29 01 2011

Shopping for food here in Santiago de Cuba is a very different experience to what I am used to in England or, I imagine, anyone else in Western Europe or North America is used to. In those countries, within reasonable limits, most people are used to buying what they want when they want it. Here you have to get used to buying what you can find, when you can find it.

 There is no such thing as a supermarket where you can buy every food item that you may want, all under one roof. The nearest thing to a supermarket here is what the locals call a “chopi”, derived from the English word “shopping”. They are priced in CUC. They do not sell bread, fruit or vegetables, fresh meat or fish, eggs or fresh milk (this is not available in cities and towns, only powdered milk). They sell canned products such as tuna, sardines or luncheon meat; frozen foods such as imported frozen chips, chicken sausages from Brazil, or chicken legs; and packaged foods such as spaghetti, coffee or ketchup. However, not every shop will stock all of these products and those that do will not always have them. There is also a chain of shops with a similar range, priced in CUP and a bit cheaper, called Mercados Ideales. The chopis open on Sundays until midday and the Mercados Ideales close on Mondays or Thursdays.

 To buy bread you must go to a bakery. These are situated throughout the city. I go to the local one most mornings. About 80% of the time there will be bread available, but for the remaining 20% they will have sold the last batch and will be waiting for the next batch to be baked. This can involve a wait of 30 minutes or longer. The queueing system is unique to Cuba – you do not necessarily stand in line, but when you arrive you ask who is “el ultimo” (the last) and you then know that you will be served after them. Likewise with the next person to arrive. You can then go and sit under the shade across the road or somewhere nearby until the bread is available. There are also carretilleros (wheelbarrow men) who sell bread along the streets, which saves time, but you pay a little extra for the privilege (if you see one when you want one).

To buy fruit or vegetables, you must either go to a state-run market, a small state run shop known as a mercadito (little market), a state-run punto de venta (point of sale) or a private puestecito (little stall). The markets are the cheapest. You can also buy from carretilleros or from people selling small piles of fruit on street corners or outside of their houses. The state-run options all close on a Monday. To buy meat you need to go to a butcher’s and to buy fish you need to go to a fishmonger’s.

 For Cuban citizens, there are small shops called bodegas, where they can get the subsidised items on their ration books (libreta), such as rice, sugar, coffee, beans, pasta, and oil. There are also bakers for the bread rolls from the libreta and, similarly, fishmonger’s and butcher’s, where they can also buy eggs. However, not all of these items are always available.

 It is also possible to buy food on the black market – normally of better quality and at a better price than the non-libreta shops. In the last couple of weeks I have bought eggs, shrimps and fish from such sources.

The non-availability of certain items at certain times and the different opening and closing times mean that sometimes you cannot buy simple things that you may want. For example, one Sunday I wanted to buy pasta but could not, because the chopis were shut and the Mercados Ideales did not have any. The next day I wanted to buy some oranges, but could not, because the markets were shut.

 I would not want to give anybody the impression that people in Cuba are starving because of the non-availability of food. They are not. I have eaten very well since I have been here. However, you need to spend more time buying what you need and sometimes will not be able to get what you want. For people with full-time jobs, this all presents even more of a challenge.



28 01 2011

The menu at Cafeteria Rey

One of the major changes currently under way in Cuba is a programme to reduce the number of people employed by the state and, concurrently, to lift some of the bureaucratic restrictions on people becoming self-employed, in order to encourage many of those made redundant to earn their living in the private sector. In some workplaces, the people selected for redundancy have already been informed of their fate. As can be imagined, this is causing serious concern for many people. However, for some, these changes are being seen as an opportunity. Amongst the small group of people that I know here in Santiago, two have given up their jobs in the last month or so in order to start businesses.

The first is a young guy who worked in a local hospital. He packed in his job in order to start a business selling snacks from his home. You can see what he offers in the picture above – the business is called “King”. He tells me that he opens at 6.30 am and does not close until 11pm. He is clearly prepared to put in a lot of time and effort in order to make his venture a success.

The second is a guy a bit older, in his late 30s. He worked for the municipal authority and has left his job in order to start a private restaurant (known here as a paladar). It has not yet opened, but he is in the process of health inspections etc. and is confident that it will be open in March. His house, which he shares with his mother, is not in the centre of the city, nor is it in one of the more upmarket districts, so consequently there is not much passing tourist trade. However, he intends to have the menu priced in moneda nacional and to cater primarily for Cuban clients. His house has a fourth floor roof terrace, where the tables will be situated, which offers views across the city.

A considerable amount of investment will be required, in terms of kitchen equipment etc. However, he has a brother in Switzerland, who will presumably be able to assist him. People with family residing abroad, who are already generally better off than most, will be better able to take advantage of the opportunities that are likely to arise. I have noticed quite a few new food stalls, pizza stands and ice cream sellers here in Santiago, compared to when I was last here in the summer. I noticed the same in the one day that I was in Havana last month, before travelling on to Santiago.

Yet it seems to me that there must be a limit to how many Cuban people can earn a living by selling food products to other Cuban people. Businesses like this will not make much difference to the Cuban economy as a whole, to the balance of payments for example. In order to do that, people will need to develop products or services that can either be sold overseas or can substitute for items that are currently imported. That is why I did not share some of the amusement expressed abroad when the activity of rabbit breeding was included in the list of occupations approved by the Government for people to engage in self-employment. I know that Cuban people eat rabbit, because there are rabbit dishes on the menu in two of my favourite restaurants here in Cuba (El Salon Tropical in Santiago and La Torre in Havana). If thousands of rabbits were grown and eaten instead of some of the imported meat products currently consumed (such as the turkey picadillo made from mechanically recovered meat, imported from the USA and sold in the shops here), the balance of payments would improve, along with people’s living standards and diets.

 I therefore propose a toast to the rabbit breeders of Cuba, along with Cafeteria Rey and the new paladar due to open in March.


26 01 2011

Big Wheel at the Parque de las Diversiones, seen from Vista Alegre

As you approach Santiago de Cuba from the east, on the outskirts of the city, high on a hill, you can see a big wheel. This is the Parque de las Diversiones (Amusement Park), situated in the leafy San Juan district, not far from the city’s zoo and the hill known as the Loma de San Juan, where in 1898, 6000 US soldiers, led by Teddy Roosevelt, fought Spanish troops; a spot marked by a number of monuments erected well before the 1959 Triumph of the Revolution, in times when the relationship between the Cuban and US Governments was very different to today.

It is a pleasant 30 minute walk to the amusement park from my apartment and I have been there a couple of times, both on midweek afternoons. A number of staff are always there, not apparently doing very much. One of them informed me that only four of the rides – not including the big wheel – are now working; and that they only operate during the weekend. The rides cost 0.20 CUP – less than a halfpenny in British currency. There are also a number of kiosks selling snacks and refreshments. These seem to be used during the week by children from a nearby secondary school, during the lunch break and after classes.

In many ways, it seems to me, the story of the Parque de las Diversiones could be seen as a metaphor for the recent history of Cuba. It was built in the 1980s, at a time of hope, optimism and rising living standards, using Soviet and Czech technology. It almost collapsed, along with the USSR and Czechlosvakia, during the 1990s, but somehow, with a bit of inventiveness and improvisation, has kept going; over-staffed and under-resourced, only partially functioning and frayed around the edges, yet still providing a well-regarded service for hard-pressed Cuban families.

I very much hope that the Parque de las Diversiones, like Cuba, sees better days in the future and is able to return to something like the halcyon days of the 1980s, although without some of the malign influences that were imported from the USSR.


22 01 2011

Turquino Ice Cream Parlour on 18th Floor

Cubans must eat more ice cream per head than any other nation in the world. They make some wonderful flavours: mango, coconut, pineapple, pineapple/orange, banana, strawberry, guava, chocolate, plus fruits unfamiliar to Europeans such as zapote or guanavana.

There is a nationwide chain of ice cream parlours called Copelia. The branch in Santiago de Cuba is in the open air and was extended last summer. It seats hundreds. They are famous for their queues, but on the Saturday afternoon that I went there we were able to get a table straight away. Ice cream is available in various combinations, including with cake. Five scoops plus a portion of cake cost 4.5 CUP. (1 CUP = £0.03).

There are also, in almost every street, ice cream sellers known as copelitas (little Copelias). These charge 1 CUP for a cone. I have seen people eating ice cream cones when I went to the bakery at 8.30 am. You can see people eating ice cream all day long.

 There are also several ice cream parlours in the city, indoor venues that charge a little more than Copelia, but still seem cheap to me (e.g. a bowl with three scoops for 7.5 CUP). My favourite is on the eighteenth floor of a tower block, in a development called Centrourbano Sierra Maestra, but known as the dieciocho plantas (the 18 floors),with beautiful views over the city, the bay and the surrounding mountains.

 In one such parlour (Via Central), at 4pm on an afternoon with temperatures of 31C outside, I was refused admission because I was wearing shorts. One of my Cuban friends who was with us was denied entry because she was wearing flip-flops. Many Cuban venues maintain strict dress codes – no vests, shorts or flip-flops. Yet in a 5-star tourist hotel, being attired in such a manner, even for dinner, would not be a problem. Different rules apply to tourist venues. The tourists are probably considered strange and disrespectful, but as long as they are spending their foreign currency and are not using Cuban venues, they are tolerated, a bit like topless sun-bathing in countries with strict religious beliefs.

Similarly, at the university where I am studying, the male students all have long trousers and shirts or t-shirts, despite the heat (although the women can wear shorts, mini-skirts or vests). I have seen it said elsewhere that the sure way to distinguish a Cuban from a tourist is that the tourist will be the one wearing shorts.

NB Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “Cuban venue” or a “tourist venue”, in as much as a Cuban can – if they can afford it – go into a place used mainly by tourists and a tourist can – if they can understand the language and the way that things operate – go into a place used mainly by Cubans. However, as a general rule, a 5-star hotel such as the Melia Santiago will be used mainly by tourists; whilst a venue charging in moneda nacional will be used mainly by Cubans.


18 01 2011


The subject of the cost of living in Cuba is a complex one, difficult for outsiders to comprehend. This is principally due to the existence of a dual currency system. The first currency – the Cuban peso (CUP – or MN, moneda nacional) – is the main currency and the one in which most people receive their salaries or pensions. 1 CUP = £0.03. The second currency – the Cuban Convertible peso (CUC) – replaced the dollar as legal tender in the 1990s. Its value is pegged to the dollar. 1 CUC = £0.72, or 24 CUP.

Cuban people can convert one currency into the other, at a bank or a chain of money exchange outlets called CADECAs (Casas de Cambio). The problem is that nearly all imported products and some domestically produced ones – not just luxuries – are sold in CUC.

As is often reported, the average Cuban salary is somewhere around $20 per month. In almost any other country in the world it would be impossible to live on that amount. In Cuba it is very difficult, but not impossible. Healthcare and education are free. Most people own their own house (which they cannot sell, only exchange). Therefore they have no rent to pay. For those paying rent, it is fixed at a maximum of 10% of salary.

All Cuban people receive a ration card (called a libreta), which entitles them to a certain amount of food products each month at highly subsidised prices. For example, 20 bread rolls would cost 1 CUP. Unlike rationing systems that have existed elsewhere (such as in the UK in the 1940s and 50s), Cubans can freely buy additional food. However, it costs much more than the rationed food. The Cuban Communist Party Congress this April will discuss phasing out the libreta, which is causing much consternation amongst the population, particularly pensioners and those on below average salaries.

Other services are also subsidised and cheap, such as public transport. My friend’s household received their electricity bill this week, which for three people for a month came to 13.20 CUP (about £0.40). The calor gas which they use for cooking costs them about another 7 CUP per month.

Prices in the fruit and vegetable markets are also much cheaper than other countries. For example, I bought oranges this week for 1.70 CUP per kilo; and plantains for 0.80 CUP per pound. An ice cream cone in the street costs 1 CUP; the daily newspapers (there are two) cost 0.20 CUP; a small pizza from a street stall cost 5 CUP; a glass of a cold drink made from powdered flavour costs 1 CUP. A litre and a half of draught beer (known here as dispenzada) costs 30 CUP.

However, imported goods in shops that are priced in CUC can cost as much – or even more – than in the UK. Stereo systems for instance are priced between 470 and 1100 CUC. A blender will cost between 40 and 60 CUC. A litre of fruit juice costs 2 CUC. Clothing is not much cheaper than in the UK. Amazingly, many Cuban people are buying these products, which shows that many people have alternative forms of income other than official salaries, such as remittances from abroad; scams at work; tips from tourists; or the proceeds of small businesses, both licensed and unlicensed.

The existence of the dual currency system is a cause of much concern amongst the Cuban people. It is an objective of the Cuban Government to phase it out. However, this is seen as necessarily being a medium to long-term aim.


14 01 2011


Getting around Cuba, both within municipalities and between them, is a big challenge for most Cubans. Car ownership is low – more people have bicycles, but in a hilly city like Santiago, they are hard work.

I am used to crowded public transport, having commuted on London’s underground trains for many years, but public transport here can be even more uncomfortable.

These are the various means of travelling within Santiago:

Taxis : these are operated by state-owned companies. The journey from my apartment to the city centre is about a 30 minute walk and costs 3 CUC in a taxi (1CUC = £0.72). It’s cheaper than a London taxi, but an expensive way of travelling for most Cubans. There are also many unlicensed taxis. You might expect these to be cheaper, but they’re not. It’s often necessary to haggle with them.

Motorcycles : this is something that, in my experience, is unique to Santiago, perhaps because of its steep hills. These are privately owned, but licensed and regulated by the state. Passengers pay 10 CUP for journeys within the city (1CUP = £0.03). Because the drivers get paid per journey, they try to complete them as fast as possible in order to get the next fare. They can be quite hazardous to pedestrians in the narrow city centre streets.

Maquinas : maquina means machine. These are normally old US vehicles. They are privately owned, but licensed and regulated by the state. They operate as route taxis – they ply their trade on a particular route and take as many people as will fit in. They cost 5 CUP per journey.

Taxis Ruteros : These were introduced last year, serving outlying locations from the city centre. They operate like maquinas, but they are state-owned modern mini-buses and they cost 3 CUP.

Camiones : camion means lorry. These are lorries, with a covered seating area in the back. There are also smaller lorries, known as camionetas. These are privately owned, but licensed and regulated by the state. They operate like buses, on specific routes. They cost 1 CUP per journey.

Buses : There is a fleet of modern, state-owned, Chinese bendy buses. They only cover certain routes and are the cheapest form of transport: 0.20 CUP.

Coches : these are horse-drawn carts. These are privately owned, but licensed and regulated by the state In some towns they are the principle form of transport, but not in Santiago, where the hills are too steep. They operate in the lowest part of the city, near the port and the railway station. They cost 1 CUP per journey.

Bicitaxis : These are bicycles with covered seats for two people behind, a little like the bicycle rickshaws that operate in London’s West End. These are privately owned, but licensed and regulated by the state Like the coches, they are common in other towns but here only operate in the lower part of town. They cost 5 CUP per journey.

Street scene showing two froms of public transport : a camion and a bicitaxi

Public transport has improved in the major cities like Santiago and Havana since I first came to Cuba in 2007, with the introduction of the Chinese bendy buses. However, people say that the frequency of them has been reduced. I have read that this is because many need repairs and that, unlike the buses, which were bought from China on generous credit terms, the spare parts have to be paid for up-front and Cuba lacks the foreign currency reserves to buy them.


11 01 2011

Preparing the roast pork for a Noche Santiaguerra


Since last summer, an old Santiago tradition that had been discontinued for several years has been revived: Las Noches Santiaguerras (Santiago Nights).

This involves blocking one of the main roads in the city (Avenida Garzon) to traffic from Saturday morning through to late on Sunday night, for a distance of about half a mile. Along the route there are stalls selling bread, cakes, jams, yogurt, cheese (if you’re lucky), rum, beer and soft drinks. There are also half a dozen or so open air restaurants laid out, with tables laid with tablecloths and napkins, selling fried fish and chicken, roast pork and pizzas. Everything is priced in moneda nacional (MN), the local currency in which most Cubans receive their salaries and pensions.

This is very welcome to the people of Santiago, as too often restaurants, bars and entertainment are priced in CUC, the convertible currency that replaced the dollar as legal tender in the 1990s. This all contributes to a general feeling that life in Santiago is steadily improving for its people, for which credit is given to Lazaro Exposito, the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago. As well as new shops and restaurants in MN, the infrastructure in the city has been greatly improved, including the water supply, which now delivers water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The water tanks that most houses maintained to supply themselves during breaks in supply, are now redundant.

Electricity supply has also improved. I have been in Cuba for 13 days now and have not seen a single power cut, a very different picture to the (literally) dark days of the 1990s.

I went to the Noche Santiaguerra on Sunday night. The open air restaurants were all full. There were sound systems set up, playing salsa and reggaeton, with people dancing in the street. There was a stage where a group were giving a performance of rumba, an Afro-Cuban musical and dance style. There was also a sound system set up where some transvestites were giving a dance show. However, most surprising of all, to me, was a giant screen projected onto the side of a tower block, where videos were being shown of English language hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s. I watched videos of the Bee Gees, Bonny Tyler, Bony M and Credence Clearwater Revival. Obviously, they were working their way through the alphabet. I wondered what treats were to come as they got to the later letters.

To me it seemed really incongruous, on a sultry Sunday Caribbean evening, in a city famed for rebellions, revolution and Afro-Cuban culture, to be standing in a crowd watching a giant screen of the Bee Gees singing “Staying Alive”. But one thing that I’ve learned about Cuba is that it never loses its capacity to surprise.