The Russian grocery store that I blogged about really surprised me, but it was far better stocked than a Bodega la Caridad Consejo Popular, the Cuban grocery store I just happened to see in La Habana Vieja. The painfully thin man leading our tour showed us his ration book very matter-of-factly and told us about the system. I’m reluctant to use the photo I took of him when he was showing it to us because he might get in trouble. Cubans who speak openly to tourists are often angrily questioned by undercover government agents who are watching them. We were encouraged to seek open conversations with the Cuban people but, in fact, when we did reach out, they consistently asked for money after talking to us.
Money in Cuba is fascinating. There are 2 currencies. The peso cubano, or CUP, is used only by locals. I never actually saw this currency because tourists are given CUCS, pesos convertible, when they exchange money. A Cuban man told us that teachers make 14 CUCS a month. That’s about $14. CUCS have monuments on them. We were told that euros and Canadian currency were usable in Cuba, but this didn’t seem to be the case when we actually got there. Men jabbering in Spanish as if I could understand their desperation often approached me asking for money.
The bodega had very little stock. The guiding man told us that he used his ration book to get rice, coffee, cigars, sugar, etc. Sugar, by the way, is no longer a Cuban export. All Cuban-grown cane is used locally now. The man told us that if a consumer wanted more, say a birthday cake, he or she could go to a regular food store. I never saw one of those. Cubans reportedly visit these bodegas every month to get what is clearly limited amounts of certain commodities at reduced rates. Every time they spoke to us about food, Cubans mentioned rice and beans, clearly their basic staples. Those seeking rations in bodegas, which are in all neighborhoods according to our guide, are entitled to 6 pounds of rice and 6 pounds of sugar each month. They also get flour and, in some months, eggs. They repeatedly told us how much of what they need daily, like medical treatment, is free. Everywhere we went, Cubans in old cars wanted to take us for rides. This is clearly a big source of income for many.
The man who willingly showed us his ration booklet told us that he expected the system to change. He said it will likely disappear in the future. I assume that’s because outsiders with money will boost the fortunes of Cubans.