Belquis Fajardo, 69, walks through the crowded streets of downtown Havana with a small bag of lettuce and onions, wondering 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 rising 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 announced. “Everything’s too expensive… so you slowly buy what you can afford. And don’t eat anything else.”
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 stores, through resellers, or in expensive stores only accessible to those with foreign currency.
They are far out of reach of the average salary paid by the Cuban state, about 5,000 pesos a month, equivalent to $29 at the island’s unofficial exchange rate, the most widely used. Nearby, a 450-gram (1 pound) pork leg sold for 450 pesos (about $2.60).
“Not everyone can buy. Not everyone has family to send remittances,” Fajardo said. “This is with my daughter’s salary as salary and pension, and we are buying what we can afford. It always gets too complicated for us.”
In October, the Cuban government reported that inflation had risen 40% over the previous year and had a significant impact on the purchasing power of many people on the island.
Although Fajardo managed to buy vegetables, rice and beans, he still has no meat for Christmas or New Years.
The famine is one of several factors fueling widespread discontent on the island, which has fueled protests and increased emigration in recent years. On Friday, US authorities reported detaining Cubans 34,675 times along the border with Mexico in November, a 21% increase from October, when arrests were made 28,848 times.
Discontent became even more apparent during local elections on the island last month, in which 31.5% of eligible voters did not cast their vote, a much higher figure than the nearly 100% participation during Fidel Castro’s time.
Despite having the highest absenteeism rate in the country 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 dealing with the country’s complex mix of crises, particularly food shortages.
“I feel enormous dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership, for not being able to achieve the results needed to achieve the prosperity the Cuban people desired and expected,” he said.
The said announcement was received with a standing ovation from the National Assembly of People’s Power, which is composed only of politicians from the Communist Party.
But Ricardo Torres, a Cuban-born economist at American University in Washington, indicated the words sounded “nonsense” to him, as there was no real plan to address the discontent.
“People want answers from their government,” he said. “No words. Answer”.
For years, the Caribbean nation has blamed much of its economic woes on a six-decade-old US trade embargo that choked much of the island’s economy. However, many observers, including Torres, insist 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-run butcher shop, hoping to obtain a much-desired item: a pork leg to feed their families on New Year’s Eve.
About a dozen people interviewed by The Associated Press said they were too afraid to speak. One of them said that he may have to face retribution.
Estrella, 67, has gone to the state butcher shop every morning for more than two weeks, waiting her turn to buy pork with her children, grandchildren and siblings. He hasn’t achieved anything yet.
Although it is possible to buy pork at private butcher shops, it is often much more expensive than at state-run shops, which subsidize prices.
So she waits, hoping that she will be able to cook a traditional Cuban Christmas dish.
“We are going to buy it today, if it is positive (if there is luck),” he said. “And if not, let’s go tomorrow.”