Cuba: Where toilet paper can be rarer than partridge

  • Published
Empty supermarket shelves in Cuba

Years after the collapse of the USSR, Cuba remains a bastion of communism, central planning... and shortages of basic goods. Anyone returning from a trip abroad therefore takes as many of these as they can carry - even if they are flying from Moscow.

The bright orange bottle of cleaning fluid was probably the oddest item stuffed into my suitcase this time, wedged in beside the tennis shoes for one friend and pile of baby clothes for another. It's a ritual I've grown used to: every time you leave communist-run Cuba with its centrally-planned economy and sparsely-stocked stores, you go shopping.

But as I packed my bags last week to head back to Havana, I did a double-take. I was in Moscow, heading home from a work trip, and as usual carrying as many presents and supplies as I could. And yet it wasn't so long ago that I'd stock up in the same way for trips to Russia.

I was a student there in the early 1990s as the country emerged - very painfully - from seven decades of communism. The shops then were stomach-achingly bare.

My friends and I would head out each day with empty bags to scour the shelves of gloomy, musty stores. We got used to buying whatever there was, not what we wanted - pickled tomatoes, perhaps, or canned fish on a good day.

But the new Moscow I visited last week is chock-full of shopping malls, its streets lined with global brands and coffee chains. My closest friend there, Natasha, now makes most of her purchases with a few taps on her iPad.

When I told Natasha about my mad shopping dash for Cuba, we remembered her own first trip abroad, to Britain, a year before the Soviet Union disintegrated.

My mother had taken her out one day for the weekly food shop. "I remember there were all these different cheeses and 10 types of everything." Natasha laughed, recalling her first encounter with a Western supermarket. At first I was excited - then I started crying my eyes out.

"We've forgotten what things used to be like here," she admitted, as we stood chatting close to a branch of McDonald's and a mobile phone shop. "We definitely take all this for granted."

In Natasha's childhood, it was Soviet subsidies that kept Cuba's economy afloat: this tropical island was Moscow's ideological ally, right on America's doorstep. But in the post-Soviet 1990s, after that subsidy lifeline was severed, Cubans suffered badly.

A friend in Havana told me she wound up in hospital once. There was no fuel for public transport and she was eating so little she collapsed trying to pedal her bicycle to work.

In today's Cuba - if you have money - you won't go hungry. A series of economic reforms that began as a post-Soviet survival mechanism have slowly expanded. People are now free to run small businesses - creating a growing number of private cafes and restaurants.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Private restaurants have popped up all over Havana, catering mainly for tourists

And as farmers no longer have to sell everything they produce to the state, those restaurant owners can now get supplies straight from the source - bypassing a state distribution network that's notorious for its inefficiency.

Yet, despite Cuba's proximity to the US, Washington's 50-year-old trade embargo - which was designed to squeeze this island's communist government from power - means there's no American investment here. There's no Starbucks, no Coca-Cola plant.

Some might see that as a good thing. But they might not find shopping for essentials quite so quaint. I once approached my big local supermarket full of optimism. I now know I'm likely to find a mixture of half-bare shelves and ones stacked with a single product: cheap ketchup, say, or adult incontinence pads.

Basic items disappear whenever Cuba struggles to meet its import bills. For weeks there was no toilet paper or cartons of milk. Now even the delicious local coffee is "lost," as Cubans say - "esta perdido".

Mind you there's plenty of "partridge in brine," should anyone fancy that. I've seen the same pile of cans on display for more than two years at $25 apiece. Perhaps a central planner ticked the wrong order box.

But partridge aside, overseas travel can become one frantic shopping-run. There's so much demand for everything here, that travellers known as "mules" will carry all sorts of goods into Cuba for sale - though the government has begun cracking-down on this illicit shuttle trade.

On a smaller scale, having family and friends who can shop abroad has become a vital resource for many.

When I told our cameraman I was off to Russia he laughingly suggested I bring him back some spare parts for his ancient car, a Lada. Apart from the battered, beautiful American classics of 1950s, the boxy Soviet-made Lada is still the most common sight on Cuba's rutted roads.

It's lucky I didn't make him any promises.

It turns out things in Russia really have changed. The smooth streets of Moscow are now rammed full of monster 4WDs and sleek saloon cars and I only came across one Lada during an entire week.

My friend Natasha spotted it, and sent me a photograph.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30

BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.