I love shopping in Cuba
Mine is an adaptation from the title of Sophie Kinsella’s famous series “I love shopping”. In fact, it is meant ironically. There is no such thing as crazy shopping in Cuba, unless by “crazy” one means literally going crazy in order to find needed things. It is not even a matter of not having enough money to buy what you need and want: it is a matter of having the money but not finding it!
Before leaving, whilst packing my bag, I thought of carrying two pairs of flip flops. After all, one never knows when those rubber things may break and another pair may be needed. My sister, who travelled with me, said it would just be unnecessary weight. If my flip flops broke, I could surely buy another pair in Cuba and that was it. Or not. I swear I hardly saw shops selling flip flops in the entire island.
We realised on our first day in Havana that shops were different, to say the least. All merchandise is kept behind counters, and whatever you may want to see, you’d have to ask the person at the counter to show you. Not to mention that there normally is a line outside, with a guard letting people in and out and not allowing more than a certain amount inside. Shops are not very inviting. You won’t feel like going in, have a look around, try on stuff, and buy. Merchandise is hardly exposed in a nice way (it is all wrapped). The same applies to grocery shops – most of all for things such as soaps, shampoos etc. Whatever you need, you have to ask for.
The other problem we had was that there are no real supermarkets, those where you may get lost and where you may be able to find anything you need – from fresh fruit and milk, to meat, cheese, bread, soap, detergents and what not. Cuba knows only shops, some smaller, some bigger, but in none of them you will be able to do all your shopping. A shop that sells bottles may only have soda, beer and rum. If you want water, you will have to go to the one next door. Fruits and vegetables are only sold by small carts in the streets or in the mercado agropecuario. Same with meet – there are small carnicerias, you can see them every now and then, but it seems like there is no meat there. I have not seen a fishmonger in the entire island, which is interesting since we mostly ate seafood. And even if you can find what you need – pasta, rice, or even toilet paper, there is only one kind of it. We noticed that it was a bit ironic to call “Cierro Montegro” la primera agua de Cuba, since it also is the only one. And the same goes for beer, sodas, etc.
I guess that for anybody who is not used to the Cuban system it will take a while to shop for daily needs. When we wanted yogurt, the landlady at our casa particular was so kind to spend an entire day looking for it in Trinidad. When we needed toothpaste, we had to ask her, as we were unable to find a shop that would sell it.
Another thing we noticed is that there are some shops which seem to sell second hand clothes. We eventually realised this was the case. These are called tiendas particulares (private shops) and I suppose owners get their stuff one way or another (I am pretty certain that the clothes I gave away here and there ended up in some of these shops!) and then sell it. But you know, in an island that does not really know free commerce, people have to make do with whatever they have. Cubans hardly make a distinction between female and male clothing. If it fits, they will wear it. So you will see super-cool guys wearing a blue-girl t-shirt tight as a second skin. And you bet they will fix and keep fixing clothes. Nothing goes wasted.
The good thing about having so little choice when shopping is that you will not be wasting time wondering which cereals to buy, which t-shirt you want, and what not. You will have more time to spend with friends, relatives, talking and living life, you will be less consumed by the want for things, since you will hardly be able to get them anyways. At least that is how we – westerners coming from countries with a free market – felt. I suppose it was refreshing to us, but it may be tiring for Cubans who have to live a constant battle to get what they need.
The other side of the coin is that there is a huge black market, where people sell and buy just about anything and they hardly declare whatever money they make to the competent authorities. Casas particulares have to register whoever sleeps at the house, and the number of nights. So they have to pay taxes on that. But they do not register whatever meals you may be having there, and hardly any of the owners give customers a receipt when they leave. Some of them don’t say anything when they “forget” to give you receipts. Some others openly admit that this way they can round up a bit extra CUCs. And the rush to get CUCs from tourists can be seen in many other ways. Drivers will “accidentally” stop for breaks right outside their friends homes, who will rush out to offer drinks, food, sweets, bananas and what not. Surely they will get a percentage of the profits. Same with tourist guides. All drivers and all landlords know tourist guides. None of them will show you any accreditation, and you will have to negotiate the price, and you can bet you will again accidentally run into them on the way to a site and will end up hiring them.
The need for CUC is so desperate that even in state owned shops sales assistant will refuse to give you receipts. This is an account of what happened to us at the airport in Havana. A lady in front of us at the counter had the brilliant idea of paying her rum in Euro. But instead of making a conversion, and paying the exact amount she owed (say it was 20 CUC, so it would have to be 15 Euro), the cashier made the conversion 1 CUC = 1 Euro. She did not give any change, and she kept the rest. My sister asked for a receipt, as she claimed that she might be needing it when cathing our connecting flight in Paris airport. She then went back to the same shop to buy more, and again demanded a receipt. However, she had to argue with the sales assistant who did not want to provide it, claiming “she had already given one before.”
For as much as I appreciate the revolution, I wonder how it is possible, in 2013, to live in a country where there hardly is any free commerce. The poverty we saw, the rush to get the precious CUC in any possible “legal” way leads me to think that socialism, for as good an ideal it was, is hardly applicable to real life.
What is yet more interesting is that the myth of Che Guevara, one of the leaders of the revolution, one of the strongest critics of capitalism, is possibly the main source of money in Cuba. Any goods you may buy speak of him: t-shirts show his pictures, the same goes with paintings, postcards, hats. Bookshops mostly sell photography books of Che Guevara, or his biographies, his diaries, etc. Factories exploit his name by publicizing the fact that they were opened up by him.
Having read a lot of Che Guevara life, thoughts and ideologies, I can’t help but wonder if he would like the island today, if this is what he fought so hard for, if he would be proud to see that his face is on any painting, t-shirt and good tourists can buy, and he – the very critic of capitalism – is indeed the only capitalistic good in Cuba.
Want to find out more about this amazing country? Read here.