Cubans search for holiday food amid deepening crisis

HAVANA (AP) — As Belkis Fajardo, 69, walks through the dense streets of downtown Havana with a small bag of lettuce and onions in hand, she wonders how she’ll feed her family over the holidays.

Scarcity and economic turmoil are nothing new to Cuba, but Fajardo is among many Cubans to note that this year is different thanks to soaring inflation and deepening shortages.

“We’ll see what we can scrap together to cook for the end of the year,” Fajardo said. “Everything is really expensive … so you buy things little-by-little as you can. And if you can’t, you don’t eat.”

Basic goods such as chicken, beef, eggs, milk, flour and toilet paper are difficult and often impossible to find in state stores.

When they do appear, they often come at hefty prices, either from informal shops, resellers or in expensive stores only accessible to those with foreign currency.

It’s far out of the range of the average Cuban state salary, approximately 5,000 pesos a month, or $29 USD on the island’s more widely used informal exchange rate. Nearby, a pound of pork leg was selling for 450 pesos (around $2.60.)

“Not everyone can buy things, not everyone has a family who sends remittances (money from abroad),” Fajardo said. “With the money my daughter earns and my pension, we’re trying to buy what we can, but it’s extremely hard.”

In October, the Cuban government reported that inflation had risen 40% over the past year and had a significant impact on the purchasing power for many on the island.

While Fajardo managed to buy vegetables, rice and beans, she still has no meat for Christmas or New Years.

The shortages are among a number of factors stoking a broader discontent on the island, which has given rise to protests in recent years as well as an emerging migratory flight from Cuba. On Friday, U.S. authorities reported stopping Cubans 34,675 times along the Mexico border in November, up 21% from 28,848 times in October.

The dissatisfaction was made even more evident during Cuba’s local elections last month, when 31.5% of eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot — a far cry from the nearly 100% turnout during Fidel Castro’s lifetime.

Despite being the highest voting abstention rate the country had seen since the Cuban revolution, the government still hailed it as “a victory.” However in an address to Cuban lawmakers last week, President Miguel Díaz-Canel acknowledged the government’s shortcomings in handling the country’s complex mix of crises, particularly food shortages.

“I feel an enormous dissatisfaction that I haven’t been able to accomplish, through leadership of the country, the results that the Cuban people need to attain longed-desired and expected prosperity,” he said.

The admission provoked a standing ovation in the congressional assembly, made up solely of politicians from Díaz-Canel’s communist party.

But Ricardo Torres, a Cuban and economics fellow at American University in Washington, said he saw the words as “meaningless” without a real plan to address discontent.

“People want answers from their government,” he said. “Not words — answers.”

For years, the Caribbean nation has pushed much of the blame for its economic turmoil on the United States’ six-decade trade embargo on Cuba, which has strangled much of the island’s economy. However, many observers, including Torres, stress that the government’s mismanagement of the economy and reluctance to embrace the private sector are also to blame.

On Friday, a long line of Cubans waited outside an empty state-run butchery, waiting for a coveted item: a leg of pork to feed their families on New Year’s Eve.

About a dozen people The Associated Press asked for an interview said they were scared to speak, including one who said “it could have consequences for us.”

Estrella, 67, has shown up to the state butcher every morning for more than two weeks, waiting her turn to buy pork to share with her children, grandchildren and siblings. So far, she’s come up dry.

Although pork is available to buy from private butchers, it’s often far more expensive than at state-run facilities, which subsidize prices.

So she waits, hopeful that she’ll be able to cook Cuba’s traditional holiday dish.

“If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to buy it today,” she said. “If we’re not, we’ll come back tomorrow.”

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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