The circle of scarcity:
1. The less available something is, the more you want it.
2. The more urgently you want something, the less available it becomes.
So many egg-laying hens were killed by Hurricane Irma that eggs have become nearly as scarce here as the non-existent teeth in their mothers’ mouths. Eggs are a staple of the regular ration system that has existed in Cuba ever since its first and hardest “Special Period” in the early 1960s when Che Guevara traveled the world as the head of Cuba’s national bank and returned to report that thanks to US pressure, all trade doors had closed. The economic blockade had begun. Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union followed.
Before Irma, extra eggs also frequently appeared outside the ration card, at low prices, and at the same stores where the rice, beans, sugar and other rationed items are processed in bulk. Also sometimes at little state kiosks designed to process overflow. Since Irma there are barely enough eggs to meet the guaranteed rations.
Cuba is nothing if not resilient , and occasionally there are surprises. Following a tip, we discovered an abundant supply of eggs at a kiosk on the outskirts of Havana last week, and rushed out to purchase two trays. The eggs are smaller than usual, with abnormally hard shells that must be banged rather hard to crack. Since fragile shells generally reflect poor feed or environmental conditions, my guess is that these came from a new crop of young hens who are being fed very well. But I don’t really know for sure.
Yesterday, newly flush with eggs, I’d planned to bake a birthday cake. But I miscalculated the butter. I had some on hand, just not enough. It was a violation of the cardinal rule here of buying things when they appear, not when you want them (see rule #2 above).
We combed the city. I lost count after the twelfth store, but I’m sure the final tally was not less than twenty. Basically, there’s no butter in Havana. And let me be clear about something. This is not a complaint. Anyone with the time and resources to visit twenty stores in search of a luxury like butter is, in the overall context of possible problems, someone without one. But it’s no less true that this is the kind of thing that drives a person crazy, and also the kind of thing that has been experienced by Cubans at all economic levels for most or all of their adult lives. It’s the phenomenon, not the commodity, that matters.
Why do we do it? What kind of goodwill are we generating by driving the Cuban people crazy? Why do we insist on continuing to bar the same doors Che Guevara found closed more than half a century ago? Why have we opened those doors to Vietnam, and not to Cuba? Why do we hold Cuba to a higher standard than China or Saudi Arabia? Where is the political benefit to being universally perceived as a bully?
The truth is that US policy goals toward Cuba have never changed, not even under Obama – though many Americans have a different impression. Obama applied different tactics, but the policy goal, described succinctly by the State Department in 1960 is still very much in force: “disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship” meant to force an alienated population to rise up and reverse their revolution.
Fifty-seven years on, economic dissatisfaction and hardship are easy enough to find. The alienated population, not so much. Close to ninety percent of Cubans who have traveled abroad and could easily have stayed there, with fast-track privileges toward documented status, returned home instead. A steady flow of Cubans are also repatriating themselves, the vast majority coming from the United States. These are inconvenient statistics for the press, but they are facts, nonetheless.
We finally did find butter, purely by accident, when we dropped in on a relative. This relative also runs a small shop, sort of a 7-11 Lite connected to his home, where he sells bread, soft drinks, frozen pizzas, cigarettes, etc. Like many similar small shop owners, some of his products are obtained wholesale, others are simply purchased retail, and resold at a slightly higher price. This particular practice fuels great anger among the general population because it causes scarcities like the one I have just described, but it is impossible to control.
We had actually called him about midway through the great butter hunt to ask for advice on where to find it, but the store he recommended turned out to be closed, so we simply soldiered on. When we asked later why he hadn’t mentioned the butter in his own display case, he pointed out that we hadn’t asked, nor had it crossed his mind. “I was sure you’d be able to find some without having to travel so far,” he said. By the time we returned home though, I’d lost all interest in baking.