative to having food on the table.
Everything suggests that there is still a long way to go until productivity and salaries increase (in this order, or vice-versa?) but reviewing and lowering prices again and again are measures which win more time but don’t offer a definite solution.