[Marxism] Dollar stores different in Cuba

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sun May 30 09:36:16 MDT 2004

Quite a good article here. I've had this same weird
feeling when entering a large department store where
a hand-written sign at the door warns that cameras
aren't allowed. That was at LA EPOCA, a large dollar
store located in the heart of Central Havana. I'm not
sure what it is they don't want photographed, though
there have been bombings such places in the past. 

No such sign was present at the brand new LA PUNTILLA
mall in Miramar, but when I tried to take photos of 
some of the architecture inside, I was told no photos
were allowed there, either. But read this closely and
you'll see that, despite the grumbling over prices and
now higher prices in light of recent measures, life is
by no means at the crisis levels you'd think from the
US media. Actually, this shows that the department 
store manager handled this reporter in a pretty nice
manner and the guy didn't go away pissed. By the way,
no one here in the United States, of course, complains
about the radically-rising cost of living, am I right?

Walter Lippmann


May 30, 2004. 01:00 AM

Dollar stores different in Cuba 
Greenbacks-only shops reopening with higher prices

U.S. cash welcome, but not notebooks, at Quinta y 42 mall


HAVANA-It is perfectly legal in Cuba to purchase tinned
sausages, ground coffee, New Zealand butter and a variety
of hair-colouring products, in shades ranging from platinum
blonde to dark brown.

You just can't write down their names.

"It's not authorized," said the assistant manager of a
large shopping complex in western Havana.

"It's not authorized to carry out interviews or to conduct

Nor, it seems, is it permitted to write down a list of
consumer goods in a notepad, which is what a reporter was
doing one recent day when confronted by a security guard,
the store's assistant manager and, later, the manager
himself - a gruff, no-nonsense individual wearing a pair of
silver-rimmed glasses.

The manager insisted the reporter leave the store

Against a backdrop of various kinds of ketchup, the
reporter explained he was doing research for an article
about Cuba's reaction to a series of punitive economic
sanctions recently imposed by the United States.

In response to the measures, Havana closed down a network
of more than 5,000 stores across the island that sell goods
priced exclusively in U.S. dollars and only began reopening
them on Monday, albeit with price increases that average
15.4 per cent, according to a government announcement.

Even during the store closings, which began May 10,
authorities continued to permit the sale in dollars of food
and personal hygiene products, and the reporter said he was
gauging the sort of items that remained on the market at a
time when almost everything else was unavailable.

But the store manager wasn't buying this or any other
explanation, and the reporter was escorted from the aisles
of the shopping complex known as Quinta y 42, so called
because it is located at the corner of Fifth Ave. and 42nd

To those who regard Cuba as a tropical police state ruled
by a dictator named Fidel Castro, the episode in the
ketchup section might easily be seen as yet another
trampling of individual freedoms in one of the last
communist countries of the world.

And maybe they would be right.

On the other hand, the reporter was not carted off to
prison or expelled from the island.

Instead, the manager - who never did supply his name -
invited the journalist to accompany him up to his office,
where they enjoyed a heated but mostly friendly debate
touching on a wide range of subjects, including perceived
inconsistencies in Canadian foreign policy, the U.S.
occupation of Iraq, Cuban-Mexican relations, corporal
punishment and the Holocaust.

Agreeing to disagree, they parted company with a handshake.

"Within a certain range, there are a lot of views permitted
here," said one foreign observer of Cuba's often
bewildering political system, which combines the
sometimes-ruthless oppression of open dissent with a
general indulgence of everyday grumbling and discord.

Little more than a year ago, the Cuban government bared its
most authoritarian side when it rounded up 75 peaceful
dissidents and subjected them to lightning trials before
finding them all guilty of non-violent offences and
sentencing them to spirit-crushing jail terms, ranging from
14 to 28 years.

Authorities here insist they have nothing to apologize for.

They say the 75 jailed dissidents were guilty not of
criticizing the Cuban political system but of collaborating
with the U.S. government, Havana's sworn enemy.

"Do you think that in Cuba there are only 75 people opposed
to the government?" said Miguel Alvarez, chief adviser to
the president of Cuba's national assembly. "Of course not."

There are indeed many others, quite a number of whom seem
remarkably comfortable about expressing their views out
loud to foreigners.

"Cuba has a lot of police," said a 30-something Cuban named
Raul who works as a security guard in a Havana cigar factory.

He and a pal were lounging in front of Havana's huge, domed
Capitol building one recent afternoon, sipping white rum
from green plastic tumblers, while several Cuban policemen
with a trio of German shepherds on leashes were busily
detaining one of their friends, along with two other men.

"Beautiful dogs," commented Raul. "Ugly owners."

He explained that his friend and the two other men had not
been carrying the government-issued identification cards,
known as a carnets, that Cubans are required to have in
their possession at all times.

Now, he said, they would be taken to a police post and made
to spend a night in jail while security checks were run on
them. If nothing untoward turned up, they would be released
in the morning.

"If you put up your hand in protest," he complained, "they
will cut it off."

Before long, one of the detainees shuffled over to plead
with a foreign reporter for $20 (U.S.), so he could bribe
the sole remaining policeman and avoid spending a night in
jail. He said he had two small children at home.

The reporter declined, and the man said even $10 would
probably do the job. Again, the reporter said no and soon
the lone policeman herded his three captives away on foot.

It was impossible to determine whether he really would have
accepted a bribe.

When asked about Cuba's system of state security,
government officials here invariably invoke the proximity
of the United States, which continues to harbour Cuban
exiles committed to carrying out violent acts against
Castro and his supporters.

Cuba, they say, is obliged to do whatever is necessary to
protect itself from overt or covert hostility originating
across the Strait of Florida.

"It's not thousands and thousands of miles away," said
Alvarez, referring to the United States. "It's the most
powerful country in the world, just 90 miles from the Cuban

However just they may be, criticisms of Cuba's human rights
record tend to obscure another truth, which is that most
people here seem reasonably happy with their lot.

One local woman, who holds a senior job at a branch of a
major Cuban bank, said the system actually suits most
people quite well. No one has to work very hard if they
don't want to, she said, and almost everyone receives
enough to meet their basic needs.

Provided they keep their criticism within certain broad
limits, Cubans can even complain publicly about the things
they don't like.

"They say there's not enough clothing; they say there's not
enough food," said another Cuban, gesturing from behind the
wheel of his car.

"But look. Everyone seems well-dressed. Everyone seems

Especially on weekends, the Cuban capital seems like one
big outdoor living room, as residents stroll along the
city's pedestrian malls or gather in shaded parks to chat,
dandle their children and listen to music.

On a recent afternoon, hundreds of well-dressed folk poured
out of the Gran Teatro de La Habana, after watching a
performance of Cinderella, danced by the country's national
ballet company.

"Magnifico," crowed one woman, who had paid five Cuban
pesos - about 33 cents - for an orchestra seat.

"For us, it's cheap."

After the ballet, family groups strolled along a pedestrian
mall, Calle San Rafael, which runs alongside the theatre,
munching on Cuban sandwiches, nibbling peanuts or licking
ice cream cones.

>From a hole-in-the-wall snack bar on San Rafael, a woman
was selling slices of pizza to local customers for two
pesos each, or about 13 cents.

"It's the same price for you," she told a foreigner who
stopped by to inquire.

But, unfortunately, she had just run out.

More information about the Marxism mailing list