As Belkis Fajardo, 69, walks through the crowded streets of downtown Havana Carrying a small bag of lettuce and onions, she wonders how she will feed her family for the holidays.
Scarcity and economic crisis are nothing new in Cuba, but Fajardo is among many Cubans who point out that this year is different with soaring inflation and worsening shortages.
“We are going to see at the end of the month what can be resolved to be able to cook,” he declared. “Everything is very expensive… so you gradually buy what you can. And if not, he doesn’t eat anything.”
Basic goods such as chicken, beef, eggs, milk, flour, and toilet paper are hard to find in state stores, and often impossible to find.
When they do appear, they are often very expensive, either in informal shops, through resellers, or in expensive stores that are only accessible to those with foreign currency.
They are well outside the reach of the average salary paid by the Cuban state, of approximately 5,000 pesos a month, equivalent to $29 at the island’s informal exchange rate, the most widely used. Nearby, 450 grams (1 pound) of pork leg sold for 450 pesos (approximately $2.60).
“Not everyone can buy. Not everyone has a family that sends remittances,” Fajardo said. “This is with my daughter’s salary and salary as a pension, and we are buying what we can. It always gets too complicated for us.”
In October, the Cuban government reported that inflation had risen 40% over the past year and had a significant impact on the purchasing power of many on the island.
Although Fajardo managed to buy vegetables, rice and beans, he still has no meat for Christmas or for the New Year.
The famine is one of several factors fueling broader discontent on the island, which has led to protests in recent years and also increased emigration.
The dissatisfaction became even more evident during the local elections on the island last month, in which 31.5% of eligible voters did not cast their ballots, a very high figure compared to the participation of almost 100% in the time of Fidel Castro.
Despite being the highest abstention rate the country has seen since the Cuban Revolution, the government still considered it “a victory.” However, in a speech to Cuban lawmakers last week, President Miguel Díaz-Canel acknowledged the government’s shortcomings in handling the complex mix of crises in the country, especially food shortages.
“I feel enormous dissatisfaction for not having been able to achieve, from the leadership of the country, the results that the Cuban people need to achieve the desired and expected prosperity,” he lamented.
Said pronouncement was received with a standing ovation from the National Assembly of People’s Power, made up only of politicians from the Communist Party.
But Ricardo Torres, an economist of Cuban origin at the American University in Washington, indicated that the words seemed “nonsense” to him, since there was no real plan to address the discontent.
“People want answers from their government,” he said. “No words. Answers”.
For years, the Caribbean nation has pinned much of the blame for its economic crisis on the trade embargo that USA has been applied for six decades, which has suffocated a large part of the island’s economy. However, many observers, including Torres, emphasize that the government’s economic mismanagement and reluctance to support the private sector have also played a role in the crisis.
On Friday, a long line of people waited outside an empty Cuban state-operated butcher shop, hoping to get a much-wanted item: a pork leg to feed their families on New Year’s Eve.
About a dozen people asked for an interview by The Associated Press said they were afraid to speak. One of them noted that they could suffer reprisals.
Estrella, 67, has gone to the state butcher shop every morning for more than two weeks, waiting her turn to buy pork to share with her children, grandchildren and siblings. She so far she has not achieved anything.
Although it is possible to purchase pork at private butcher shops, it is often much more expensive than at state-operated ones, which subsidize prices.
So she keeps waiting, hoping that she will be able to cook the traditional Cuban Christmas dish.
“We are going to buy it today, if it is positive (if we are lucky),” he said. “And if not, we will go tomorrow.”