The Cuban economy: between pandemic and monetary unification

“In order to have some soup, imagine, malanga costs 25 pesos per pound, pork is at 60 pesos. When I finish my soup, I can’t even pay my electric bill for the month”

Since Trump became president of the United States in 2016, the delicate Cuban economy began staggering towards a collapse, as stated by a worker from the Popular Savings Bank of the city of Guantánamo, who did not want to reveal his name. “This country was already screwed up before COVID, the absence of basic necessities was visible in the hard currency collection stores.”

With the arrival of the pandemic on the island in March 2020, the country’s economic situation, as reflected in the way of life of Cubans, hit unexpected levels. “We will never be able to live like before, I think we will never be people again in this country,” says a restaurant employee when asked about it.

The Cuban government was forced to introduce new economic measures to save the political model that has endured for the last six decades. One of these measures, the most unpopular one based on the majority of opinions on the streets, is the introduction of the US dollar stores called MLC. On October 19, 2020, the online media outlet CubaDebate reflected on the words of Vice-Prime Minister Alejandro Gil, pronounced on the Round Table program “It is a necessary but undesirable option,” in reference to the openings of the first 72 hard currency shopping centers. Where he also recounted that the blockade of the United States had intensified with the Trump administration and that it was responsible for the crisis that the nation is going through.

Among the opinions expressed by several people interviewed in Santiago de Cuba about the stores in MLC, the one of Idania Núñez, a chemical engineer, stands out, “I don’t agree with these stores, my salary is 650 Cuban pesos (27 CUC), the US dollar on the streets is at 1.60 CUC, which puts my salary at approximately 17 dollars. A bottle of shampoo costs me almost what I earn in a month.”

The raising of wages for workers and monetary unification are among the measures announced with the most fanfare by the State as a scheme for facing the crisis. According to various official media outlets, the salary of each worker would rise by 4.9% and the monetary unification would leave the Cuban peso as the only existing legal currency on the island, together with the US dollar.

Cubans have started to exchange their currency from Convertible Pesos (CUC) to Cuban pesos (CUP), while more than a few are also trying to invest their money in gold and real estate, which would allow them to recover their savings once the crisis is over. Manuel Morejón Ordoñez has had a private restaurant called La Peregrina for years, his business has been prosperous and is one of the most renowned in the city of Camagüey: “I cannot complain because I was able to save some money for many years, I have scrimped and saved with the idea of expanding but as a result of all this my plans have turned to water. To make matters worse with this salary increase and the currency exchange, the money I have managed to save will go down in value by a ratio of 1000 to 200, I haven’t had a heart attack because God is great, but many business owners have had to close,” Manuel expressed painfully. 

“I have tried using cryptocurrency, I bought 100 US dollars’ worth to see if I might be able to maintain my income, at the moment I am earning 15 dollars a month. At least it’s something. Later my earnings will go up,” stated a young man sitting in the Parque El Amor in Bayamo, who assures me that lots of other Cubans are taking this investment initiative.

What’s more, the prices of agricultural products have gone up 6 times their value and sometime even more, as have personal hygiene products. “I live on a pension of 260 pesos, I’m sick, in order to have some soup, imagine, malanga costs 25 pesos per pound, pork is at 60 pesos. When I finish my soup, I can’t even pay my electric bill for the month, not to mention for the medicines I need that are not available, and the ones that turn up on the black market are very expensive,” says a 67-year-old woman who worked as an educator all her life.

In contrast, the critical situation has forced people to undertake illegal activities, one of them, using social media networks where everything turns up, at high prices, from imported deodorants to baby clothes, household appliances, etc. The authorities began to crack down on them,” they fined me 3,000 pesos for selling something on Facebook, other people have gone to prison,” explained Eugenio Martínez, a university student from Santa Clara.

In recent statements by the Minister of the Economy Marino Murillo, before the Assembly of People’s Power televised on the Round Table program, he assured the audience that the country needs to introduce many more measures in order to stimulate the labor market and to eliminate subsidies that are a major problem for the State.

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