Online shopping highlights Cuba’s inequality in time of coronavirus

People queue to pick up products, some bought online, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, in downtown Havana, Cuba. — Reuters

HAVANA: The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting growth in inequality in Communist Cuba as worsening shortages force most citizens to spend hours in line to purchase basic goods while the better-off are shopping online.

The disruption from the pandemic has plunged Cuba into its worst economic crisis since the fall of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union in the 1990s, but economic liberalization over the past three decades means not all Cubans are equally affected.

For more than a year, shoppers had already faced long lines for some staple goods as Cuba's economic situation worsened due largely to the implosion of Socialist ally Venezuela and tougher US sanctions under President Donald Trump.

Now, the pandemic has halted tourism, slowed remittances and increased shipping costs.

Shortages have become more generalised even though decisive government action has reduced new coronavirus cases to less than 15 per day.

To counter the lines, the Cuban state, which has a monopoly on telecommunications and retail services, is seeking to encourage online shopping. Yet many Cubans simply cannot afford the service.

Reuters estimates you would need the equivalent in local currency of US$10 (RM43) per month to shop online, given the time it takes and cost of Internet service in a land where the average monthly wage is equivalent to US$45 (RM196).

Moreover, 40% of the population does not have cellphone service, let alone the internet, according to the government.

“I do not have the Internet. I do not earn the money to be able to get any type of food through the Internet,” said José Ángel González, a young man scouting Havana for a store without too long a line.

The government says it is protecting the vulnerable even as it tries to meet better-off citizens needs online.

Authorities have added some scarce goods onto Cuba's World War Two-style ration system and imposed price controls and purchase limits on many agricultural and other products.

State employee Yainelis, a single mother of three children in eastern Granma province, said she supported those measures but always had problems making ends meet on her monthly salary of 500 pesos.

"I used to have some chickens in the back yard for eggs, but now we have eaten them all," she said in a telephone interview. "Now, some days, it is just rationed rice and lentils for me."


The import-dependent nation begrudgingly opened the door to rising levels of inequality, which its 1959 revolution sought to eliminate, when it started attracting hard currency to purchase food and fuel during the post Soviet-era depression. Before that, only pesos were legal tender, everyone worked for the state and received relatively similar incomes.

Cuba developed international tourism, opened up to foreign investment, approved some small business and encouraged Cubans abroad to visit and send money to relatives.

Simultaneously, the government began selling imported consumer goods for dollars or the local equivalent, the convertible peso.

Cuban currency has no value outside the country.

"I receive money from my sister in Miami. It is a great relief these days because you have to look hard for food," grammar school teacher Imilsis Labrada said, as she stood in line at a Western Union office in Havana.

Apart from their scarcity, some items like pork have seen high mark-ups on the informal market.

Cuba experts estimate at least 40% of the population receives cash remittances from abroad, amounting to a few billion dollars annually that greatly increase their purchasing power.

These Cubans, and those working in the more lucrative private sector, account for most online shoppers.

State employees, 70% of the workforce, as a rule cannot afford the service unless they receive remittances. – Reuters

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