HAVANA – For the first time in months, select supermarkets in Cuba opened Monday with their shelves fully stocked, offering a dizzying array of usually hard-to-find items. But this cornucopia is available only to people with dollars or other hard currency.
The controversial initiative is aimed above all at replenishing the Cuban government’s much-diminished reserves, which have taken a further battering amid the loss of tourism revenue due to COVID-19 and the intensification of the US economic embargo.
Maylin, a 45-year-old housewife, stood in line for three hours to shop at the largest store in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood, now designated as one of the 72 freely convertible currency (MLC) establishments across the island.
“Cheese, cleaning products, things I haven’t been able to buy for this entire time of pandemic,” she told EFE when asked about the contents of her shopping cart.
Shoppers emerged from the Miramar market with salmon, tuna, and olive oil, among other rarities.
Though she doesn’t work, Maylin can afford to shop at an MLC because she has brothers in Spain and the United States who regularly send her remittances in euros and dollars.
Buying in dollars “is another opportunity,” she said. “Here we see products that you can’t get in the other shops.”
It is the same story for three other people standing in line.
Though Yordanka, 46, Odalis, 50, and 60-year-old Roberto are strangers to each other and to Maylin, all four have one thing in common: they are lucky enough to have relatives abroad who send money home.
Roberto, a retiree, says that his benefactor knows he can’t get by on his pension alone. “Thanks to him that he sends the money from there and one can do something,” he tells EFE.
“They say there is toothpaste, tomato puree and beer,” he says hopefully while waiting to enter the market.
The majority of Cubans, however, are not in a position to take advantage of the MLC experiment.
Juan, standing at a bus stop not far from the market, is part of that excluded majority.
“That is for someone who has the possibility of hard currency. I’m a normal worker who is paid in national currency,” he says.
Silvio is likewise on the outside looking in when it comes to MLC shopping, but at 82, he has learned to be philosophical about his situation.
“I have ignored that because it’s not within my reach,” he tells EFE. “So you understand: I don’t know how to drive and it has never interested me because I don’t have a car. If I had a car I would learn. It’s the same with this.”
The rest of Cuba’s supermarkets and groceries – notorious for always being out of practically everything – accept payment in the ordinary peso (CUP) and the convertible peso, known as CUC, which is pegged to the dollar.
The conversion of select supermarkets to the MLC model can be seen as part of the creeping dollarization of the Cuban economy that began last October with the opening of appliance and auto parts stores operating with hard currency.
Alongside the launch of the MLCs, Cuba has scrapped the 10 percent tax imposed on peso-dollar currency conversions in 2004, when the greenback officially ceased to circulate on the island.
The island’s Communist government insists that the MLC project will bring benefits even to the mass of Cubans who can’t shop in the special markets.
With more dollars, euros, Mexican pesos and other hard currency in official coffers, Cuba will be able to alleviate the chronic shortages in the regular markets, according to officials.
Cuba imports 80 percent of its food.
Opponents of the plan contend that the MLCs are effectively dividing Cubans into two classes: those with access to foreign currency and those without.
“All of the evils of capitalism that they criticize they have just done with the MLC stores,” one person wrote on Twitter.
For the moment, Cubans can only wait to see if the MLCs can bring the country closer to the elusive, long-sought state of “food sovereignty.”