The market is almost empty. It’s still very early and someone is writing the new prices for a pound of pork on a blackboard. It seems a simple gesture, that of the hand that has changed only one digit in the price of the ribs, the legs, or the processed fat. But in reality, what is expressed on that slate — with its numbers traced in chalk — is a real market cataclysm. The internal Cuban economy suffers from a weakness such that the slightest price increase for a pound of steak or butter is enough to disrupt our fragile commercial framework. A few centavos added to the price of a food sends the thermometer of daily anxiety upward, raises the barometer of concern.
Indeed, a certain state of alarm is running through the country lately. Pork is scarce because of the dearth of feed; its import has declined and local production barely gets off the ground. The self-employment sector suffers from a scarcity of the product which forms the basis for the so-called “little boxes,” which almost always include rice, some kind of starch, and a little meat. This lunch “in hand” is the mainstay of many Cubans who work far from home, and also constitutes the basic unit for the private businesses selling ready-made meals. When the price of this lunchbox rises it pulls everything with it. The shoe salesman adds a bit to his merchandise to recoup his loss on the midday snack; the shopkeeper who paid more for her sandals tries to make up the difference from unsuspecting customers who don’t count their change; and the retired housewife writes to her son in Frankfurt or Miami asking for a bump in her remittance, because life is very expensive. And this whole sequence of problems and angst begins in a pigsty, the place where feed and care should be converted into pounds of meat, but are not.