Being married to a food scientist, engineer & foodie, Andres & I are always talking about food, supermarkets and food value chains.  Cuba was a shock on this topic.  When discussing food in Cuba, one needs to seperate the “CUC” vs. “Moneda Nacional” worlds.  

Tourists always have access to meals, some better than others, because they are paying in CUC (1CUC = 1EURO).  An average Cuban has it a bit more complicated.  There are essentially 4 levels of access to food for the average Cuban, each one getting more expensive than the other (#3 and #4 might be at the same level of expensive, depending on the item).  Regardless of which option, there are often long waits associated with acquiring a solid meal, and a lot of time and effort is spent everyday, just trying to feed the family sufficiently.

1) Each family has a little book that permits them to buy a certain quantity of food weekly, and all the food you are allowed (7 items: rice, eggs, milk, ) all of which can be bought for less than 1CUC (1Euro).  

2) Cubans have access to another shop (mercados libres) where the items are a bit more expensive, but don’t have family/weekly limits.  Unfortunately, they are almost always empty…

3) The black market, where you might be able to buy things like eggs, for example….

4) The TRDs (Tiendas de retornos de divisas or shops for returning foreign currency) are significantly more expensive, and are the shops where you find Cubans and tourists.  

These TRDs are the shops we got to know the most about.  They came into play after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Cuban government realized they were going to need a lot more money in-country.  They knew that many Cubans had foreign currency, mainly dollars, stashed at home, which they were receiving from family abroad.  Until the early 90’s, if a Cuban was caught in possession of dollars, they could go to prison for up to 4 years.  With the introduction of these shops (and the introduction of the CUC), the government was able to recover foreign capital.  

The TRDs have a VERY odd mix of items.  There is ALWAYS rum.  Most of the time you can find Italian pasta (Agnesi), pasta sauce, something to drink (though not always Cuba’s #1 (and only…) bottled water), and some other random stuff.  For example, you can find a random selection of German products that definitely don’t have a regular supply chain in Cuba.  These are items that the Cuban govenment receives either as donations or that they buy in container auctions in ports like Hamburg.  

There were only two companies in all of Cuba that seem to have regular supply chains and are for some reason allowed to have visible marketing in Cuba: Nestle & Red Bull.  Nestle has ice creams (some of which are produced in Havana!) and NESCAFE.  

In some restaurants you find some foreign products, but if you look closely, they were never meant for the Cuban market, which means they were either smuggled in, donated, or bought in one of these port container auctions.  For example, Mexican CocaCola or Dutch beer.

The topic of food in any country is complicated and political, and Cuba is no exception. But what we saw in Cuba is a gross mismanagement of raw materials and food supply chains. 

 The tourists and wealthy Cubans have access to (often low-quality) expensive food, and the average Cuban is left to fight over whatever is left.  The double economy, essentially a capitalistic system operating under the guise of a socialistic system, is exasperating the situation.  To put this into numerical terms, one of those Nestle ice creams can be bought for 1,75CUC, which is about 7% of an average Cuban monthly income (25CUC) in the socialistic system.  

Hopefully, Cuba manages to unite their monetary system sooner rather than later and provide regular access to quality food, a basic right that the revolution should have achieved over the last 55 years!

(If you want to read further, this article from 2015 does a good job of summing up the situation, which seems to only have gotten worse.)