Cuba's efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 is breaking its fragile economy

Robin Cordoví's life savings are draining away. A Havana native and Airbnb super host, Cordoví previously made enough money to afford the steep prices and skip the long lines for food and other necessities. The pandemic put an end to that. Tourism here is dead, and Cordoví has had to use the majority of his savings to get by. "Maybe at the end of coronavirus I have zero," he told me.

Cubans rely on government rations and a stipend of 30 CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos, roughly equal to the US dollar) a month to meet their basic needs. This has proved mostly inadequate. Foreign currency is relied on to import approximately two-thirds of food consumed in Cuba. Now that the foreign currency exchange has sharply declined, previously scarce items have become even more elusive and expensive. 

Image: Maddie Lee

"To get food," says Cordoví, "some have to get up at three a.m and wait. They go [to] maybe buy chicken and they say, 'Sorry no more chicken,' and then they have no food for the day." 

"In Cuba, the government tries to be your father, you depend 100 percent on your father, and now everything is very expensive. Believe me, I don't know how people can live, but always they find a way." 

Access to everyday necessities for Cuban citizens is notoriously unreliable. CNN's Havana correspondent, Patrick Oppmann comments, "This isn't anything new for the Cuban people, but it is more extreme."

He added, "While lines are nothing new, the scarcity Cuba has experienced during the pandemic of basic products is much worse than anything I have seen in eight years of living here."

Image: Maddie Lee

In an attempt to make up for the deficiency of US currency, the government has opened stores that accept only US currency — something Oppmann says they "haven't seen in almost 20 years."

Cuban economist, Albert Lahens, says that a few months before these dollar stores opened, "…there were plenty of consumption goods (tomato sauce, cheese, pasta, just to mention a few) who were missing for a long time. These goods used to be available in CUCs stores but suddenly disappeared until the government sold them once again  in the "new" stores, where you could only pay with international debit cards and, of course, foreign currency."

To be clear, a CUC should be roughly equal to the USD. However, Lahens explained that, "Even when there was a tax on the USD, on the informal markets, you could get 1.15 CUC for 1USD. Today, when there's no longer a tax on the USD if you go to the black market and exchange your USDs, for every single one of them you could get 1.60 CUCs." 

To put the exchange rate into perspective, he said, "Back in March, a kilo of Gouda Cheese was 8.45 CUC when you could find it. Then it disappeared for three months… the price is still 8.45/kilo but this time 8.45 USD, hence 50% more expensive due to the local currency devaluation."

Another blow to an already reeling economy is the Trump administration's sanctions on Cuba, which are "some of the toughest sanctions in decades," according to Oppmann, and "have had a big impact without a doubt, and it's certainly not helping the situation right now as Cuba's trying to deal with the pandemic like the rest of the world." 

Undoing the Obama administration's opening of Cuba has made it more difficult for citizens to have their own businesses. Furthermore, it has crippled the accessibility of making contact outside of the island. 

Lahens says. "…if Trump gets reelected the regime won't have any other choice. They will push harder on their reforms schedule." It is speculated that a Biden administration would bring an influx of tourists to the island, due to eased sanctions.

Although the pandemic has amplified some of Cuba's pre-existing problems, the government has managed to keep coronavirus cases remarkably low. On an island of just over 11 million people, there have been 123 deaths and less than 6,000 confirmed cases. 

Despite limited resources, the nationwide healthcare system is quite comprehensive. The government has made it their top priority to stay on top of the outbreak. 

Oppmann says Cubans don't dispute the government's mandate to wear a mask in public. He believes that the cooperation extends beyond that of having to comply with a strict communist government. He says, "People trust doctors here and doctors say you need to wear a mask and that's all there is to it." 

In contrast, Cordoví observed that the government handled the pandemic so well that many people don't believe it is a "pandemic." He further explained that the risk of catching coronavirus from waiting in long, crowded lines was not the main concern for many because, "The people, they want bread for today, they want meat for today, so forget the pandemic." 

There are signs of a possible, but slow, recovery. The hardest-hit region by the virus, Havana, has slowly begun to come out of lockdown. Beaches have reopened, as well as some restaurants and bars at limited capacity. Schools are set to reopen next month.

Limited travel has resumed on some parts of the island. Tourists are allowed to stay at government-run resorts, bar Americans, in the Cuban Keys. Plans to open Havana to visitors are in the works for as soon as next week. 

The return of tourism seems like a sign of hope. But for now, since travelers can only stay at government-run resorts — which operate similar to the NBA's Disneyworld bubble – the revenue will barely benefit the average Cuban.

So although tourism is slowly returning to the island, Oppmann says the adverse effects of the lockdown will "continue to be a problem for a long time to come." 

Collectively, the world is coping with the fallout from Covid-19. The pandemic has shown us the importance of having compassion for our neighbors and helping our communities when we can. If you are left wondering if there is a way to help our Cuban neighbors, Mr. Cordoví (who has become a good friend since I met him seven months ago in Cuba) has started a new Airbnb experience called "Supporting Cuban's non-profit." A $13 donation will "be directed to solve a specific need such as food for a struggling family, an auto part for a vintage car and driver, a motor for a farmer to pump water to his ranch, or paying bills for someone hospitalized. These are some of the many examples of the political, economic, and social problems today's Cubans suffer." You can leave a message for the person receiving your support, and Mr. Cordoví will show it to them when he delivers the assistance to them. On October 15, 2020, Mr. Cordoví told me he was able to deliver food to 50 seniors in his town thanks to support for the project.