Cubans hunt for holiday food amid deepening crisis

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HAVANA (AP) — As Belkis Fajardo, 69, strolls the dense streets of downtown Havana with a small bag of lettuce and onions in her hand, she wonders how she will feed her family during the holidays.

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Scarcity and economic turmoil are nothing new to Cuba, but Fajardo is among many Cubans to note that this year is different thanks to soaring inflation and worsening shortages.

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« We’ll see what we can put together to cook for the end of the year, » Fajardo said. “Everything is very expensive…so you buy things little by little, however you can. And if you can’t, you don’t eat.

Staples such as chicken, beef, eggs, milk, flour, and toilet paper are difficult and often impossible to find in state stores.

When they do appear, they often come at high prices, either in informal shops, dealers or in expensive stores only accessible to those with foreign currency.

This is well outside the range of the average Cuban state salary, around 5,000 pesos per month, or US$29 on the most widely used informal exchange rate on the island. Nearby, a pound of pork leg sold for 450 pesos (about $2.60).

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« Not everyone can buy things, not everyone has a family that sends money back (from abroad), » Fajardo said. « With the money my daughter earns and my pension, we try to buy what we can, but it’s extremely difficult. »

In October, the Cuban government reported that inflation had increased by 40% over the past year and had had a significant impact on the purchasing power of many islanders.

While Fajardo has managed to buy vegetables, rice and beans, she still has no meat for Christmas or New Years.

The shortages are among a number of factors fueling wider discontent on the island, which has sparked protests in recent years as well as an emerging migration flight from Cuba.

Discontent was made even more evident during local elections in Cuba last month, when 31.5% of eligible voters did not vote – a far cry from the nearly 100% turnout during Fidel Castro’s lifetime.

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Although this is the highest rate of electoral abstention the country has seen since the Cuban revolution, the government has always hailed it as « a victory ». However, in an address to Cuban lawmakers last week, President Miguel Diaz-Canel acknowledged the government’s shortcomings in handling the country’s complex mix of crises, particularly food shortages.

« I feel enormous dissatisfaction that I have not been able to achieve, through the leadership of the country, the results that the Cuban people need to achieve the prosperity so desired and expected, » he said.

The admission prompted a standing ovation in the Congressional assembly, made up entirely of politicians from Diaz-Canel’s Communist Party.

But Ricardo Torres, a Cuban and an economics researcher at the American University in Washington, said he considered the words « meaningless » without a real plan to tackle discontent.

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« People want answers from their government, » he said. « Not words – answers. »

For years, the Caribbean nation has blamed much of the blame for its economic turmoil on the six-decade U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which has strangled much of the island’s economy. However, many observers, including Torres, point to the government’s mismanagement of the economy and its reluctance to embrace the private sector as also to blame.

On Friday, a long line of Cubans waited outside an empty public butcher shop, waiting for a coveted item: a leg of pork to feed their families on New Year’s Eve.

A dozen people interviewed by The Associated Press said they were afraid to speak up, including one who said « it could have consequences for us. »

Estrella, 67, showed up at the state butcher’s shop every morning for more than two weeks, waiting her turn to buy pork to share with her children, grandchildren and siblings. So far it is dry.

Although pork is available for purchase from private butchers, it is often much more expensive than at state-run facilities, which subsidize prices.

So she waits, hoping to cook Cuba’s traditional holiday dish.

« If we’re lucky, we can buy it today, » she said. « If we’re not, we’ll be back tomorrow. »



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