Retail Therapy in Cuba

It’s a bit difficult to get any RT in Cuba. There are shops, but not as we know them. Cuba has a dual economy. There is tourist currency (the CUC or Cuban peso) to use in restaurants, hotels, shops (if you can find them) and local currency available only to Cubans to purchase things. Tourist shops are visible around the main tourist areas in Havana, but in the smaller towns they are often non-existent. Trinidad has a small supermarket which has a limited choice of imported tins and packets, but it would be difficult to feed yourself well from its contents and Cubans can’t afford to shop in it anyway.

I was very puzzled when I first arrived because I couldn’t see where Cubans could possibly buy food and clothes and domestic necessities. There are no obvious shops and there didn’t seem to be any of the markets or stalls I’m used to seeing in poorer countries. When I started looking I realised that Cuban shops were concealed by the queues outside - often just holes in the wall, or dark cellars where ration coupons could be presented to get an inadequate supply of meat, bread and vegetables. In Trinidad, racks of clothes and a small choice of household goods were housed in a large shed - you could only find it if you knew which door to knock on. It reminded me of Russia in 1990.

This is a pharmacy with empty shelves. The polyclinic looked like a derelict tenement, though the nurses' uniforms were impeccably white. Cuba has more doctors per head of population than any other country in the northern hemisphere, but what they treat their patients with I’m at a loss to know.
This queue was for a butchers and at one point it stretched all the way down the street. Queueing is a way of life for Cubans. We also found a vegetable shop (Cubans only) that contained only some rather sad looking pawpaws, mangos and a few green beans.

There isn’t always enough food to go round. When my daughter was pregnant and eating for two while visiting Cuba she asked some young women what they did when they were hungry and they told her that they spooned sugar into hot water and drank that. If you go into one of the tourist supermarkets you will be asked to buy food by Cubans hanging round the door. It’s impossible to refuse.

Once off the main Tourist Highway, food in restaurants and cafes isn’t always plentiful either. There’s good fish, caught locally, and it’s often accompanied by black beans and rice. Chicken is a dubious choice - often thin and stringy - of corn-fed European chooks there are none. Lunch is particularly difficult to get. Out of the main centres, the cafes display menus several pages long, but whatever you ask for is likely to be ‘temporarily unavailable’. You will be offered the ubiquitous cheese and ham sandwich - Cuba’s unofficial national dish! There are also a lot of eggs, which Cubans buy in specialist egg shops. Egg on rice is another staple meal.

But above all food is expensive - expect London restaurant prices everywhere. I don’t begrudge the Cuban economy my dollars, but I wish I knew where the money was going, because the lives of ordinary people don’t seem to be improving.
The Egg Shop:

We are staying with a Cuban family who are feeding us really well - mango and pineapple for breakfast with bread rolls and coffee, and some fantastic fried fish and rice for dinner. I haven’t asked, but I suspect that they get extra rations for feeding tourists and so it helps them.


  1. How awful that the pharmacy is so bare. At least your visit has more of an impact than just throwing dollars into the system with your family getting a little extra. It's too bad pregnant women don't get extra rations, though. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Rosie - I just wish I could believe that our money went anywhere near the people who need it, but I have a feeling it doesn't. There's a lot of World Heritage money being thrown at historic buildings in Havana, and a brand new Art Museum, but the schools and hospitals are primitive and the basic necessities of life in short supply. Big Tourist Resorts are built outside the main centres and tend to be self-contained. Local people employed there are paid very, very little.

  3. This is a really interesting analysis...the images and the comments.
    thank you...


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