Would Revamping Ration Stores Lessen the Lines?

By William Bello Sanchez  (El Toque)

A “bodega” store in Havana selling rationed basic products. Photo: Jorge Beltran.

HAVANA TIMES – Long lines to buy food and basic essentials during the COVID-19 outbreak have put the need to decentralize sales at the heart of public debate. Views in favor of selling more products via the rations booklet have also appeared, as well as selling other non-rationed products in bodega stores, which are now sold at CIMEX, MAI (Industrial Artisanal Fairs) TRD (hard-currency stores) or agromarkets.

The logic behind this lies in making use of the wide network of bodega stores to try and solve shortages and a lack of basic essentials, which are commonplace in Cuban stores. While a lot has been argued about egalitarianism, handout policies and about the undeniable reality that rations are no longer necessary for some Cubans, the “rations booklet” and bodega store take on a new dimension within today’s landscape.

Rice, beans, sugar, salt, cooking oil, pasta, coffee and matches, are some of the things that are sold for a subsidized price at the bodega store. While quantities are far from being enough, they are the staples of most Cuban’s monthly diets.

In order to buy other kinds of meat, fruit, vegetables, cleaning products and get to the end of the month with enough supplies, you have to go to other stores -selling in CUC or CUP -, at prices which many Cubans living off a salary or a pension can’t afford.

Alejandro Gil Fernandez, minister of Economy and Planning, said on a Mesa Redonda, roundtable broadcast on March 27th, that “not everything can be provided via the rations booklet, but there will be a combination of rationed and non-rationed products, but it will be regulated.”

The head of the Economy also mentioned that the country doesn’t have as many products as the country needs for everybody to have an equal share; although, several regions have used the rations booklet successfully to deliver products to vulnerable groups or the general population.

There are 12,767 bodega stores across the country, the minister of Domestic Trade Betsy Diaz announced. It is a retail network not paid much attention to, in spite of supplying 3,809,000 family units that make a total population of 11,150,000 Cubans.

As soon as they asked us to stay at home, the bodega store was and continues to be the community’s nearest store and it means citizens don’t have to move around as much. Once the COVID-19 outbreak is behind us, it shouldn’t be overlooked either.

The bodega store and its significance in Cuba’s recent history

The bodega store doesn’t only have to be retail point for rationed products (which are only sold via the rations booklet and everybody has a quota) or of a limited selection of non-rationed products (which aren’t on the rations booklet, but they are generally only a select few and are quite cheap).

Bodega stores are open longer hours, unlike shopping malls; they have never closed at 5:30 or 6 PM, and they have always respected peoples’ working hours, giving priority to those most in need. They aren’t always packed, it’s only normally the first week of the month or when groceries come in. Then, people don’t even go to see what it has, there aren’t any new products or decorations. Isn’t there a potential there? 

My grandfather always told me that the bodega store was our national heritage, it has always been there, even before the ration booklets. Wouldn’t this be a good time to maximize its potential? Not every neighborhood or village in rural and mountainous Cuba has a foreign currency store (TRD), but they do have a bodega store.

If shopping malls are no longer just for those who have family abroad or for the elite; if the products they sell cover the needs of most of the population: then why not think about selling some of these products at bodega stores too?

While bodega stores are worse for wear in many cases, the infrastructure exists and is being under-used. How many TRD, CIMEX, or the brand new and unnecessarily big Minimax stores have we renovated, built and dolled up? But the bodega stores have been lost off our radar.

Rescuing our bodega stores should be at the top of a national investment plan, because of the benefits that giving them a new function could bring the population and the Economy.

Some of the benefits of a possible recovery of the bodega store network:

  • Products (including basic essentials) would be locally available for customers, instead of having to travel to find them.
  • The really bothersome lines would be reduced.
  • The already-existing infrastructure of stores would be more efficiently used.
  • Building and hygiene conditions at bodega stores would improve.
  • The bodega store would take back its place in society as a meeting point for the neighborhood.
  • It would save the country lots of resources by getting rid of the need for new investment.

The list could be much longer if we were all to give our ideas.

One of the other advantages is that bodega stores already have a supply system in place, so transport wouldn’t be the greatest problem. If the government works on reconciling and coordinating the distribution of basic products, non-rationed stores and TRD stores, and the management of different state companies that take part in this process, transport could become a lot more efficient.

New landscape, the bodega as an alternative

Every bodega store might not have the requirements or the potential to take on this new dimension, some are better equipped and others need more investment to store more products. It isn’t a question of throwing out the old sofa, it’s a matter of looking for a way to rescue an economic, social and cultural institution that makes lots of practical sense.

A more attractive space, with more products, the ones we need right now and would like to have on the corner of our block. The neighborhood store doesn’t mean we have to shut down other stores or malls, but we can get the most highly-sought everyday items closer to the local population, which COVID-19 has made crucial.

The country is making history right now by taking important steps towards a new socioeconomic landscape, where private enterprise reappears in the Cuban economy and its articulation with state-owned counterparts and cooperatives, is being encouraged. We have been suffering economic hardship for a long time with most production and commerce under the state-run businesses.

Right now, this responsibility is shared and it’s a good time to rescue the different spaces which have proven they can efficiently market, which is where products should go, which might lead to the creation of new microbusinesses that will surely pop up, and will play an important local role; which will reduce costs and benefit everyone, if their products could be sold close to home.

This isn’t a new proposal, many of the products that the population now seek used to be on sale in bodega stores. It was the retail point for all kinds of basic essentials, even the place where small local businesses could sell their products. I’m not saying any of this with nostalgia, but with a good sense of looking forward to the future, and it only means making use of the resources we already have at our disposal, like what has happened recently; amending our paradigms to move towards greater prosperity.

One thought on “Would Revamping Ration Stores Lessen the Lines?

  • Alejandro Gil Fernandez made a statement of the obvious by saying: “it will be regulated,” Everything in Cuba is regulated! The very purpose of communism is to control, and endless hours are spent in finding ways to increase regulation. The Poder Popular has no other purpose.

    The obvious difficulty is arithmetical- how to regulate in a way that enables supplies for say 1,000, to provide for 1,500?

    William Bello Sanchez’s grandfather apparently regarded the bodega and it’s miserable conditions as part of “our national heritage”. Under the Castro regime, that heritage will remain unsullied by improvements.

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