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The economy that bites its tail

Getting food in Cuba is a complex task. Queues for nothing, worthless money, black market, speculation and, in recent years, the expansion of the Freely Convertible Currency (MLC) kingdom, with stores where merchandise is obtained in exchange for virtual dollars that arrive as remittances and still harm plus people’s pockets.

The four. The deep sleep of the fourth phase is a luxury that Moira cannot afford today. It’s store day. And he leaves it like that, in the singular, because there won’t be time for the plural s’s. He checks, like an obsessive, if she has her identity card and the supply book with her. Without that, nothing works outside the home. Five o’clock. She lifts curfew and is shooed out the door. Every second counts. The store is just three blocks away and it doesn’t take her 10 minutes to get there, but even so, a hundred people have arrived before her.

The seven. She has been sitting on a wall less than 15 centimeters wide for two hours and her ass is already cemented. Luckily she has lost weight and part of it fits on that concrete belt. But she can’t take it anymore. She stops, stretches and takes a few steps without going far. It’s going to be half past seven. The famous woman who scans the cards, distributes the tickets and shouts in the queue still does not arrive. Eight. She has managed to catch number 107. She has to return at noon. They don’t let you wait outside the store or sit in the corner park. She is fine, it doesn’t matter, she leaves with the hope that when she returns there will still be merchandise.

On her way home she has found a mammoth: a wheelbarrow. Seeing them in that part of Miramar, the neighborhood where she lives in Havana, is like entering Jurassic Park. She has bought him a mango, a pound of tomatoes and another of lemons: 420 pesos, a little more than 10% of her salary. The handle, a luxury; but she has been wanting to eat one by herself for a long time, like this, in slices, without stretching it into juices. Lemons: she can’t stand acid-free meats, she thinks she’s chewing tasteless gum. Tomatoes: she foresight, she doesn’t know if she’ll find puree or sauce, or whatever, in the store; she with something she has to cook the hash that she has at home.

The player returns to Guns n’ Roses feat. Bruce Springsteen in Come Together. That man’s voice kills her. One thing I can tell you is // you got to be free. How to explain to him, Axl and the Beatles, the got to be free part. Nothing, that topic is not good for going to the store. Better download the Cavalcade of the Valkyries and she imagines, today, triumphant.

Eleven o clock. She checks the mail. She has two messages: she has received an economics book to edit and she must also write a text about the food market in Cuba. But, how, if in Cuba the economy and the food market do not work like in the rest of the world. In fact, if her country was an ordinary country, she wouldn’t have to lose her sound sleep or a whole day in line while others comfortably shop at MLC stores.

MLC: the acronym for Freely Convertible Currency; what experts often call the banking dollar. A currency, moreover, that only lives in the virtual kingdom of banks in Cuba, as if it were a kind of national stablecoin. Money that is not printed, that accumulates in a bank debit card, that is bought with the currencies with which the Government does not pay the people or sell them, that is deposited on that card by more than two million family and friends Cubans living in the diaspora. A currency imposed in the last quarter of 2019 in a centralized economy.

Accessing MLCs legally is not easy for the majority of the population in Cuba. There aren’t many avenues: either someone deposits foreign currency (Euros, British Pounds, Canadian Dollars, Swiss Francs, Mexican Pesos, Danish Kroner, Norwegian Kroner, Swedish Krona, and Japanese Yen) into your account from abroad, or purchases directly from the bank by depositing them yourself. But right there is the trick, in currencies. Cubans’ salaries are paid in Cuban pesos (CUP) and the bank stopped selling foreign currency more than a year ago. How to do then? Well, traffic in the black, informal, parallel market.

Cash in foreign currency has been passing from one hand to another and decreasing along the way. The National Bank of Cuba does not sell; but people do. It does not matter if it is illegal, that it is criminally classified as currency trafficking and can mean jail. To make matters worse, the Government prohibited in June 2021 the entry of US dollars as purchase currency for MLCs, which triggered the price of the euro in the informal stock market.

In just over a year, the MLC has been one of the most visible causes of the devaluation of the Cuban peso to levels never seen before. On May 5, 2021, for example, the digital medium El Toque registered 52 CUP for 1 MLC in the informal exchange; on May 14, 2022, the same site was already reporting 125 CUP for 1 MLC. The same rise that the euro has had, of 63.25 CUP for 1 EUR at the beginning of May

2021, at 128 CUP for 1 EUR and rising, on the same date.

Currency purchased in the informal market or acquired through remittances —almost always also informal— or by any other means, are deposited in MLC accounts and are converted by the bank into Cuban pesos according to the exchange rate, and automatically re-exchanged into Cuban pesos. USD, with whose value MLC cards work. Also, in the black bag, someone who already has MLC on their card is paid to make a direct transaction to one’s or cryptocurrencies are paid in sites not legalized in Cuba or foreign currency to agencies not legal on the island that then transfer MLC. Almost always everything underground, on Telegram channels, Facebook groups or WhatsApp. Just today, on Facebook, one of those agencies announced that 130 USD transferred to an account in the United States by Zelle translated into 100 MLC transferred to a card in Cuba.

But if a national currency already existed, why create another? The stores were not well stocked and many people had obtained capital and/or visas to go to other countries, where they bought merchandise that they later resold in Cuba, supplying the wide range of missing products. The Government needed that money in national territory, and then it occurred to them to open stores in MLC for the people.

Initially, these stores were only going to sell electrical appliances. However, 2020 showed what some already suspected: the MLC and its stores were spreading like a plague. On July 16 of that same year, the designated president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, appeared on the nationally broadcast television program Mesa Redonda, where he announced that on Monday, July 20, 72 stores in MLC would begin to operate; of which, 57 would sell food and cleaning products. The rest of the almost 5,000 points of sale would not be converted to this new currency. According to the Minister of Economy and Planning, Alejandro Gil, the profits from the sales of mid-range and high-end products in the new stores would be used to supply economy-line merchandise in the other establishments. For his part, Héctor Oroza Busutil —then president of Cimex S.A. retail stores—, affirmed that the following products would be prioritized in the economic line: milk powder, evaporated milk, cheese, yogurt, ground beef, hamburgers, ground turkey , chicken, sausages, meats, vegetable oil, tomato puree, other tomato preserves, meat and fish preserves, pasta, grains, wheat flour, coffee, sugar, salt, beer, malts and national soft drinks.

However, a few months later, the number of stores in MLC had increased to an alarming number. Many establishments, formerly in CUP, were closed for remodeling and later reopened in MLC or in the media reviews about the inauguration of new places one could read the phrase: “they will sell products only in MLC”. Thus, in less than two years, several towns throughout Cuba, such as the municipality of Cárdenas, in the province of Matanzas, were flooded with MLC stores, practically leaving the town with no other shopping options. In this way, from a temporary measure to recover part of an economy in crisis, when the markets were dollarized, it became a crisis in itself.

In October 2020, faced with this situation, the activist Oscar Casanella walked along the entire San Rafael boulevard, in Havana, with a sign that said “down with the stores in MLC.” Oscar was doing a political performance; but the State Security organs saw him as a threat and he was arrested. At that time, one person raised his voice for many. Later, in November of that same year, the San Isidro barracks also demanded the closure of these stores, among other things. The voices of several were adding the voices of many. Finally, in the mass protests on July 11, 2021, among the things that were called for was the abolition of MLC stores. In several localities, the MLC stores were the physical object of popular discontent, of the complaints of an entire year, of the weariness of hunger, of shortages; and, as a physical space, they were intervened.

And it is that the State-Government has gotten out of hand on the issue. Practically forced to buy in these stores due to the brutal shortage in CUP stores, foreign currency and the MLC have contributed to galloping inflation that the Government itself recognized at 77% at the end of 2021, according to data from the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) of Cuba —while non-state experts, such as Pedro Monreal or Pavel Vidal speak of around 500%, including the informal market— and have provoked the devaluation of the CUP, transferring to the Government and the Central Bank of Cuba the economic and exchange risk to families abroad. The ONEI itself reflects that food and non-alcoholic beverages presented the second largest increase (36.3% annual) in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

The accounts are not difficult. Moira, for example, only has the right to buy a quantity of chicken —no more than 5 kg— per month in the CUP stores of her municipality, which will also be noted in the supply book, for a price close to 250 CUP. However, if she shopped at the MLC stores, she could buy a box of more than 20 kg every day if she wanted, or more than one box a day. The 5 kg bought in the CUP stores are not enough to finish the month. How does she do? Well, the normal-abnormal: pay the MLC as it is, in which case the same package of chicken will cost you about 1,000 CUP; or pay it to resellers in 1,200, up to 1,500 CUP. In short, the life of the 4,000 CUP of his state salary translates into 4 packages of chicken or 32 MLC in the informal market. Not only yours, but that of 70% of workers in the state sector, further aggravating the food health of the population

Resellers have always existed. Only now many of them have access to MLC stores and things as basic as a liter of oil, which costs 50 CUP, they resell it for at least 500 CUP, ten times its cost. But they are not the problem, nor its cause; they are just a microeconomic expression of the Cuban economic reality.

Twelve o’clock. The bells, invariable, call the Angelus. Look at the clothes you go out to the street out of the corner of your eye, not wanting to get dressed. It’s almost there: shorts, sandals, blouse. Check the backpack: water, identity card, supply book, shift number 107, money, keys, in that order. So he returns to the store. This time with Wagner, without wings, horses or swords; but full of faith.

It’s almost three o’clock when he finally walks in. There is hardly anything left to carry. There is no oil, no tomato puree. Good thing he bought that pound of fresh tomatoes. He will have to catch them to cook instead of eating them as a salad. The chicken was finished about ten people before her. There’s only mixed hash and sausage left. She looks at them sadly. She doesn’t like ground beef, she never has. And to top it off, the one she already has at home she will have to cook with water, without oil. He impatiently asks the shopkeeper if she is going to take them. It’s not like she can take as many as she wants, it’s two packages of sausage and two tubes of hash per person. In the end she makes up her mind and says yes.

He has wasted the whole day in a single store. That’s why she said there would be no time for plural s’s. At that time she will no longer be able to queue at any other time. They have collected all the identity cards to scan them and have distributed all the tickets for the day in the morning. It is true that you could try the queue of failures somewhere else -like in plane tickets, if someone cancels the order you can make that queue to get it-; but the chances of arriving last and not having enough people already scanned to enter are slim to none. She takes a deep breath and makes her way home.

Store the hash and hot dogs in the freezer. Many people would be happy to have reached those products. She knows it, she is aware of the luck she has had within what could have been worse. And therein lies the problem: thinking about what could be worse and not concentrating on what is wrong.

Before the Ordenamiento Task -the reform with economic measures launched by the government in December 2020- I was in a WhatsApp group in Havana that had been created by two brothers who queued in stores and published the products they found. If you were interested in something, you told them and they, for a 20% commission on top of the price of the product, bought it and took it home, charging the courier service separately. But since they have put the stores in MLC they have migrated to them and Moira has not entered again.

She now looks to see if they are supplying oil for less than 500 pesos. Without realizing it, she cuts and pastes the messages with the products in a .txt. She reads the list for several days. There is no oil to cook. The list actually has little variety of foods, they are repeated in the different MLC stores, and most of them are not basic. She realizes that this information can be used for the text that she has to write. Data and sources are few. Data journalism in Cuba is built by absence, by what is not mentioned in official sources, by what can be compiled with local information.

It is dedicated to identifying the country of each product. Start counting: 69 products listed in total; of them, 17 Cubans (24.63%), 1 Ecuadorian (1.44%), 41 Spaniards (59.42%), 1 Dutch (1.44%), 1 Italian (1.44), 3 Mexicans ( 4.34%), 1 Portuguese (1.44%), 1 Turkish (1.44%) and 3 unidentified (4.34%). Only 5.79% of those identified come from Latin America; while more than half come from Spain. The figures show that the list of suppliers is scarce, but the largest stable trading partner, at least in the food market that is sold in MLC stores, is Spain.

In fact, under that banner the MLC shopping website https://tienda.marinasmarlin.com/ is hosted, with mostly Vima and Alimerka products. The Motherland leads the physical and online commerce of the MLC stores.

However, although the Minister of Economy and Planning Alejandro Gil recognized that production must be supported because the MLC stores do not solve the problem, the very fact of allocating capital to imports and not to national productions has already attacked the economy. national. Thus, the manufacture of national soft drinks has been at a competitive disadvantage in the face of the flood of imports from brands such as CocaCola, 7Up, Pepsi and Fanta.

But what has happened to a large part of the products that were in the physical MLC stores? Moira is almost certain that in the same way that products from CUP stores have been diverted to supply MLC stores, the government has redirected them to online stores with international payments.

You just have to check the different sites grouped in enviocuba.ca. A few meters from her house, there is one of them; In these enviocuba.ca stores you can buy online with international cards, but you have the option of collecting in the stores that have been designated for it. Moira enters the page and takes some screenshots. She finds chicken, in various forms. Once again, Spain is at the forefront. The list is long and includes names like MallHabana, Alawao, Katapulk and SuperMarket23.

It’s going to be seven in the evening. Moira has spent all day trying to find oil. She has made a queue good for nothing, she has lost her deep sleep and she will still have to cook the mincemeat with water and natural tomatoes. She has been thinking about the MLCs and their stores all day, where apparently there is no guarantee of finding the most basic foods. After eating, she will have to sit down to edit the economics book and write the text about the food market in Cuba. Thus, with mouthfuls of water, she has to digest that in Cuba there is no economy or market or food.

On the way to the kitchen, Moira sings to Bruce Springsteen: One thing I can tell you // is I cannot get to be free.

Article originally published in Periodismo Situado


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José Martí
José Martí
Nacionalista cubano, poeta, filósofo, ensayista, periodista, traductor, profesor y editor.

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