Cuban Grocery Stores Stay Closed, Sparking Rumors

Upscale grocery stores that were scheduled to close two days last week for inventory remained shuttered Monday - sparking rumors of food shortages because of the country's dire economic situation.

More than a dozen stores in Cuba's capital that had been run by
the now-defunct firm Cubalse closed Thursday to tally merchandise
before they were transferred to the new managing company, TRD
Caribe. The change is part of a government effort to streamline
bureaucracy.

When they didn't reopen Saturday as scheduled, customers started
to get concerned. Cuba has seen its revenue from nickel and other
exports plummet, leaving it short on cash to pay bills overseas.

"We have been forced to re-negotiate debts, payments and other
commitments with foreign companies," President Raul Castro said in
a speech Saturday night.

The shuttered stores cater to foreigners and accept only
convertible pesos, a currency worth 24 times the regular peso,
which most Cubans are paid in. However, some islanders get
convertible pesos through remittances from relatives in the United
States, or from jobs in tourism or with foreign firms, and frequent
the upscale stores seeking toilet paper, ground beef, cooking oil
and other products unavailable in local groceries.

Customers knocked on the door of one closed store Monday to
demand an explanation.

"It's a lack of respect for the consumer," said Alina Marquez,
a 66-year-old retiree who came because, "I ran out of laundry
detergent and was also looking for a little chicken to eat."

TRD Caribe commercial director Maria Eloisa Cabrera said Monday
that the inventory took longer than expected, and added that she
doesn't yet know when the stores will reopen.

"We are taking organizational steps, and there were
incompatibility issues with our computer systems," Cabrera said.

She said when stores open again, "they are going to keep
selling everything Cubalse had. Nothing is going to change."

But the closings have raised fears of less merchandise and
higher prices.

In recent weeks, grocery vendors complained they had not
received shipments of everything from laundry detergent to dog food
since the government dissolved Cubalse in June and canceled its
contracts with international exporters.

Some stores that weren't controlled by Cubalse, such as Palco
Supermarket on the capital's outskirts, are open but have been
mobbed by crowds of customers who snapped up much of the available
inventory.


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