Country Living: Empty Stores, Bustling Market

A provisions store in rural Cuba is bare except for crackers. But farm stands and 'dollar stores' sell everything from milk to bananas.

Today is cracker day at La Libra government provisions store.

As a line of residents of this provincial Cuban town wait patiently, ration booklet in hand, store clerk Udecia Beltrn shovels out crackers from a huge plastic bag. Beside her, a glass-front case holds several more bags of the round, unsalted wafers; the single row of shelves behind her holds little else.

A sign promises "gastronomic offers," but under it sits nothing but a few packs of cigarettes and a thin pile of matchbooks. Two dingy bins hold rice and beans, the national staples. La Libra hasn't had cooking oil or butter for months.

Since 1962, in good times and in bad, Cuba's 11 million citizens have lived on rationed food. Every family has its annual ration booklet, called alibreta. So there is little grumbling on a hot, muggy, September day in Trinidad when La Libra opens at precisely 3:40 p.m., and the waiting customers file in.

Trinidad, one of the first settlements founded by the colonizing Spanish in the 16th century, sits on Cuba's southern coast, where the lush greens of palms and tropical vines and sugar cane meet the amethyst blue of the Caribbean. But the spiritless congregation waiting their turn inside La Libra's dim walls are less interested in their town's quaint cobbled streets than in the rigors of their daily existence.

Lining up for crackers

"The crackers are no good, they're dry and hard and tasteless, but it's what they're offering," says one graying housewife, pulling a worn plastic bag from her purse to receive her six-ounce family ration. "I can tell by your expression that you're wondering why we put up with this," she says to a foreigner who has left Trinidad's tourist sites for a glimpse of the Cuban way of life. "This has been going on for 35 years," she adds, answering her own question. Shaking her ration book in her hand, she says, "I guess we've gotten used to this."

A young man who says he works at the local sugar plant for 125 Cuban pesos a month - about $6 - smirks and shakes his head. "Well I'll tell you I'm not used to it when my two kids are hungry," he says. "The rice we're allotted only lasts six or eight days, then there's the beans. After that, it's the black market, but we can only afford so much," he adds. "Sometimes ... sometimes we go hungry."

The growing, uncustomary conversation at La Libra leads another woman, who identifies herself only as Marta, to chime in. "They tell us it's the fault of the [US] embargo, but there seems to be plenty of things coming in [to the country], so I don't know," she says. "I guess it's a problem for the economists."

Everything for a buck

A sampling of the "plenty of things" Marta refers to is on display at "Caracol" just one block down the street - but a world away. In the air-conditioned, brightly lit government chain, eggs and cooking oil, frozen chickens and powdered milk - a luxury otherwise only rationed to families with children under 8 - are all available in relative abundance.

The difference is that at Caracol prices are in US dollars. Cubans without that quintessential symbol of the capitalist world need not enter. Most items are not cheap: two pounds of dried milk costs $6.

"Our customers are about half and half tourists and Cubans," says the Caracol clerk. She is paid in Cuban pesos, she says, but she notes proudly that her job in a dollar store has its perks: Unlike most Cubans, she is allowed to buy soap, toothpaste, and deodorant with the Cuban pesos she earns.

"It's because we work with tourists, they want us presentable," she says.

Dollars were only legalized in Cuba in 1993, when the government introduced stores like Caracol as part of an effort to soak up the foreign currency that, through tourists and the Cuban diaspora, was flooding the island. The effect has been swift and profound. Cuban leaders acknowledge the system is hardly ideal - especially for a Communist regime that rails against "imperialist intervention." But with Cubans in small towns like Trinidad having become desperate for dollars, the country's leaders admit undoing the two-currency system will not be easy.

In towns across Cuba, especially those that attract tourists, shirtless boys on bicycles swarm any car driving in. They solicit takers for their mothers' cooking, for a private restaurant serving illegal lobster, for a bedroom for rent in a private home - or if all else fails, for a date with a knock-your-socks-off sister.

In contrast to the people's capitalist ingenuity, the Communist regime's inefficiencies are glaring. At a government-run Italian restaurant outside Trinidad, a diner requesting garlic bread is told the kitchen is only supplied with "artificial garlic salt." This only a few miles from a country highway where farmers beg motorists to buy their long braided strands of fresh, plump garlic.

In nearby Sancti Spiritus, a retired electrical engineer hocks his rationed roll of toilet paper for $1. Like the boys on bikes, he latches onto a foreigner he spies walking on the street. "I get 60 pesos a month (about $3) pension, so you see how I live," he says, holding up his toilet paper. "I also sell my soap."

The man says he admires the United States - where his cousin, who left Cuba a poor farmer, now owns a chain of furniture stores - but he says America's 37-year-old trade embargo, is misguided. "We're the ones suffering," he says, motioning with a flick of his hand to people on the street, "but we aren't the guilty party."

Open air, open market

The man leads the visitor to an open-air farmers' market, where farmers who have already produced a quota for the government are allowed to sell their surplus at open prices. Prices are high for Cuban wage earners - 5 pesos for an avocado, 4 pesos per pound for rice - but unlike at La Libra or Caracol, the ambience is chatty and lively.

At one stall, Arnaldo Carabeo is doing a brisk business, selling piles of sweet potatoes for some farmer friends. The former elementary school teacher sounds like disgruntled educators in many parts of the world when he says public education didn't pay enough to keep him.

When he is reminded that President Fidel Castro just gave a speech for the opening of the new school year in which he extolled the role of teachers in perpetuating the island's communist revolution, he leans toward the visitor. "Look, everybody in Cuba is doing what they have to to get by," he says. "People are able to buy a little more than they were a year ago ... but it's not because salaries have risen, it's because people are finding some way to make a little extra money," he says.

Back in Trinidad, there are no complaints from Leonor Prez, who corrals her class of first- and second-graders like a mother hen in a small park's merciful shade. "We're beginning an excellent new school year. We have more books and supplies, and things are definitely better," says Ms. Prez, who teaches at the Jos Mart School.

Her pupils, spiffy in their red and white uniforms, beg to be chosen to recite the songs and poems they recall from last year. "I'm a revolutionary child, my country takes care of me in many ways, giving me books, giving me school," chants one. "El Che [Guevara] fell in Bolivia, spreading the revolution...." recites another.

While they recite, Prez tells the visitor she has 32 students in her class, a few more than last year. "Other countries would have fewer youngsters going to school in difficult economic times, but in Cuba we have room for all children," she asserts: "All races, all economic levels, and everything is free."

A mother who has listened to Perez's proud assessment follows the visitor around a corner to "tell things as they really are." She admits she doesn't know any children who don't go to school, but she says supplies like paper, books, and pencils are lacking, and desks and other furniture are in deplorable shape.

"I'm just lucky I have a friend in Spain who sends me notebooks, paints, and other things my two kids need," she says. "In my view, things are worse this year in every way."

As the woman walks away down a baking hot street, a smiling young man in a fuschia T-shirt asks the visitor if there's anything he needs. It turns out he is a high school English teacher.

"Yeah, I know," he says, "it's the first day of school. I should be in there right now inaugurating the new year with enthusiasm," he says. "Instead I'm out here in this hot sun doing my other business: looking for tourists and trying to make a dollar."

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