Por Juan M. Ferran Oliva (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – On Monday November 18th, I found out about the catastrophe that is the Mercado de Cuatro Caminos, watching the news. It was opened and closed that very same day because of chaos. Equipment was broken, there were crowds, arguments, thefts and normal purchases by anxious customers.
There were also overwhelming purchases made by resellers or people who were unsure of how stable the supply would be. Both of these instances wouldn’t exist if it were not for the shortages we’re so familiar with. Blaming them is really pulling one’s leg.
The mall opened again on Tuesday. Things seem to be normal, as normal as they can be at least. It will finally fall victim to shortages of goods, just like the rest of retail establishments.
The investment in such a monster must have been in the millions of USD. The total sum was never announced. The project involved remodeling the so-called Mercado Unico, a building that covers an entire block near the corner of Cuatro Caminos and flanked by Monte, Matadero, Cristina and Manglar streets.
It was built by a business tycoon of the time, in the 1920s or 1930s I believe. In its main patio, trucks used to unload goods coming from the country’s interior, and local industry and customs but less so.
It was quite a dirty trading center. You had to walk with great care so you wouldn’t slip because of the pile up of damp and moss on the ground. Stores were rented out and there were all different kinds, even restaurants and other services. There wasn’t a speck of luxury on its two immense floors.
Clunkers would hang about outside in its surrounding areas with all kinds of cheap offers. Many regular customers went to restaurants, taverns and canteens. But, there were large families, or just regular customers looking for variety and affordable prices. Fierce competition provided both.
A man from the same place as my father used to rent out a small store, it was maybe some 4m2. He sold all kinds of packaging paper, and in any quantity. His customers were the Market’s own retail stores.
After 1959, the installation began to fall in disrepair.
From 1996 onwards for about 10 years, I worked as an external advisor for [the huge state corporation] CIMEX’s Investment Board. I carried out feasibility studies, I designed strategies and trained personnel. Generally-speaking, I insist on prioritizing the volume and variety of supplies before investing in new commercial ventures, which are only justified because of location.
Back then, irregular supplies were still a thing even in foreign currency stores. The new Mercado de Cuatro Caminos could bring in some 35 million CUC (dollars) per year in sales, or even more, if it were stocked properly.
However, after the initial image that was pushed in the beginning, the remodeled mall will soon fall victim to the ill that plagues all other retail stores. It’s an investment that won’t bring in revenue, like the Government says it will. For consumers, it will end up being just a fleeting mirage.
If it wanted to be rescued as an emblematic feature of the city, it should have taken on a cultural purpose. It isn’t a productive investment. Stocking it for the debut would have meant stripping other stores of their supplies. Cuba’s retail market is perhaps the worst in the world.
It makes sense that an anxious public went en masse to an establishment that offered a solution to their unsatisfactory means. As Carilda Oliver would say, many went to buy an illusion.
Enough of blaming the lazy, vandals and intermediaries. These are unwanted social figures, but they only grow when they’ve been given an opportunity to. The real reasons for what happened and what will happen are way above this low social level.
From a macro-economic standpoint, payments to foreign creditors and fuel suppliers need to be guaranteed first. Then, supplies for the retail market need to be prioritized, both finished products and those needed for national manufacturing.
The market’s endemic irregularity needs to finally be resolved. It’s been going on for over half a century. I don’t get tired of saying that money isn’t the real driver of the economy, but what we can do with it. Striking a balance between supply and demand would have a domino effect and motivate every other level.
This might just be one of the most serious evils of our fragile Cuban economy. Let’s hope the 30 measures announced to eliminate the internal blockade resolve this problem.
Article taken from“Sine Die”, a series of articles published by Juan M. Ferrán Oliva, distributed via email. Number 82, Published November 20th 2019.