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The Black Market 'Has Also Run Dry': You Have to Have Dollars to Eat in Havana

The shortage of stores accepting CUC and other state markets is leaving many Cubans empty-handed.

La Habana
Empty shelves at the TRD at 26th and 15th in Havana on July 27.
Empty shelves at the TRD at 26th and 15th in Havana on July 27. J. GÓMEZ DE MELLO / FACEBOOK

After walking around the entire neighborhood, Arletis Castro managed to find a "little pouch" of Hola coffee for 25 pesos. Just a month ago that same sachet cost just 15 pesos on the black market, and, through the rationing book, where it is distributed monthly, it costs four pesos.

"I have people repairing my house, and making lunch for them is almost more expensive than the repairs, because there is nothing at the stores taking CUC, and the black market has run dry," said Castro, a resident in the consejo popular of Los Sitios.

In the CUC shops in Havana there is no coffee, of any kind. They also been short on foods and other basic products, weeks before the opening of more than 70 establishments across the country stocked with all kinds of merchandise – but exclusively for those who have a magnetic card associated with a "Freely Convertible Currency" account.

"That resellers’ lack of condiments and imported toiletries is proportional to the shortages at stores in CUC, where there are empty shelves and no lines at their doors," said Castro.

The consequence is a drastic rise in prices on the black market. A tube of toothpaste currently costs between five and eight CUC. So-called "condiment cubes" —of tomato, beef ribs, and full seasonings— are also rare. The prices of these condiments have risen five pesos (CUP) to at least 20 each.

"The cubes had already been impossible to find in stores, for quite some time, because they are acquired almost exclusively by those of us who resell. There are none at any of the warehouses in Havana," said Daniel, who, outside La Palma, where he has his small business, he resells these condiments to a CUC, in the midst of customers' protests.

One of them, apparently a regular, asked Daniel about dehydrated milk and tomato sauce. "Go to the stores taking dollars; they have everything there," replied several of those on hand.

Until a month ago Tony's establishment had always been well-stocked, with oil, chicken, hot dogs, and coffee thanks to his connections at various CUC retail stores.

"But, two weeks before they opened the dollar stores, my contacts told me to make do with the merchandise I had, because nothing was coming in, and there was no news of when there would be. The few stores that are supplying cannot do anything suspicious, because they are under strict surveillance," said Tony, who said that the situation is the same all across Havana.

He claimed to have seen half a dozen warehouses of stores accepting CUC. "They don't even have any rags."

"I’ve been in this for years, and I've never seen anything like it, even at the worst times. Since the dollar stores opened, the reselling business has plummeted. I went to check out the merchandise in dollars, but it's not feasible, because they’re too expensive," said Tony.

A tour of Havana neighborhoods and the circuit of resellers that runs through them reveals that the black market is suffering the same shortages as the network of foreign currency-accepting shops (TRD) and those taking CUC.

"What is known as the black market is sustained by the resellers –including those currently known as coleros– or by those who are directly connected with the people from the stores' warehouses," explained Malena, who has been reselling food and toiletries for years around the Cuatro Caminos area.

"But, as the CUC stores and their warehouses are undergoing shortages, this affects the black market. Right now we are surviving on the little that is coming through the network of coleros and, as there is nothing at the stores, here, at our 'tables' the shortages are the same," added Malena.

Havana residents fear that the disproportionate increase in prices on the black market will continue as a result of the shortages prevailing in the stores that most Cubans –without access to establishments taking exclusively dollars– depend on to stock their pantries.

"Although it may be hard to believe, ordinary Cubans depend on a black market generated largely by corruption, not by the resellers, who the government now calls coleros and is trying to blame for the crisis," said Elisa Estévez Barrientos.

"The coleros or resellers cover small areas in the neighborhoods, not entire municipalities, or part of the private sector, as the state media would have us believe. This fact is borne out by the fact that the black market is hitting rock bottom right now as a result of the shortages at stores where Cubans who do not receive remittances shop," concluded Estévez Barrientos.

The Government denied having stockpiled food and other products for the opening of the well-stocked Freely Convertible Currency stores. Ana María Ortega Tamayo, who heads Tiendas Caribe, a chain belonging to the Cuban military, contended that many items arrived in the country 48 hours before the stores opened, and were transferred even to the provinces in that time.

Many Cubans are not convinced by this explanation, mainly because it entails an implausible level of efficiency by the Cuban Government.

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