16 August 2014 Last updated at 23:03 GMT
Cuba: A country where toilet paper is rarer than partridge
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Havana
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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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.
Source: BBC News – Cuba: A country where toilet paper is rarer than
partridge – http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28785420