Blockade, Bureaucracy, and Groceries

During my time in Cuba, I encountered no animosity toward Americans. There are plenty of pro-Revolution billboards, but no anti-USA or anti-Imperialism messages. A few posters were anti-US embargo, and one person said, after learning that I was American, “Oh, you start the wars.” But mostly I heard one predictable refrain: We Cubans love the American people. (Another added, “And if we don’t get our American movie at the theater each week, we complain loudly.”)


Photo: The Travelphile

Bureaucracy in Cuba is maddening — especially without computers. It takes half an hour (with fancy papers to fill out in duplicate and passports to photocopy) to buy a simple SIM card for your phone. At the bank, a policeman lets people in a few at a time as customers leave. Then, at the counter, the teller holds each $20 bill up to the window to check for tears and watermarks.

A tenet of the Revolution has always been that everyone should own their own home. But to protect workers from tycoons who might amass lots of real estate, there has been no sale of property. The notion of real estate sales is just starting, and mortgages remain a foreign concept. As getting wealthy is discouraged, if you have lots of money, you’re wise to stow it safely at home rather than in the bank.

Regular Cubans shop at street markets, at carts in the street, and at places where food rations are distributed. Grocery stores are for those with more money — as the prices here are not that much different from in the USA. Still, a stroll through a grocery store gives a fascinating insight into a society without a free market, where advertising is discouraged, and where supply and demand are often ignored.

grocery aisle

The store reminded me of similar stores in the USSR 30 years ago: almost no variety…just long rows of very basic products with labels seemingly produced by some tasteless government bureaucrat. Milk was milk — there wasn’t a hint of any varieties of milk.

empty meat aisle

The meat section consisted of long, empty shelves, with just a few baloney sausages at the end.

Andy Steves holding four cereal boxes

The cereal lane had four different brands, each more sugary than Lucky Charms.

Rum bottles

The only impressive selection was in the liquor corner, where rum was plentiful, varied, and cheap (at $5 for a top-end bottle).


8 Replies to “Blockade, Bureaucracy, and Groceries”

  1. On our trip last October we mostly ate in private restaurants where the food was very well prepared, always fresh & served with flair. The owners told us they buy directly from the producers, small farmers, pig ranches & fishermen. We had fresh lobster several times. The traditional national dish is a slow cooked shredded beef or pork in a tomato based sauce.There is always yucca and beans, staples in the Cuban diet. Outside the big cities, everyone has a garden & pigs, chickens & fruit trees. Ration books are still used for imported goods like the awful irradiated milk & other dairy products and canned goods from South America. I found the cuisine rather bland. I expected it to be spicier for some reason. I got really tired of having mojitos & opted for beer most often. The choice was simple since there are only 2, regular ( which is light) or dark (which is not.)

  2. Very well written article Steve and some good insights. Hopefully as Cuba opens up, their quality of life will improve.

  3. We just returned from a wonderful trip to Cuba. All comments seem accurate.
    Everyone is an employee of the State. However, that being said, if you own your own business, are a part of the tourist service industry or an artist you live very well. Income from all these industries is very hard to quantify and tax by the government.

  4. Fascinating.. Everything you describe is exactly as it was in 1950s Hungary where I grew up..

    1. Hi Mary, this is Evelynn in Rick’s office. As of now, Rick has no plans to film a TV special in Cuba. These posts are all reports from a personal trip with his family. He did take some videos on his personal camera and will be posting those on the blog over the next week or so. Enjoy, and keep on travelin’!

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