Each morning, Cubans line up at featureless state-run bakeries, which display only one type of bread. Buyers bring their ration books and have their purchases ticked off – each person is permitted 1 fresh roll per day – and pay an absolute pittance in the local currency, Cuban pesos (CUP). They are not put in bags; instead the bread is torn off the family of rolls and handed over. Minimum fuss.
I have no CUP, so stand in line for my two rolls; I have no idea of the price and offer 0.25CUP and receive in return an unidentified quantity of change in CUC.
There are two currencies operating in Cuba: the regular peso, and the Convertible Peso (CUC) which every tourist transaction is likely to be in. The regular peso is worth 1/25 of the CUC, creating two economies: one for the rich and one for the poor.
Rationing applies to a list of everyday staples, including bread, milk, eggs, rice, sugar, soap and toothpaste; Cubans have no restriction on the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables, which they buy cheaply at local markets. Farmers must sell 85% of their produce to the government, and are free to sell the remainder at whatever they can get for it (this is where they make their real pesos). Whilst the rationed food is incredibly cheap (around 1/20 of the CUP price) there isn’t enough of it; in any month a family will run out in 10 days and have to buy the rest of what it needs on the open (or even the black) market with CUC, costing vastly more and of course which many Cubans just don’t have.
The average salary in Cuba is around 15-20 CUC per month, and locals must do whatever they can to survive. A Canadian I meet knows a doctor who is paid CUC40 a month and, to earn more, picks up hitchhikers by the road (hitchhiking is a standard form of transport in Cuba as most people can neither afford, nor get the Government licence needed to buy, a car).
On Calle Obispo, there is a gorgeous looking chemist, jars of various ingredients lining the walls, and fancy display cases of the oddest things: shampoo, toothpaste, nappies… Stuff we hurl into the shopping cart without a thought are luxury items here.