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Cuba’s Christmas not so merry this year as economic crisis grinds on

People pass by a Christmas decoration in downtown Havana, Cuba, December 12, 2023. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
People pass by a Christmas decoration in downtown Havana, Cuba, December 12, 2023. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban craft vendor Melani Ramos says she is feeling pretty down ahead of the holidays this year, as shelves that are bare and friends and family lost to a record-breaking exodus off the island mean there is little Christmas cheer to go around.

Few homes, she told Reuters, would enjoy the aroma of roast pork, black beans and cassava, traditional Cuban favourites for the holidays.

“You see everyone enjoying Christmas in the movies. It just makes me sad,” she said. “It’s a very quiet day here for a day that should mean unity, hope and family.”

Cuba’s economy – saddled by US sanctions, a tourism shortfall and a lingering pandemic hangover – is nearing collapse, with fuel, food and medicine shortages rampant, public transportation scarce and tensions running high.

The crisis has spurred a record-breaking migration of nearly half a million people who have arrived at the US border alone in the past two years, according to US government statistics.

The food situation on the communist-run island this holiday season is acute for many. Inflation has driven up prices for even basic items like eggs, while salaries for state workers remain stagnant.

Production of pork, rice and beans – all staples on the traditional holiday dinner table – has plunged 80 per cent in 2023, according to the Minister of Agriculture, Ydael Perez, in statements on television.

The Christmas holiday has had a checkered past in Cuba even in the best of times.

Former leader Fidel Castro initially described his revolution as atheist and erased the date from the Cuban calendar in 1959.

He later softened his stance towards the Catholic Church and reinstated Christmas as a public holiday in 1997, a goodwill gesture ahead of a trip to the island by the late Pope John Paul II.

For some Cubans, keeping the Christmas spirit alive is important despite the difficulties.

“For me this little tree is very valuable… I have never stopped displaying it,” said 59-year old Havana resident Raquel Contreras, as she decorated a small artificial Christmas tree with ornaments, some homemade and others that looked antique.

She said she had put her tree up in her home “even in times when the celebration was frowned upon.”

Yaqueline Areces del Rio, 38, is unemployed and her younger brother recently migrated, she says, but she and her family make the effort to decorate a tree anyway.

“We always try to put it up … because it is something that has united our family,” she said.

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