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U.S. Sanctions Have Cubans Bracing For Tough Economic Times

May 14, 2019
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If you live in Cuba, you live in long lines. In supermarkets and government-run stores, there are routine shortages of everything from eggs to rice. Last week, officials announced widespread rationing. They are bracing for harder economic times to come for several reasons, including tough new sanctions by the Trump administration. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Havana.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Roberto Gonzalez (ph) is on the hunt for chicken. He's in the bustling Carlos III shopping mall toward the back of a long line.

ROBERTO GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's incredible. This one could take an hour, maybe two," he says. Behind them, Yanelis Perez (ph) is less optimistic.

YANELIS PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I just hope I can get out before 6," she says. This is her second day searching for chicken. Lines are nothing new in Cuba. Stifling bureaucracy, limited public transportation and food rations have fostered a culture of queuing up. But 75-year-old Gonzalez says it's gotten worse, especially the food shortages over the past two months.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Ever since your dear president, Donald Trump, wanted to go to war with Cuba," he says. Shortly after taking office, Trump reversed many measures President Obama had initiated during his historic opening with Cuba.

But in recent months, citing Cuba's support of Venezuela's embattled President Nicolas Maduro, the Trump administration has levied new sanctions. They range from going after tankers delivering the discounted oil Venezuela sends to Cuba to restricting U.S. visas for Cubans and limiting the amount of money that could be sent to residents on the island.

Cecilio Valles Ramirez (ph) says he can't make it without the money his family sends him from New York.

CECILIO VALLES RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Every month, they send me something. But with all this mess, they aren't going to be able to do it much longer," says Valles, sitting on a bench talking with friends in a central Havana park. U.S. officials have lowered the limits of remittances to $1,000 every three months. He supports his wife, two kids and his mother on the money.

VALLES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "When you have kids, you just worry about things getting worse," he says. "Economically, we're in crisis."

Cuba's economy was in bad shape well before Trump's sanctions. Venezuela's economic crisis has reduced subsidies it sends to Cuba in recent years, and Cuba's main exports, sugar and nickel, have been on the decline. Tourism is not providing the lift it once did, and the overall economy is growing at about 1% per year.

University of Michigan professor Silvia Pedraza says the new sanctions against Cuba aren't going to break the current regime. The decades old U.S. embargo couldn't bring it down, she says, and all it's going to do is make it economically difficult for people.

SILVIA PEDRAZA: But they will find a way around it. It just isn't going to have the political consequences that they hope that it will have.

KAHN: Hard-liners in the Trump administration think now is the time to double down. President Trump recently threatened a, quote, "full and complete embargo" if Cuba didn't remove military personnel the administration insists Cuba has in Venezuela. And despite the immediate pain, though, not all Cubans are against the harsher measures. This man, who says he was afraid of retribution from the government for speaking out, says Trump is right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I agree with all that he's doing," he says. "Why are so many Cubans fleeing? It's because the government is taking all this money from tourists and not helping the people." He says he plans to leave for the Bahamas as soon as he can.

But others like Mario Miguel Sedeno (ph) aren't going anywhere. That's despite him saying he's struggling to support his wife and baby. Sedeno had a great business recently as the government allowed for more opening of the private sector. He sold pizzas in his Havana neighborhood.

MARIO MIGUEL SEDENO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The business was taking off. We were able to buy an oven, and we were doing really well," he says. He sold the pizzas out of his apartment in a large complex. He was clearing about $25 a day. An average state salary in Cuba is about $30 a month. But then the food shortages hit. He says he couldn't find flour.

SEDENO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Flour is the base of the pizza," he says. "You can't make one without it." He says he had enjoyed his brief period of success during the better relations with the U.S.

SEDENO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "But now that they've closed the doors and it's just within your possibilities to open them," he says it's so frustrating.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "FOUND YOU AND YOU'RE SAFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.