The problem with buying food in Cuba
Feb 15, 2014 By Guest columnist
By Teresa Sanchez
For many visitors to Havana, the most disappointing thing about the city
is the food. Tourists with deep pockets who stay in touristy areas might
not notice as much, but those who try to live like locals will quickly
realize that the food problem is very real and can make getting
day-to-day groceries exhausting.
Although Cubans have “libretas,” or ration books that entitle them to
rice, beans, cooking oil, and other basic items, the quality and
quantity leave much to be desired. The rice often has rocks and pieces
of dirt mixed in, making the process of cooking a much longer and
unpleasant task, as one has to sit down and separate each grain. A
“monthly” supply of beans for one person is so small that it could
easily be eaten in two days. Coffee from the state is cut with the
chícharro bean, making it literally explosive. Faced with these
difficult realities, Cubans are forced to shop at expensive markets or
“inventar,” invent ways to acquire food on the black market.
Despite the government opening the market to some independent stores as
of recent, government rationing through the libretas is still the norm.
There are no supermarkets in Cuba; small markets offer a limited supply
and are outrageously expensive for Cubans who earn an average of
$20/month. There are often long lines to get in, you have to check your
purse/backpack and bring your own plastic bags, and you must be
attentive when paying because the cashier might try to shortchange you
(an experience I faced almost daily).
In fact, shopping for food can be such a hassle that sometimes I chose
to go hungry instead of go shopping.
During my first week in Havana I went to a grocery store to buy some
crackers. There was a line of about 100 people outside. After waiting an
hour in the hot sun, a near riot broke out as the people, impatient,
started to storm the entrance. They were angry that the much-coveted big
cans of tomato sauce were being bought in such large quantities by the
people already inside. Scared for my safety and tired of waiting, I left
Getting groceries in Cuba
People also shop at agros, open-air produce markets, but these are
expensive, and the produce is filthy. Buying lettuce for salad is not
worth it, because each leaf has to be washed thoroughly—and first you
have to disinfect the water just to wash the lettuce! This can be a
two-hour process. Shopping at agros is stressful too, as they are
overcrowded with people and stray dogs, and the venders are dishonest.
As the Cuban mantra goes, “no es facil,” it’s not easy.
After expressing my despair about the food situation to a foreigner with
years of experience in Cuba, I learned of a “socio” who could get me
yogurt, cheese, and meat.
This was my entry into the black market; I soon realized that everyone
has a “guy” for certain items.
“If you want tamales, my house keeper can get them for you,” or “I have
a persona de ‘confianza’ that can get you lobster,” are typical offers.
But these are still expensive prospects and require planning, which is
difficult since many people do not have phones.
Eating at restaurants in Cuba
The other option for food is going out to eat. There are generally two
cuisines on the island: Cuban food “comida criolla” and “Italian” food.
I mention “Italian” because it is marketed as such, but really these are
just privately owned businesses that sell cheap pizza or spaghetti out
of a person’s front door. Pizza costs 10 Cuban pesos, roughly 50 cents,
but they are made with low quality ingredients, hardly resembling pizza
I’ve had anywhere else in the world in terms of texture and flavor.
The saving grace of Cuban food is the fruit. Mangos, guava, papaya,
pineapples, etc. are unbelievably delicious.
Also, the food situation outside of Havana is not as bad as I
describe—the food passes through fewer hands and is thus less corrupted
by the time it reaches your plate.
Despite the difficulties surrounding the acquisition of food in Havana,
the resiliency of Cubans and the way they rely on family and social
networks to overcome these problems continues to impress me.
If you plan on visiting Cuba, the greatest gifts you can bring are olive
oil and cooking spices. But if not, bring lots of patience with you and
un amigo de ‘confianza’.
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