By Alejandro Langape
HAVANA TIMES – Vivir del cuento is perhaps the most popular “made in Cuba” TV show that my fellow Cubans on the island watch. In one of its most recent episodes, Panfilo (this old man who struggles with Cuba’s shortages today) has found a wallet.
Taking a peek, Panfilo is more excited about finding a whole strip of duralgina tablets than a large sum of money in euros. Convinced that the money needs to be returned to its owner, he decides to pocket the tablets that you can’t get a hold of here.
The story is told with humor but it is a reflection of something that Cubans are experiencing on a daily basis: shortages.
Recently, social media has been full of photos of huge lines to buy cooking oil at shopping centers and there are stories of brawls, insults, police present to control the agitation of those who try and cut in, those who refuse these attempts because they’ve been waiting there for hours, those who try to hoard the product and make a killing reselling it.
But, this isn’t only happening with cooking oil, which authorities have claimed is in shortage because of problems at the bottling plant. There have been shortages of bread flour, eggs, mop cloths, chicken, fodder for pigs, medicines, before and still.
Cubans have made waiting in line an inherent part of our lives. We don’t think anything of sleeping a couple of nights in a row in front of a store to buy pots and pans for an induction cooker or waiting seven hours under the scorching sun to buy our grandfather’s pills. That’s because if the poor man has to wait himself, the same thing that happened to the old man on the corner might happen (his blood pressure went through the roof).
Cycles of basic item shortages are quite long and they disappear from state-regulated retail points. For example, our everyday bread, which by the way is sometimes inedible because there isn’t any bread flour to bake it.
Official media sometimes comment on these issues. They report things like: There is a shortage of raw materials which is why there are so many medicines missing from our pharmacies. There are problems at the flour mill. Chicken prices on the global market have gone up X %. The US blockade prevents the country from buying supplies. Every Cuban has heard these phrases, or something similar.
Meanwhile, the black market is booming and prices are skyrocketing. If there is a shortage of cooking oil, prices of fried foods will go up. If there is a shortage of flour, pizza prices will be as high as the Tower of Pisa… If there is a shortage of painkillers at pharmacies, people who hoard them at home will then sell them for two or three pesos more than the original resale price.
So, this real inflation, this constant depreciation of a Cuban’s income, will continue its upward spiral, because even when cooking oil returns to store shelves regularly, prices of fried foods will never be the same as before.
That said, how is it possible that shortages are extending to so many areas of everyday life. In a country where the State’s planned economy is “supposedly” the leader, better forecasts need to be made, as well as policies that ensure that basic items are in stock all year round.
Bearing in mind the fact that our population growth in Cuba has been practically zero for a while now, the math isn’t hard because I repeat, these aren’t luxury items, but basic items that ensure a more or less balanced diet (this issue alone would need pages of discussion), personal hygiene and household products.
But, officials involved limit themselves to only saying that improvements are on the horizon, that supplies of this product and that will become regular again. However, for people trying to get by in this time of multiple shortages, promises aren’t enough. These people who crowd in front of store windows, who wonder whether they will be able to enjoy some fries with their meal, or what to give their kids as a snack… These people deserve answers, explanations, not just promises, or fingers pointed at the enemy to the North like they always do.
In the years after World War 2, Europe experienced tough times with rations booklets. Cuba hasn’t suffered bombings, military attacks and yet, our stores remind us of that European reality. We were promised the exact opposite many years ago, we were told that Havana Bay would be overfilling with milk. Today, the reality of our empty store shelves confirms everything: people also live off hope, but not forever.