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Shopping in Cuba

Shopping in Cuba

A Spanish-English dictionary, sunscreen, insect repellent, a towel,
chocolate ice cream: these are the items that eluded me during a recent
trip to Cuba. For all the hoopla about the island’s opening and the more
than three million tourists who swamped it last year, Cuba is no country
for shoppers. The more mundane the object of desire, the more
exasperating it can be to find.

I’m not saying that these common items are completely unavailable in
Cuba—I’m sure they are for sale somewhere on the island—but I couldn’t
locate them. And I did look. The problem might be that I spent half of
my trip in Trinidad, a cobblestoned colonial city on the Caribbean
coast. When I ventured out to the Galería Comericial Universo, which my
Lonely Planet claimed featured “Trinidad’s best (and most expensive)
grocery store,” it was closed due to lack of electricity. I was able to
peer into the darkened grocery store to see considerable yards of empty
shelves. Electricity woes might have accounted as well for my inability
to obtain ice cream for my son. When we finally found it, on the menu of
an expatriate beach club in Havana, it arrived melted. And the waitress
couldn’t find a spoon.

At the Plaza de Armas in Havana, the large open-air market, my inquiry
about a Spanish-English dictionary was met with “no es fácil,” an answer
I heard often in Cuba. The bookseller did offer up a Russian-Spanish
dictionary. At a kiosk in a suburban neighborhood, which the proprietor
proclaimed “not just the best bookstore in Havana, but all of Cuba,” I
found a Larousse dictionary from 1987, with yellowed pages that crumbled
as I opened it. It was for sale for the equivalent of five dollars, a
week’s salary for most Cubans. (After I returned from Cuba, I was told I
could find a decent used dictionary at Cuba Libro, an English-language
bookstore that opened in 2013.) I never found a state bookstore that was

Having been a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe in the
nineteen-nineties, and more recently in China, I have some experience
with Communist and post-Communist countries. In Cuba I saw elements of
many of them, from Albania to Vietnam. Like Prague in the
nineteen-nineties, Havana’s old city is swarming with tourists who gaze
at the faded splendor of its Belle Époque architecture. Private
restaurants inside these elegant wrecks, called paladares, beckon
tourists with creative meals made out of the few ingredients available
locally, mostly chicken, pork, cabbage, rice, and beans.

But Cuba also looks to me like a North Korea with palm trees. To be
sure, Cuba has evolved politically, investing in education and health
care rather than weapons of mass destruction. But the economic
fundamentals in these last bastions of Communism are much the same. Like
North Korea, Cuba maintains a distribution system in which citizens pay
a low cost for inadequate rations of staple foods. (At one state shop,
the provisions, listed on the blackboard, were grains, washing soap,
bathing soap, toothpaste, sugar, salt, coffee, evaporated milk, eggs,
and oil.) As in North Korea, archaic laws prevent the private sale of
commodities that have been deemed strategic to the nation. Fishing is
limited in both countries on the grounds that the bounty of the seas is
the exclusive property of the state.

At a mercado agropecuario (basically a licensed farmers’ market) in a
residential neighborhood of Havana, I was amazed by products that
appeared to have been crafted in people’s basements or garages. There
were homemade clothespins and clothes hangers, soup ladles and sieves,
cast-aluminum pots and pans with hand-carved wooden handles. (The pots
were offered for the equivalent of two dollars.) Plastic molded toy cars
were so flimsy that they made the cheapest made-in-China toys look as
sophisticated as Swiss watches. Homemade vinegar and ketchup were sold
in repurposed beer bottles. This is not unlike North Korea, where people
desperate to earn money used to make sneakers to sell at the market.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1991, both the Cuban and
North Korean economies went into a free fall—the Cubans call this time
“the special period” and the North Koreans “the arduous March”—and
neither country has completely recovered. In Cuba, the loss of cheap
petroleum led to the breakdown of highly mechanized agriculture and food
distribution systems, and the almost complete collapse of the
manufacturing sector. Even today, neither country has much of a
manufacturing sector. Imports to both countries are also limited by
sanctions and hard-currency shortages. Although the United States
restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, in July, the island remains
under a trade embargo.

“Almost all legal imports in Cuba are handled by the government
international-trading monopolies,” Richard E. Feinberg, a senior fellow
at the Brookings Institution and a Latin America adviser to the Clinton
Administration, told me. “Their choice of products is not necessarily
driven by consumer demands.” He went on, “This is like eastern Europe in
the old days, where you might see a hundred cans of sardines imported
from Thailand that obviously nobody was interested in buying.”

Cubans are not starving like North Koreans, but many do lack basic
consumer goods. Whereas just about everything used in North Korea—be it
plastic sandals or hairbrushes or umbrellas—seeps across the
eight-hundred-and-fifty-mile border with China, Cubans are dependent
upon what can be stuffed into a suitcase and carried by airplane. The
Miami-based Havana Consulting estimates that visitors carried three and
a half billion dollars’ worth of goods into Cuba in 2013.

There are stores in Miami that specialize in spare parts for the
Russian-made Lada and Moskvitch clunkers that Cubans still drive. The
burgundy-colored official Cuban school uniforms are strangely easier to
buy in Miami than Havana. Cloth diapers and diaper pins are another
popular item brought into Cuba by plane. It is not legal to resell these
items in Cuba, but everybody seems to do it, often through word of
mouth. When I asked a Cuban driver with whom we were snorkelling where
he had acquired a rather smart Spiderman beach towel, he gave me a
long-winded explanation of the market system, which boiled down to this:
“Sometimes somebody has something that I want to buy, but if I ask them
where it came from they won’t sell it to me.”

Raúl Castro, effectively Cuba’s ruler since 2006, when he took over for
his ailing older brother, Fidel, has been easing up controls on economic
activity. Private employment is now allowed in two hundred and one
categories. Farmers are allowed to sell fruits and vegetables that they
produce over their quota. Homeowners are allowed to rent rooms in their
houses to tourists (a freedom that would be unthinkable in North Korea).
An exemption to the prohibitions on manufacturing also permits Cubans to
make and sell the goods I saw at the Havana neighborhood market, which
are classified as handicrafts.

The result is that almost every home in the heavily touristy old center
of Trinidad has thrown its shutters open to offer something for
sale—hand-painted T-shirts with images of Che Guevara, paintings of
vintage cars, macramé handbags, or visors made of old soda cans—a
profusion of Cuban-themed kitsch that is cheerful if not particularly
useful. Alas, none of it was what I wanted to buy in Cuba, but it
provided a glimpse of the possible.

Source: Shopping in Cuba – The New Yorker –

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