Cuban Food Security in a Time of COVID-19

The pandemic has created new opportunities and barriers to food access in Cuba’s two largest cities.

Even before Cuba’s first case of COVID-19 was detected on March 11, the country faced economic difficulties and most Cuban households struggled daily to fulfill their basic needs. In summer 2019, Cubans found themselves in a difficult coyuntura (situation) as trade was devastated and the Cuban economy suffered. By that fall President Trump had activated a part of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 to tighten the United States embargo (el bloqueo) by threatening third countries trading with and investing in Cuba. In spring 2020, things were looking up, until the novel coronavirus arrived, transforming everyday life with new regulations to slow the spread of the disease. By early summer it appeared that the timely coordinated actions by the centralized government, oriented by public health officials, researchers, and academics, had largely controlled the threat of disease, but COVID-19 and its economic impacts have created new challenges for food access for families in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, Cuba’s two largest cities.

In a few short months, COVID-19 has changed Cuban food systems.

A couple weeks after the first cases were detected, Cuba suspended all commercial flights into the country. Although an important measure for protecting public health, it will undoubtedly have significant economic impacts. Cuba’s tourism industry, which accounts for over 10 percent of the GDP, ground to a halt. The Cuban economy not only depends on tourism for a significant proportion of foreign exchange, but the Cuban middle class, which grew during the normalization of United States–Cuba relations during Barack Obama’s presidency, is also closely tied to businesses that cater to international visitors, from package tourists to study abroad students.

Each year nearly 50,000 Cubans bring home about $8 billion in goods and cash remittances from trips abroad, around eight percent of Cuba’s GDP. Many households’ day-to-day struggle to fulfill basic needs is tied to the black market supplied by these small traders. This source also dried up when flights were suspended. The loss of work in general, the loss of tourism, and the lack of people bringing in goods and cash has been devastating for all Cubans.

In a few short months, COVID-19 has changed Cuban food systems. In both Havana and Santiago the number of families who are able to achieve food security and meet basic needs while following mandates to stay at home is limited. Upper-class and middle-class households with savings were able to stock up on basic goods before the quarantine began, filling their refrigerators and chest freezers. With public transportation paralyzed, households with access to private transportation could move quickly around the city to gather products in short supply as soon as they appeared in stores.

Photograph of a store interior
Image description: Tall black chalkboard. Handwritten in white chalk are a list of products and prices.
Caption: Chalkboard in the entrance to a bodega in Havana shows a list of extra products made available to Cuban consumers through the ration book at subsidized prices during the month of August 2020.
Hope Bastian

During the first months of quarantine in-person sales were suspended at many large Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) stores and online commerce was promoted by state companies to keep consumers at home. But the access barriers to virtual commerce are high: in addition to needing CUC to make purchases, one must have a smartphone, a data plan to access websites, and keep funds in a special bank card for online shopping. Despite their promise, the systems have been plagued with problems and delivery delays. In Havana, entrepreneurs have innovated solutions to the shelter-in-place orders by creating new provisioning opportunities online, using WhatsApp to advertise products for home delivery from fruits, veggies, and meat to fully cooked meals through subscription services.

Online services are popular in Havana, but their use is much rarer in Santiago, where people are more likely to rely on rations and have few other options besides waiting in long lines for scarce foods. In both cities, for those without the economic capital to buy online and wait for delivery, buy in bulk, order products to be delivered, or move freely around the city, the only option is to depend on the products distributed through the ration book and wait in long lines at stores.

During this period the state has expanded the quantities and types of goods distributed through the ration book in order to increase availability for all families at points close to their homes. In Havana, additional modules of products were distributed through the bodegas to make sure that all families would have guaranteed access. A liter of bleach for preparing sanitizing solutions, extra rice and beans, and cleaning modules that included toothpaste, laundry soap, dish soap, and body soap, were also issued to each household as well as treats such as malta dispensada and six cans of Ciego Montero soda.

“It was a complete disappointment and we ended up just buying cheese. There were no regular sized bottles of oil, just 20 liters; they only had the most expensive detergent and dish soap. It wasn’t what I expected to see.”

However, internal migrants are not able to get access to rationed goods. Many internal migrants received rations at their official home address and in normal times have found ways to have their rations sent to them, but during quarantine transportation between provinces and Havana has been cut off. Prices for basic goods have increased. On the informal market in Havana, regular rice, like that distributed through the ration book for less than one Cuban peso a pound, is going for 35 Cuban pesos a pound.

While in Washington Trump announced measures to strengthen the US embargo, in Havana the Cuban state focused on implementing economic measures to stimulate economic recovery. According to Cuban President Diaz-Canel, “Every day we are involved in the search for solutions to these problems, thinking and feeling as a people, thinking and acting for the good of all, and we have to explain that, sometimes, to benefit everyone, we have to implement measures that ‘seem’ to favor a few, but that in the long run will benefit all.”

One of the most contentious measures was the creation of a chain of 72 stores across the country that began to sell basic foodstuffs unavailable elsewhere such as beef, pork, cheese, and pasta in US dollars (USD) and Euros. In order to make a purchase one must have a card loaded with money from abroad or with foreign currency deposited in a Cuban bank. The Cuban government opened these stores as an emergency measure to alleviate the economic crisis by bringing hard currency into the Cuban economy with an understanding that this would also mean exacerbating already growing inequalities.

This controversial dollarization measure promises to further stratify access to basic goods in Cuba. In the words of Yaicel, a Black woman in her late thirties from Santiago who works in a relatively low paying state job:

In the dollar stores, they have everything, there they lack nothing but you can only buy there if you have the cards. But for example I have a card, but just for fun because I don’t have anyone that sends me dollars, so it’s basically like I don’t have a card. It is really unjust because it’s terrible that in this store they have everything and you have to go through so much work to be able to buy it. And every day the situation gets worse, it is awful that there is a store full of detergent and there is none in the regular stores. I have no toothpaste, no soap, [and] no shampoo to wash my hair.

Although she has a card that could be used at the dollar stores, Yaicel and her family do not have savings or family abroad to send her money to access these services. Trump’s actions to tighten the embargo have also had a direct impact on the ability of people based in the United States to load money onto the cards. In late July, fearing US sanctions, the French bank Crédit Mutuel suspended its services, which had allowed people based in the United States to make deposits to cards in Cuba to purchase at dollar stores.

For those without the economic capital to buy online and wait for delivery, buy in bulk, order products to be delivered, or move freely around the city, the only option is to depend on the products distributed through the ration book and wait in long lines at stores.

Yaicel also notes the role of resellers, known locally as revendedores and merolicos—those who buy up the goods from stores and resell them at a markup. She said they are selling the toothpaste from the bodega for 10 times the usual eight pesos. She negatively casts the resellers as “taking advantage of the situation,” which was already bad. Resellers are the figure that everyone loves to hate. In the nightly news there is a recurring section in which they are sniffed out by Ministry of Interior agents and brought to justice, their stockpiles seized.

In Havana, many middle class and upper class families keep a portion of their savings in USD or Euros. Without depending on family abroad they have opened USD bank accounts and made deposits in order to shop in USD stores. But many have been disappointed, finding the new USD stores are not so different from the CUC stores. Denys and his wife Celia, who both work in public health, have attempted to make purchases in the new stores a couple of times. Yet as Celia explained to us, they have not had much luck finding the basic foods long missing from the CUC stores such as the butter, chicken, and meat that they thought they’d be able to buy for their four-year-old son:

After the wait for the card which was going to resolve all my problems we went at 4:00 p.m. to the store at 3rd and 70 [in Miramar]. There was nothing! Ok, the store was full, but there were none of the things that I saved up for and went there to buy. A box of shrimp at $76, octopus at $50 something, mayonnaise at $16. Things that really aren’t necessary, things that are truly luxuries. It was a complete disappointment and we ended up just buying cheese. There were no regular sized bottles of oil, just 20 liters; they only had the most expensive detergent and dish soap. It wasn’t what I expected to see. That day when we left we were really disappointed because it didn’t live up to our expectations with the needs we have.

For consumers buying for household consumption these large quantities make food inaccessible, but they work well for those with the means to purchase to resell.

“In the end it’s the same laws as the CUC stores,” Denys complained. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be like. I thought having dollars was the solution, you get your card and deposit your dollars and you go and you don’t have to wait in a long line and you can get what you´ve been looking for that you can’t find anywhere else. It wasn’t like that. You have to wait in a super long line, there is the risk that they run out of what you are looking for, and you have to go early.”

Despite the risk of contracting the virus, Cubans have been scouring the streets and queuing for food for months. With case counts low by the summer, most provinces seemed to be recovering well and everywhere except Havana and Mayabeque lifted their COVID-19 restrictions on July 20, the same day the dollar stores opened. But in early August cases surged back to their April levels. On Saturday August 8, restaurants, bars, and pools in Havana were ordered to close, suspending public transportation and closing beaches. By the end of the month, even stricter regulations were announced in Havana, preventing people from leaving their municipalities with a 7:00 p.m. curfew. Those who could spent the last weekend before measures became effective searching Havana’s stores to stock up once again. Agricultural markets are nearly empty during these first weeks of stricter measures as the trucks that usually stock them are no longer bringing products to the city.

The quarantines and economic effects of COVID-19 have restructured food access across Cuba. The new dollar stores created this summer offer new opportunities for some and by doing so exacerbate existing inequalities. But with their long lines and unreliable supply this new option does little to make life easier for even the most privileged consumers in search of a decent meal.

Hope Bastian is an assistant professor at the University of Havana. She holds a PhD in anthropology from American University and is the author of Everyday Adjustments in Havana: Economic Reforms, Mobility and Emerging Inequalities (2018).

Hanna Garth is an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. She holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and an MPH from Boston University. She is the author of Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal (2020) and co-author of the forthcoming volume Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice (2020).

Cite as: Bastian, Hope and Hanna Garth. 2020. “Cuban Food Security in a Time of COVID-19.” Anthropology News website, September 25, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1507

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