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Buying Staples in Cuba

June 07, 2016
By Stephen Thomforde
An open pharmacy in Havana.

Note: this is the latest in a series of posts about our trip to Cuba in April; please see our other posts about the trip.

When we first arrived in Cuba, we hoped to prepare some of our own meals. This proved more difficult than we thought. On a car trip back from an early visit, we asked Yoani if we could stop at a convenience store for some water and snacks. She said it was impossible. Since we were in the country and it was Sunday, no retail stores (of any kind) would be open. This seemed so ridiculous that when we stopped for gas, a few of us bounded out looking for the store with drinks, snacks, and other tidbits. No Luck. We had a similar experience when we later tried to find a pharmacy in Havana.

Francisco explains how vendors get their wares.

Yoanni told us that when we got back to Havana, we could make a stop at the best grocery store in town. It was an interesting surprise. It was the size of a smallish supermarket in the states and had a few loaves of bread, canned fish, crackers, a bit of dairy, and some rum. There was no peanut butter, and no vegetable section. Everything was either prepackaged or very limited. We spent about 10 CUC each on 3 easy-to-prepare meals (sardines and bread). The prices seemed reasonable until we remembered that the minimum government salary is about 10 CUC’s (equal to dollars) per month. We were buying what many considered a luxury.

Later we visited a farmers market to see where all the fruits and vegetables were sold. The manager, Fransico, explained that many of the sellers were not the actual producers of the food. In order to be a seller at the market, one needs a specific license. This is different than the license to grow the food. Each morning, farmers bring their goods to a separate section of town and sell the best 10% of their produce to the resellers (the other 90% goes to the government).