The Daily Hassle of Buying Basic Necessities in Havana
Updated: Apr 12
Jostling for space, we peer through the window of a grocery store in Havana, Cuba. Seeing large containers of water we join the growing line of Cubans sweating in the hot sun, waiting for their chance to purchase essentials. There’s a limit on the number of customers allowed in the store and we have to wait our turn.
Cuba’s heavily subsidized state-run food distribution system was implemented to combat the effects of the initial US embargo and provides basic food items, such as rice, sugar, salt , oil, beans, eggs, and meat using a ration book system. However, buying other groceries and necessities can be an all-consuming occupation for Cubans. Post-revolution, the country’s ration system was relatively lax, but years of ever-growing embargoes—coupled with the loss of aid from Venezuela—has exacerbated the situation and increased the daily struggles of Cubans.
This grocery store, like all others, has many empty shelves and what is available is often redundant. Combined, all the products in this store wouldn't fill a single aisle in its Canadian counterpart. For a Canadian accustomed to unlimited variety, it’s an adjustment. There's no shortage of rum, however, in this state controlled economy.
We emerge somewhat triumphantly, water in hand, but without the other item on our list—shaving cream. We head to another store and another line. I simply can't imagine the daily irritation and hassle of standing in line in the hopes of acquiring even the simplest necessities.
What items are available at which stores is hit-and-miss. We saw cereal from Egypt in one store, but not any others. Coolers and freezers sit almost empty, sometimes with chicken, other times wieners and bologna imported from Canada, no other frozen foods at all. We occasionally saw vacuum packed milk, but never any other milk products such as yogurt, cottage cheese, or butter.
And what's available one day may not be available the next. When we returned to the store where we purchased our water two days later, it was sold out, sending us across the city on another hunt; the closest store we could find with water was two kilometres away.
Adding to the misery is that all grocery stores in Cuba are state owned and unlike ration shops sell all products at market prices or higher, a hardship in a country where the average monthly wage is $50.
Luckily for us, our Airbnb hostess offered breakfast and dinner, saving us from constant lineups in search for food. Her culinary prowess magically turned the same ingredients into different meals each evening.
Anticipating the unavailability of various items, we stocked up on nuts, crackers, granola bars, oatmeal, chocolate, tea, coffee and brought our own electric kettle from Canada.
What we didn't bring was a knife to chop vegetables and a bowl in which to make a salad. Basic consumer items are elusive and searching for these two articles turned into a two-day endeavour. A national ban on advertising, (too capitalist) makes it almost impossible to know what is sold where at the few businesses that do exist.
Finding nothing in our area we go to what is generously called a “shopping mall”. No shiny, eye catching window displays here, only a cavernous, empty building. Its a stark contrast to the constant consumerism and tyranny of choice back home. Some clothing and brand-name shoes are available, but they’re unaffordable for the vast majority of Cubans.
Asking around, we're directed to an almost empty basement store to buy our knife. No choice; only one type of knife is available. No bowl though. That takes another day. We never do find shaving cream.
Some loosening of restrictions has occurred, however, and vegetable and fruit stands now dot the city. Farmers can now sell surplus products remaining after filling their quota, but choice remains limited and quality is highly variable. A lack of transportation leaves some produce looking as if it's trekked across the world, rather than coming from farms on the island.
Knife and bowl in hand, my husband scours the neighbourhood each day for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions. Delicious salads await me each day when I return from my morning language class. We even found pepper, a real treasure, on one of our scavenger hunts.
What there is lots of here is pastry and delicious treats can be bought everywhere. Fresh bread is another treat and can be bought for pennies a loaf.
Loosened restrictions have also allowed Paladores, a type of private restaurant, to flourish. Mysteriously, they’re able to obtain plentiful and varied ingredients for their meals, even butter.
Cubans are now allowed to sell merchandise from their homes, as well. A few items, a table for display, a doorway and voila, it's a store, some with only two or three items, some with a full table, always an eclectic array of goods from soap to baby shoes.
But many basic consumer goods remain scarce and when items arrive, line-ups quickly form, word-of-mouth now complimented by WhatsApp groups. Asking at one line extending around the block, I'm told it's for light bulbs, at another it's a wait for cleaning products.
Cubans need the skills of a strategic planner and the patience of a saint to acquire the necessities rations don't cover. Conseguir, to get or manage, is a verb we heard often. And indeed they do.