The communist government has been forced to allow citizens to spend US currency at special shops, formalising a split between haves and have-nots
Ed Augustin in Havana
The Guardian, Tuesday 18 Aug 2020 10.00 BST
On Paseo del Prado, a boulevard in Havana’s colonial district, dozens of people waited expectantly as the staff raised the shutters to open a tatty but revamped shop.
Soon after, Alejandro Domínguez, 23, emerged, brandishing meatballs and a giant tin of chopped tomatoes he had just bought with US currency left as tourist tips at his family’s restaurant. “This is a way to get products you can’t find elsewhere,” he said.
The dollar is back in communist Cuba.
For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cubans with access to greenbacks are able to buy higher-quality products in exclusive hard currency stores. In the last two years, Cuba has been increasingly boxed in by declining deliveries of cheap oil from its main ally, Venezuela, and hardened sanctions imposed by a Trump administration eyeing the Cuban-American vote in Florida.
But the island’s cash crisis was brought to a head by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left Cuba without revenue from tourism for four months.
“We’re at a crossroads where there’s practically no other way out,” said Oscar Fernández, professor of economics at the University of Havana. “The state is looking for alternatives so it can keep buying food and medicine.”
So on 20 July, the cash-strapped island opened 72 new “dollar stores”, selling everything from cheese to power drills.
Cuba last opened dollar stores in 1993 as an emergency stopgap when its economy was tanking during the so-called Special Period. The dollar was taken out of circulation and replaced by the CUC in 2004.
The government’s rationale for reopening hard currency stores – to increase supply and to rake in foreign currency – is broadly accepted but the mordant irony of the measure escapes few. The new policy is an implicit admission that the CUC – officially valued at 1:1 with the US dollar – is not worth as much as claimed. Photograph: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images
Recognising the dollar – possession of which was once a criminal offence – as legal tender is a reluctant nod to the financial power of the United States. But it’s also an implicit admission that the CUC, which is officially pegged at 1:1 with the dollar, is not worth as much as the government claims.
The measure draws a line between the haves and the have-nots. On a recent morning, Elio Núñez, 45, a welder who receives dollars from abroad, was queueing outside one of them, hoping to buy soap, coffee, ham or “whatever’s in stock”. Achieving absolute equality, he said, is a chimera. “Some people can afford things, others can’t. It’s like that the world over.”
Perhaps with optics in mind, the new supermarkets do not allow customers to pay in cash. Rather, Cubans must deposit greenbacks in a dollar-denominated account and pay by debit card in store.
In a stormy speech last month, President Miguel Diáz-Canel said “the enemy” would cast the measure as “economic apartheid”. But dollar stores were necessary, he said, to generate the foreign exchange needed to keep the regular shops Cubans use better supplied.
Agriculture, a perennial achilles heel, has been clobbered: state media recently announced that the country is on track to produce just 160,000 tonnes of rice this year – less than a quarter of what it consumes. Figures like these leave Cuba even more dependent on food imports at a time where there is less cash to make purchases.
This dearth of supply brings stark consequences. While there are no queues at bodegas (which guarantee bare-essential food and hygiene products at heavily subsidised prices), queues outside local-currency supermarkets are mammoth.
In Regla, one of Havana’s better-supplied municipalities, the state has intensified rationing: people must now take their ID cards to make purchases, and can only buy chicken once a fortnight. Crowds gather before dawn, and by 9am, hundreds are waiting outside the main supermarket. People are sweaty and perturbed. The occasional scrap breaks out. In the east of the island, citizens have set up action groups to stop people cutting in line.
Dayana Blázquez, a 35-year-old social worker who was queueing outside a dollar store to buy meat, said that although the effects of US sanctions on the island are “palpable”, decades of economic mismanagement mean the state shares the blame. “Right now things are worse than normal, but we’ve had shortages for years,” she said. “Old and new generations have lived this.”
For Blázquez, the inequity of selling some products in dollars runs deep. “It’s not fair for those who work their whole lives and have to depend on others to get by when they retire. It’s not fair for graduates and professionals. It’s not fair for anyone.”