Consumerism in Cuba: Paradox or not?

Although the main reason was to provide our family with winter work, I’m sure that one of the other reasons my father shipped his kids off to Cuba in the early ‘90s was so that we wouldn’t become victims of North American consumerism. Like most of my friends in high school, wearing the right clothes was all-important, and I remember taking a girls-only “Shop ‘til you Drop” trip across the border with family/friends and thinking I was the hottest thing since Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” strutting through the Bangor shopping mall in my new leather jacket and silver-tipped high heeled shoes. I also remember Dad’s Mark Twain quote ringing in my ears: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

My first winter in Cuba was a true test of my character. Dad, in his infinite wisdom, had instructed me to pack all my “extra” clothes (that didn’t fit in the stuffed suitcases I was planning on bringing down), into bags that would go into a container-load of equipment we would be importing to support our bicycle tour operation. So out came the garbage bags and I promptly pretty much emptied my closet of anything I remotely thought I might use while I was in Cuba. Did I really need that many jackets? Or long pants? Or that many pairs of shoes? Well, you just never know and it’s better to be safe than sorry, and as long as I wasn’t paying overweight baggage charges, then why not load it up, right? Wrong. I’m sure it was unintentional on Dad’s part, but in our early ignorance of how the importation system works in Cuba, as it turned out we weren’t allowed to include any undeclared personal items in the contents of the container since our partners in Cuba had no authority to act on our behalf to extract those goods from the port. And being stuck in a remote corner of Cuba with no internet or fax, and only intermittent telephone service from a rotary dial phone, I had to make several complicated and frustrating trips to Havana that year just to try and salvage the commercial goods and begin to expand our winter bicycle tour business in Cuba. The fact that the sales rep from our Cuban partner’s  office who had been assisting us defected while on a scholarship at La Sorbonne that year didn’t make things any easier. After several months, the truck with our goods finally showed up in Marea del Portillo, minus ALL my clothes (sob, sob). By the end of that season I was very sick of wearing the navy blue Canada sweatshirt I’d brought down, a small selection of t-shirts, and my best friend’s favorite pair of cutoff denim shorts that she’d loaned me for the winter (they were so well worn by the end of 6 months that I never did have the heart to return them). If you’ve never been to this area in Cuba, then I’ll tell you that shopping for clothes there was simply nonexistent. I had to make due with what I had, or borrow the rest. It was a humbling experience, and for a girl in her early ‘20’s who had invested in little much in life besides her wardrobe at that point, I had to swallow a big, big pill when the port authorities informed me that my personal effects had been donated to Cuban charitable organizations. I even spotted someone wearing a pair of my pants in my neighborhood in Havana several  years later. I’m sure they were mine.

After that I learned that I really didn’t need that many clothes. So the next year I took down food supplies and kitchenware so that I could start cooking some of my own meals, Canadian-style. Can you believe that I even took down brown sugar? In Cuba, a country that produces sugar, I didn’t know where the heck you could get the stuff, so I just brought my own. Those that have tried my chocolate chip oatmeal cookies will know why I needed it, but I’ve since discovered that the stuff is available here (of course) in national money. Most people here still get it as part of their monthly rations. So strike that off my list of must-have items in my suitcase too. Until very recently the only people with electric cooktops, microwaves and toaster ovens had purchased them on the black market, I figure alot of them snuck in by Cuban sailors.  Unless you’re living in a Cuban household, you probably won’t know where to get things like propane for cooking fuel (again, that’s black market unless you have the “libreta”). I won’t tell you how we did it but my brother & I were able to acquire a microwave and a small toaster oven which we used to cook everything from cookies, to banana bread and even quiche. If the pans were too big to fit in it, then we bent up the edges and it worked quite well. In fact, it’s still operating. Amazing.  If you didn’t have one of the Russian air-conditioning units that were available to the general population during the Soviet Union days in Cuba, then until relatively recently in Cuba’s commercial history, the only way to get one was on the black market. When I moved out of my state apartment and in with my husband, we sweated it out for awhile with a couple of fans and a mosquito net in our bedroom in his house in Havana.

For those of you who have been to Cuba, you’ll agree that it’s no commercial paradise. There’s no Costco, or Superstore, or Walmart, or Canadian Tire. Supply & demand is very irregular, there are many goods that aren’t available in the stores, and you usually need to go to many places to get everything you need, and even then only if you´re lucky and have low expectations. “No hay” (there isn’t any) is a common response from store clerks or restaurant workers. Worst of all, especially for those without a significant source of income, is that the state puts a minimum 200% markup on most goods. What?!?! you ask?  Yes, you read correctly. You will see electronics and some foodstuffs (in CUC) here at ridiculously high prices in the stores. Who pays $80 CUC for a plastic shoe rack? Well, not me, that’s for sure. A lot of more affordable goods that end up on the black market in Cuba nowadays are imported by mules who travel from Ecuador or Panama and then resell their purchases in Cuba (under the table) to a public that’s anxious to have the latest cellular or flatscreen technology, or bling clothing. But if you see something you need, the general rule is to buy it on the spot because later it might just not be there. It’s not about waiting until a sale goes on (that rarely happens), it’s about getting it while it’s available. I stock up on toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, and even a few of my favorite food items and never let my stockpile dwindle. My stepdaughter is studying university here and my husband gives her a monthly stipend to buy her necessities. She recently learned this lesson for herself when there was a temporary toothpaste shortage in Cuba. You don’t wait until the tube is empty to buy the next one. Otherwise, you might be brushing your teeth with soap.

Recently there have been quite a few changes in Cuban policy and for the first time since I’ve been living here, just the other day I saw a king size mattress for sale at a store in Havana. To me, that’s a signal that Cuba’s really changing. Gone are the days where everyone strove to be modest and lived relatively like nuns or priests with only the minimum comforts in their abode. The younger generation especially is very much caught up in consumerism nowadays. Tomorrow the new housing law comes into effect and many expect a new wave of home improvements. The stores are ready for kitchen remodels with new low-end (quality wise, if not price-wise) cabinetry units on display in many Cuban stores. There’s a new shopping center open in Havana which used to be only for wholesale buyers. It’s now for the general public, and it’s as close to Walmart as we’ve got in Cuba, with various aisles of housewares, hardware, a beauty section, and groceries. It’s pretty much the same stuff you’ll see in all the other Havana CUC shops but all concentrated into one big store.

It’s good to see that Cubans can now register cell phones, buy electrical appliances, stay in hotels, and buy/sell cars and homes amongst themselves. I’m sure a lot of money will make its way out of mattresses and secret caches over the next while for new acquisitions. I’m not sure that the anticipated gentrification will be as widespread as many foreign newspapers are predicting since Cubans have been inventive despite restrictions for a long time, and I believe that those that had the funds to relocate have probably already done so for the most part. But for me, as a long-time resident, the changes are everywhere. Everybody & their dog has opened up a private business selling this or that from their doorstep. And there are more private restaurants out there than the market will support. To answer my own question: So can you shop ’til you drop in Cuba? Yes, of course, you might literally drop while you’re shopping in Cuba, either from weariness in trying to find what you need, or from fright at some of the state’s prices. These are interesting times, no doubt about it.

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