Remittances in cash or food?: the dilemma of emigrants in a Cuba in crisis

Remittances in cash or food?: the dilemma of emigrants in a Cuba in crisis

HAVANA, May 25  In 48 hours, María Páez receives “relief” in Havana the food that her children bought for her in Miami online.Forced by the crisis, Cubans choose to send food to their relatives instead of the vital cash remittances that the island needs.

”Receiving this type of product is a relief for us” and, “in terms of spending money, the savings are substantial,” the 59-year-old Mathematics graduate, who has lived alone with her husband since their birth, told AFP. two children emigrated to the United States.

One hundred and twenty eggs, ground turkey, ham, chorizo, croquettes, yogurt… A manna that will allow her to make ends meet “without major tensions,” she says.

“We must get eggs (…), it is a guaranteed breakfast,” she adds with satisfaction.

On the island, which closed in 2023 with an inflation of 30% and where the average salary is 4,800 pesos (40 dollars), a carton of 30 eggs can cost 3,300 pesos (27.50 dollars).

The difficulties of putting dollars in cash in the hands of their relatives have led Cubans abroad to opt for food remittances.

The transfer company Western Union, which recently resumed its operations in Cuba, delivers the remittance in Cuban currency at the official rate of 120 pesos per dollar, well below the informal market rate of 360 pesos per greenback.

While the so-called “mules”, people who transport dollars in cash to the island and deliver them to the recipients, impose commissions of up to 20%.

Currently, it is possible to send food and other essential products to family members through several dozen online platforms, based mainly in the United States, where more than two million Cubans live, but also in Mexico, Canada and Spain.

Katapulk, Supermarket23, Alawao, Tuambia, CBM… These digital stores proliferate on the internet as their potential markets grow, amid a migratory exodus of Cubans that broke records in 2022 and 2023.

Every day dozens of vans with the logo of these virtual markets and private vehicles, hired by these firms, travel the streets of the country distributing food packages that have exorbitant prices in small businesses on the island authorized by the government only in 2021 and better. . supplied than state stores.

The products that make up the shipments can be purchased locally or abroad.

On the other side of the Florida Strait, the 170 km of sea that separates Cuba from the coasts of the United States, dozens of agencies also operate that send food combos to the island.

In Hialeah, a city next to Miami with a high population of Cuban origin, Luis Manuel Méndez, 59, explains outside one of these companies that they usually send medicines, school supplies and food to two children they left on the island.

”Things in Cuba are very expensive,” so “it is much more feasible to buy it here and send it,” says Méndez.

My children “don’t want money, what they want is for me to send them (…) necessities,” he adds.

A few blocks from the place, in front of another package agency, there is a constant coming and going of people carrying bags.

In the parking lot of that agency, Maribel Ruiz, 62, comments that she helps an aunt and cousins she has in Cuba.

”The problem is that you send the money, but there are no things there in the store to buy (…). We have to send them packages of medicine, food, clothing, everything,” says Ruiz.

Cuba, with 11.1 million inhabitants, faces an economic crisis unprecedented in three decades, with blackouts, shortages of food, medicine and fuel, due to the effects of the pandemic, the intensification of Washington sanctions and structural weaknesses of its economy.

According to figures from Havana Consulting Group, a consulting firm based in Miami, remittances from the United States to Cuba reached a record figure of $3.7 billion in 2019.

It is the second source of foreign currency for Cuba after the export of medical services and tourism.

However, these remittances “fell from 2,040 million dollars in 2022 to 1,972 million in 2023,” says Cuban economist Emilio Morales, who chairs that consulting firm.

Faced with “the shortage” and “the high prices of food in private businesses,” the emigrants “have preferred to invest large sums of money in getting families” off the island or “pay online to companies” that “send them ”. a package at the door of the house,” says Morales.