HAVANA, (Reuters) – In a land where the potato is scarce, black marketeers peddle tubers in hushed tones, like drug dealers on a big city street corner. A months-long reduction in the beer supply has made Cubans cranky. Worse still, some lovers have struggled to find condoms.
Despite market-oriented reforms enacted by President Raul Castro, the communist-run country still encounters chronic shortages.
Some reforms have led to a boom in food production, but other measures such as reducing imports and cracking down on the black market may be aggravating the shortfalls.
Shortages are inevitable in a Soviet-style, command economy, and in Cuba’s case it has been made worse by the comprehensive U.S. trade embargo imposed in the early years after the 1959 revolution.
Many Cubans have come to consider shortages normal, providing both a source of frustration and humor. Shoppers routinely swap tips on where to find the basic and the obscure. Others trudge from store to store until they find what they need.
“Cubans are beer people. This beer drought is really hurting sales,” said Jose Daniel, the administrator of a Havana cafe. “People see there’s no cold beer and they just harrumph, then walk away in a bad mood.”
Castro has staked much of his authority on improving the economy since replacing his ailing brother Fidel in 2008. Some experts warn of the political consequences of shortages, saying they impede development and leave the public unhappy.
“Arguably the Soviet Union collapsed when Gorbachev attempted to suppress the consumption of vodka. First priority must be to keep the suds flowing,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert and former national security advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton.
LIMITS OF REFORM
The persistence of shortages reveals the limits of reform.
While a nascent retail market has proliferated, Cuba has yet to establish a wholesale market, impeding some new 450,000 small business owners who need inventory.
Agricultural reforms have been among the most successful after the government handed over idle or unproductive land to farm cooperatives, but for unexplained reasons potato-growing remains firmly in state hands.
“The consequences are devastating in economic terms,” said Sebastian Arcos of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. “(Raul Castro) has indicated that economic progress is one of the fundamental sources of his political legitimacy. If the economic situation doesn’t improve in the short or even the medium term, his political legitimacy is reduced to being Fidel Castro’s brother.”