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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

While tourists flock to Cuba, locals are desperate to leave

After Covid-19 travel restrictions and a political decision to reserve imported goods for those with access to foreign currencies, Cubans are struggling more than ever to get essential commodities and migration numbers are soaring as a result.

HAVANA, Cuba (CN) — Soothing Caribbean-style salsa and jazz tunes fill the air. Guided groups venture the narrow streets and historic buildings with cameras ready to flash at the next scenic corner. Couples marvel at the cheap and delicious tropical drinks served in charming restaurants on paved walkways.

Indeed, the Cuban capital of Havana is slowly starting to vibrate again after several tough years of Covid-19 travel restrictions. Buses and taxis now fill up to depart for tourist hotspots such as the lush green valleys of Viñales or the retro colonial town Trinidad.

But amidst all the buzz, the country is currently going through its worst financial crisis in decades – perhaps ever.

Lines grow outside grocery stores, where people wait for hours armed with their libretas, or ration books, in hopes of buying meat, milk, eggs and bread. Many return home empty-handed.

Pharmacies are almost empty and medication is hard to come by. These days, a growing black market on the internet is one of the few places where Cubans can find commodities such as antibiotics, soap or toilet paper.

Cuba is certainly no stranger to food shortages and a lack of access to basic items. The issue has existed even before Fidel Castro's socialistic revolution in 1959, caused by, among other things, the American trade blockade, Cuba's isolated island position and its complex political history with strong financial ties to the Soviet Union.

Yet, this time, problems have reached a new level.

One of the many empty pharmacies in Cuba. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

“The crisis is maybe the worst we've ever had. People cannot buy what they need. There is a lack of food, medicine and necessary household things. Doctors leave work in hospitals because they do not earn enough money to make a decent living and cannot treat patients properly," a local sociologist told Courthouse News. She spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that public criticism of the government will lead to persecution by police and the loss of her job.

She explained how a record number of Cubans have fled the country in the last two years.

“Cubans flee to the U.S. But many also leave go to Africa to find work or even Europe,” she said, calling the current situation worse than the 1990s crisis.

The crisis three decades ago is commonly referred to as “the Special Period” in Cuban history, where the country suffered financially after the dissolving of the Soviet Union.

Last year, a majority of Cuban migrants left for the American border. A record 220.000 Cubans arrived via the Mexican border in the fiscal year ending in September 2022.

This month, the American embassy in Havana resumed full immigrant visa processing. However, with estimated approvals of just 20,000 visas a year, and a preference for family reunion cases, many Cubans will see their applications rejected.

Making matters more difficult, President Joe Biden recently decided to shut the southern border to undocumented Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans and instead allow a total of 30,000 people each month from those countries to enter by air. It was a move intended to minimize the number of entries.

Courthouse News spoke to an economics professor from Havana University, who has seen many family members, friends and colleagues leave the country. She also asked to remain anonymous for her safety and to speak honestly about the conditions in Cuba.

“Cubans leave the country without wanting to. They are forced do so if they want to give their families a decent and normal life. Many good professionals such as doctors and professors have taken up cleaning or bar jobs in other countries and send money back,” she said.

The old colonial town of Trinidad is one of Cuba´s main tourist sites. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

When asked about the current economic hardships, she pointed out that "Cuba is a complex country, and there a many issues."

“A major one is that the government, during the height of Covid-19, created a payment method called MLC. Basically, it is foreign money such as U.S. dollars or euros that you need to buy necessary goods in so-called MLC stores. However, since all local salaries are paid in national pesos, the only way to obtain this credit is from tourists or Cubans living abroad,” the professor explained.

Since 2019, these special shops using the convertible currency system have been established in bigger cities. They offer imported goods like hygienic products, medicine and foods such as bread, meat and pasta, but purchases require using an MLC credit card charged with foreign currencies. As a result, many Cubans can’t use the stores. Instead, they must look for the same products in local peso stores or obtain them on the black market. Both options are expensive.

MLC replaced the old CUC convertible peso currency, which, in contrast to its successor, could be exchanged into regular pesos. The Cuban government takes a percentage of all sales in the MLC stores.

This change in payment method has worsened an already problematic dependency on tourism, the economics professor said.

Locals protest against the government over poor economic conditions in the streets of Havana, Cuba, in July 2021. (Screenshot from video via Courthouse News)

Today, a doctor earns around 4.000 Cuban pesos (around $30) a month, while a taxi driver can charge – but not personally make – 3,000 pesos ($25) for a one-way airport trip. Consequently, inequality has drastically increased, and while foreigners can enjoy, for example, dairy products or high-quality fish, many locals must find creative ways to keep starvation at bay. 

On top of that, the money from the tourism industry does not seem to be funneled into fundamental support systems such as the health care sector, education or infrastructure.

According to the economist, an overarching problem is high exports paired with a need for more investment in national industries. She argued that local employment in factories or production could boost general household incomes and mitigate foreign cash flow and exports.

“The government does not take advantage of agricultural possibilities. Factories stand empty. Right now, most of our sugar is exported, while there is a sugar shortage in Cuban houses due to the regulations. Politicians prioritize exporting instead of providing for their own people here. And we never see the money from the trade income,” she said.

For the time being, no political winds of change nor economic solutions are in sight.

”I love Cuba, but Cuba hurts," the professor said conclusively.

Categories / Economy, Government, International, Politics

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