Despite embargo, Cubans can buy almost anything with U.S. dollars

August 24, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

HAVANA -- What embargo?

Any Cuban can readily pick up an Oster juicer, or a Black & Decker toaster, both packed in boxes marked with tiny U.S. flags labeled "Proudly Made in the U.S.A."

Or a box of facial tissue distributed out of Memphis for a mere $5.70, or Crest toothpaste for $4 a tube. Or a Phillips boom box, or a Goldstar refrigerator, or a Sony television, all carrying equally inflated price tags.

All this and more is readily available in Cuba despite a long-standing embargo that has made it difficult for the average Cuban to buy enough food to survive.

But there's a catch: Everything has to be paid for in U.S. dollars -- even Cuban-brewed beer.

And President Clinton has now ordered a stop to the flow of dollars -- estimated at $500 million a year -- from Cuban-Americans to their relatives here.

The impact could be great. In the government-run supermarkets, the shelves are literally empty in this last half of August. Only in the first days of every month, when the government hands out ration cards for rice, beans, sugar and cooking oil, is there anything to be had in a regular store. By what Cubans refer to as the 15th day, meaning mid-month, a whole month's rations are used up.

But the shelves are bulging at the teeming dollar stores, where people line up to browse through buildings stocked with name-brand merchandise that usually is manufactured in third countries such as Mexico and Venezuela. It may come as a surprise that United Colors of Benetton has an outlet here. And a lot of Cubans wear T-shirts proclaiming their allegiance to the Chicago Bulls.

Until a year ago, Cubans weren't allowed to legally possess dollars, and so they made friends with foreigners who would shop on their behalf in the dollar stores.

Now Cubans can't be arrested for the greenbacks in their wallets, and relatives in the States, before Mr. Clinton's announcement, had sent in enough to ease the hardships of a local economy that exists in name only. On the black market, a dollar goes for 130 pesos. The average monthly wage is around 200 pesos. Today, even the taxi cabs have meters priced in U.S. dollars.

This wacko economic reality has brought about a schism in Cuban society that echoes of pre-revolutionary days.

In a sense, the 25 or so dollar stores scattered through Havana are like the exclusive clubs of pre-revolutionary times. Most are concentrated in the swank western side of the capital, where all the embassies and private businesses are based.

Some are housed in beautiful old mansions. The biggest ones have become more than just stores. They are more like the Cuban version of Ikea, where customers go to shop and eat.

While almost every Cuban a visitor encounters has family living in the United States, not all have relatives who send them dollars.

Lazaro, a 34-year-old mechanic who lacks attentive relatives, watched his mother prepare a meager soup of bones and a hash of okra and soy beans for lunch Monday.

He said he has heard the argument that money from America only prolongs the day when people become so miserable that they will rise up and oust the government, but he isn't convinced that cutting off the funds will achieve the desired result.

"We are all tired of having one person in power for 35 years," he said. "But what can we do?"

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