Greenback returns: How dollar stores came back to Cuba

(BBC) – Benito Morejón arrived at the supermarket before dawn to claim a spot near the front of the queue.

The supermarket in Havana is one of a number of shops opened by the Cuban government on the island in which basic food and hygiene products can be paid for with the currency of its ideological enemy: the US dollar.

When the police eventually opened the gates several hours later, he was fourth in a line that stretched back hundreds of metres along Third Avenue in Havana’s Playa district.

Queue outside a dollar store in Havana
Image captionCubans keen to stock up on essentials came armed with patience

The queue was hardly surprising. Inside, the store was abundantly stocked with much-needed essentials from baby milk to shower gel. However, the catch was that the only acceptable form of payment was in a foreign currency.

For years, an inefficient, centrally controlled economy and a decades-long US economic embargo have made scarcity and queuing regular features of daily life in Cuba.

Recently, though, things have become especially tough.

Cuba is overly dependent on imports, which account for some 80% of what the nation consumes. Despite largely controlling the coronavirus outbreak, lockdown has brought tourism to a halt in Cuba and the resulting drop in foreign exchange earnings means fewer dollars to pay for imports.

Many supermarket shelves are almost bare.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has spent the past four years ramping up the embargo and imposing harsher sanctions on shipping, travel and remittances.

To make up for the shortfall in dollars, the government took a step it would probably have avoided under normal circumstances and turned 72 of the nearly 5,000 state-run shops in Cuba into “dollar stores”.

When he emerged from one of them, Benito Morejón struggled to push his cart, weighed down with meat, cheese, cleaning products and personal hygiene items.

“There was no chicken breast which I was hoping to find but other than that, the choice on offer was good,” he said from behind his facemask.

Cards only

Inside the stores, customers do not hand over foreign banknotes at the tills.

Rather, they must pay by card – either one linked to a Cuban bank account with deposits in a foreign currency or using an international debit or credit card, except those from US banks.

“I can afford to come about once a month,” said Mr Morejón.

“I’d have bought more but I need to deposit more dollars into my account”, said another customer, Leno Fernández, with a resigned laugh.