First, potatoes disappeared from Cuban markets. They are back, but police are struggling to keep throngs of frantic buyers in check. And now there are shortages of beer and condoms, with some shops charging up to $1.30 for each prophylactic.
Havana blogger Miriam Celaya wrote that a woman friend had joked that if in the 1990s she had to buy condoms instead of hard-to-find balloons for her son’s birthday party, today she might have to buy him balloons so he can practice safe sex.
Cuban ruler Raúl Castro has repeatedly declared that the island is moving, slowly but steadily, away from its highly inefficient Soviet economic model and toward a more-productive system that mixes socialism with small doses of private enterprise.
Yet Cubans are complaining almost daily about shortages, sometimes in one province and not in another, sometimes in some stores and not others, and sometimes about one item and not another — for instance, no galvanized roofing sheets but lots of nails.
Havana author Polina Martínez Shvietsova wrote that the shortage of condoms in state-run pharmacies started about 15 days ago, although shops that cater mostly to foreigners still sell the prophylactics at $1.30 each — a day’s wage for the average Cuban.
“In the great majority of pharmacies in the [Havana] municipality of Playa, there’s a shortage,” she wrote. “In the municipality of Plaza, in the pharmacy at 23rd and 24th Streets, the salespeople said, ‘We have none, and we don’t know when they will arrive.’ . . .
“Nevertheless, all of the pharmacies that have no condoms do have signs recommending safe sex,” Martinez wrote in her report published in Cubanet, a Miami-based website for independent journalists.
The Communist Party’s newspaper in the province of Villa Clara, Vanguardia, tried to explain the reasons for the condom shortage in an April 3 report, and all but drowned in a sea of unanswered questions and typically complex acronyms for government agencies.
CECMED, a state agency that tests medicines and medical items, ruled in 2012 that the “Moment” condoms bought from China had the wrong expiration date and ordered that they be repackaged showing they are good until 2014, according to the newspaper.
But ENSUME, the state-run wholesaler that supplies EMCOMED, which in turn supplies condoms to state pharmacies, restaurants and camping grounds, simply has not been able to repackage them quickly enough, Vanguardia added.
ENSUME director Juan Carlos Gonzalez said his enterprise has more than one million condoms in its warehouses, the newspaper reported. But its workers can repackage only 1,440 strips of three per day, and the province alone requires about 5,000 per day.
Vanguardia writer Leslie Díaz Monserrat noted that condoms prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and HIV, and that their absence leads to unwanted pregnancies and abortions. But Gonzalez offered no solution to the shortage.
Diaz also wondered in her report why ENSUME waited from 2012 until now to repackage the condoms, but apparently got no answer from Gonzalez. “There will have to be an internal analysis of the matter to resolve” the issue, she wrote.
Celaya wrote earlier this month in her blog Sin Evasion (“Without Evasion”) that the chronic shortages on the island seemed to be more frequent and affecting more products, including some that are usually widely available at steep, hard-currency prices.
Toilet paper is now in short supply, she wrote, while toothpaste and toothbrushes and soap have been taking turns disappearing from shelves and forcing a “perennial peregrination after articles that in any part of the civilized world are common.”
One independent journalist reported this week that the Cuban-brewed Bucanero and Cristal brands of beer had suffered “a sudden disappearance” from shelves, and another wrote that some doctors are using toilet paper in place of hard-to-find medical gauze.
Other Havana residents in recent months have reported rolling shortages of deodorant, eggs, cooking oil, floor-cleaning rags and many medicines.
As for the return of potatoes, Celaya wrote, “police in Centro Habana [municipality] are practically on a war footing taking care of the brawls produced within the huge crowds that aspire to buy the longed-for tuber.”
Havana blogger Francisco Castro wrote on April 11 that while potatoes are back on the shelves, the huge crowds waiting in line to buy them reminded him of the massive “anti-imperialist” marches that former ruler Fidel Castro used to organize in Havana.