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Cuba's worst economic crisis in decades forces people to get creative to survive

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Cuba, which is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled, but the people who stay are seeing glimmers of a free market. NPR's Eyder Peralta has this report.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In Havana, there is no hiding the economic troubles. As you drive across the city, supermarket shelves are anemic. And when you ask anyone, how's life, the answer is complicated.

MILAGROS RODRIGUEZ PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Milagros Rodriguez Perez says, "I'm grateful to my country, but I have needs." Sitting next to her on a street curb, her friends needle her. They haven't had a piece of meat in months, and she tells them to shut up.

RODRIGUEZ PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Food is stable," she says, "like a sick person at a hospital stable." But all jokes aside, life for Rodriguez is tough. Her disability payments from the government are 1,500 pesos a month. These days, she would spend a third of her salary buying six slices of bread at a private market. The only way to survive, she says, is to inventar, which is what Cubans call hustling, making something out of thin air.

RODRIGUEZ PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "You'd come and give me your shirt, and I'd sell it for 20, 30 pesos," she says. "That's how we live."

The economic crisis has forced people from engineers to doctors to government paper pushers onto the streets. They're selling bread, eggs and sweets out of carts. On porches, Cubans are holding garage sales. Suddenly, a free market is out in the open in a Communist island.

PAVEL VIDAL ALEJANDRO: The private sector is the only economic activity in Cuba that has been growing.

PERALTA: Pavel Vidal Alejandro used to work for the Cuban Central Bank. Now he's an economist at the Pontificia Javeriana University in Colombia. Cuba has been hit by a perfect storm of bad economic news. First, President Trump enacted more economic sanctions, then Cuba's benefactor, Venezuela, descended into crisis, then COVID hit, decimating tourism. And Cuba has done little about it.

VIDAL ALEJANDRO: They've been - opened the economy to private, small and medium enterprises, but too little, too late.

PERALTA: Over the decades, Cuba has opened up, allowing privately owned hotels and restaurants. More recently, they've allowed private companies to hire employees directly, and any Cuban can now set up a store on their porch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Vidal Alejandro says it's clear the government believes a centrally planned economy is not working. But he says there seems to be an ideological disagreement over what to do about it.

ERNESTO GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Just outside Havana, I meet Ernesto Gonzalez at his home, and I ask him, how's life?

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Dear Lord, my brother," he says, "life is hectic." Life, he says, has never been spectacular in Cuba, but back during the Castro era, you ate, you had a little fun. Heartbreak was because of love or baseball. These days, it's math.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: These days, a pork leg runs you up to 14,000 pesos. He earns 15,000 pesos a month working at a state agency. If he lived off his government salary, his family would starve.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: So he fixes gas stoves. He points to his front porch. It's a little store. He's selling homemade cleaning products, crackers, drinks, flip-flops. And he does it the whole week, not just on weekends.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "That's illegal," he says.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "But I have to do it," he says. "I have to do it or I won't eat."

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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