How Cheap Chicken Stopped Protests in Cuba

Food is power in a country where only a small portion of people are allowed to enter supermarkets.

By , an independent journalist based in Mexico City.
A man sells fruits and vegetables on a street in Havana as Cuba faces food shortages.
A man sells fruits and vegetables on a street in Havana as Cuba faces food shortages on June 11, 2019. Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

Nov. 15 was supposed to be the day prominent anti-government dissidents launched their protest movement calling for regime change in Cuba. Dozens expressed hope online that another round of protests like the ones seen on July 11 would bring the island one step closer to toppling its 60-year-old communist dictatorship.

On July 11, as Cuba braced itself against a wave of painful shortages and a surge of COVID-19 cases, a protest broke out spontaneously in San Antonio de los Baños, a poor suburb outside Havana. Several people began throwing rocks at police; news spread, and by the end of the afternoon, thousands were in the streets in 50 cities across the island, shouting “Down with the dictatorship!” These were the first major protests in Cuba in 30 years.

Opposition leaders hoped to repeat in November what happened in July, but the government denied the dissidents’ official request to hold demonstrations on Nov. 15. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel claimed the planned protests were a CIA plot—a claim he’d previously made about the July protests. Every public gathering in Cuba needs government approval or the police will break it up. Still, the dissident leaders were determined to charge forth.

Nov. 15 was supposed to be the day prominent anti-government dissidents launched their protest movement calling for regime change in Cuba. Dozens expressed hope online that another round of protests like the ones seen on July 11 would bring the island one step closer to toppling its 60-year-old communist dictatorship.

On July 11, as Cuba braced itself against a wave of painful shortages and a surge of COVID-19 cases, a protest broke out spontaneously in San Antonio de los Baños, a poor suburb outside Havana. Several people began throwing rocks at police; news spread, and by the end of the afternoon, thousands were in the streets in 50 cities across the island, shouting “Down with the dictatorship!” These were the first major protests in Cuba in 30 years.

Opposition leaders hoped to repeat in November what happened in July, but the government denied the dissidents’ official request to hold demonstrations on Nov. 15. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel claimed the planned protests were a CIA plot—a claim he’d previously made about the July protests. Every public gathering in Cuba needs government approval or the police will break it up. Still, the dissident leaders were determined to charge forth.

A group including musicians, playwrights, medical students, and designers spread the call on social media, designating the color white as the symbol of their impending revolution. Sympathizers hung white sheets, or sabanas blancas, out of their windows—a symbol of Cuban national and cultural pride, bolstered by the traditional Cuban anthem of the same name.

On the night of Nov. 15, “Sabanas Blancas” was playing at full volume in Centro Habana, one of Havana’s poorer neighborhoods, where protests exploded on July 11. But people weren’t protesting—they were dancing. Instead of overturned patrol cars, stores ransacked from looting, and bloody encounters with police batons—the scenes people in Centro Habana witnessed on July 11—the government, it seemed to some residents, was throwing a party.

“You have to do magic to get through the day.”

On Galiano, a main thoroughfare, multicolored lights beamed into the sky from a soundstage where men thrummed traditional Cuban classics on guitar and bass near a fleet of police cars.

Yosmany, a teacher who asked to use a pseudonym for his safety, lives in Centro Habana, and said the 15th felt like a holiday. “It was not at all what we imagined,” he said. “It’s manipulative,” he continued, gesturing to the strobe lights bouncing off the buildings as the music played.

After protests did not materialize, media outlets outside the island attributed the quiet to the government’s sequestration of protest leaders. Police and government supporters blockaded several well-known dissidents in their homes to prevent them from marching that day. But Yosmany, along with several other young people I met in Centro Habana on the 15th, pointed instead to cheap chicken as the reason the city was eerily peaceful.

Next to the soundstage, at a wooden counter set up outside a small restaurant, beer and rum were flowing, and pizza and sandwiches were whipped up in the back. Yosmany said at this counter and several others throughout the neighborhood, vendors sold chicken, sausage, and other everyday provisions in the days preceding Nov. 15 at prices significantly lower than the black-market price: 300 Cuban pesos instead of 800, for instance, for a packet of chicken. (300 Cuban pesos is roughly $5 at the going black market rate, and $12.50 at the official rate.)

Yosmany believes lowering prices was a government ploy to butter up Centro Habana’s residents so they would not protest. “If [residents] can afford food, they’ll be content,” he said.

Food items available to the public often reflect the strength of dissident fervor on the island, said Monica, a black-market reseller who asked to be referred to by her first name only. “After the 11th of July, for a couple of weeks, there were things available in stores that no one had been able to find for months, almost the whole pandemic,” she said. “Suddenly there was tomato sauce and milk. That went on for a while, and then everything went back to the way it was for a few months. Then suddenly, right before the 15th of November, things became available again. It’s very transparent.”

Monica is one of a meager percentage of Cubans who can legally shop in stores. In January, the Cuban government, desperate for convertible money to trade during the pandemic, instituted a new policy to squeeze U.S. dollars and euros out of its citizens. Only people who received remittances from abroad, usually from family members in Miami, would be allowed to enter supermarkets, and they would need to present a special card to pay. The cards are dispensed at national banks and can be filled with money sent via Western Union.

This policy ensures the government has convertible money but leaves the vast majority of Cubans excluded from the traditional, legal market. Everyone who does not receive money from family abroad must buy their essential goods from those who do. Many of those allowed to enter the stores have quickly made booming businesses out of buying items in bulk and selling them at three or four times the store price, creating a strict class hierarchy in a country that boasts egalitarian, socialist values. Yosmany, for instance, now works three jobs to pay rent and put food on the table.

Yosmany spends much of his day negotiating with people like Monica. “You have to do magic to get through the day,” he said. “If you need to get home from across the city, you have to do magic to make the bus appear. If you need new shoes, you have to do magic. Nothing is easy. No one is living here, we’re just surviving.”

“I try not to charge as much as the other resellers,” Monica said. “I don’t sell at even double the price—well, sometimes I do.” Some days, she wakes up in the middle of the night to line up at the supermarket at 5 a.m., when the COVID-19 curfew ends. Then, she buys as much food, detergent, and shampoo as she can carry. She has a loyal group of customers who wait for her to advertise her wares on WhatsApp. Her most popular items are the ones most necessary for survival: chicken, sausage, and beans.

At one of the supermarkets where Monica does her shopping, a cluster of people waited outside for up to six hours to be let in; next to them, another group waited for their friends to come out, unable to enter the store themselves.

Monica described her customer base as teetering on the edge of chronic hunger: “People still have enough to eat—they just have to spend all of their time figuring out how to get food at a price they can afford.” In an environment where a disproportionate amount of time is spent thinking about food, Monica said that a temporary resolution to the problem—if only for a few days—such as the cheap food sold in Centro Habana on the 15th, could be cause for relief and even celebration for most Cubans.

“People only have time to think about the most basic things,” she said. “They don’t have time to think about politics or ideology. … It’s not about communism—it’s about getting through the day.”

When I met with a group of five high school seniors near the Malecón, Havana’s famous seawall that rings most of the city, on Nov. 16, it took more than an hour to figure out who had a card to enter a store, which of the three or four stores in the area sold alcohol, and who had enough money on their card to buy a bottle of rum. (The legal drinking age in Cuba is 16.) And then there was the question of finding cups, which no store had in stock. One of them suggested buying strawberry ice cream to get plastic cups, so we sat and slurped until we had enough cups to go around.

None of the teenagers was interested in publicly denouncing the government or marching in the streets—all were instead focused on leaving the country. “We all agree with [the dissidents], but if I say that publicly, then I get detained, and it’s on my record forever,” one boy said. “There’s no good reason to do that.” Since July 11, police have detained or disappeared more than 400 people for protesting, some as young as 17

One of the high school boys was wearing a white t-shirt, and a police officer was eyeing him from across the park. The officer came over and asked us a few questions before retreating back to his post. The kids were sure it was because of the color of the shirt.

Victor, a dissident with a significant local following whose name I’ve changed for his safety, acknowledged through voice messages on WhatsApp that there is a disconnect between the leaders of the contemporary anti-government movement and the public they need to rouse to accomplish their goal of regime change.

“People are too scared,” Victor said. “Most people who were in the streets on July 11 probably didn’t even know who most of the famous dissidents were. They were protesting because they were hungry and desperate. More protests will happen when people have nothing to lose.”

For now, Victor said, the movement is reeling from the recent round of detentions, interrogations, exiles, and arrests, and is simply focused on holding the group together and getting people out of jail instead of planning detailed next steps. No matter how well it plans, it seems, the government is always one step ahead.

Lillian Perlmutter is an independent journalist based in Mexico City. She has covered volcanic eruptions, kidnappings for ransom, marijuana legalization, and black-market abortions among other topics in the Caribbean.

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