Dispatches from Cuba (Part 2): On Transactions and the Cuban Supply Chain

Cuba dzain/Adobe Stock

Ginny Smith presents live science shows to schools, science festivals and other groups, and is also an author, journalist, radio and film presenter. As well as science, travel is another love, and as a neuroscientist by training, she is interested in the psychology of negotiation, which she discussed in her previous article about her recent trip to Cuba. In Part 2, she looks at queuing psychology, and touches on Cuban supply chain issues, too!

It wasn’t just navigating taxis that was a challenge in Cuba — shopping was a fascinating experience, as well. While it is often said that the English form the best queues in the world, I would disagree — the Cuban system is far better. When entering somewhere like a bank, you may think there is no queue at all, just one person at each desk and a number of others hanging around, sitting on sofas, chatting. But head over to stand behind someone at one of the desks and you will quickly be made aware of your mistake! In Cuba, most queues aren’t neat lines; instead, when you enter, you simply ask, “Who is last,” then keep an eye on that person who waves at you. That way, when they go to the desk, you know you are next. Simple!

There are some exceptions to this rule, however. In one shop we spent a good 20 minutes waiting in line to pay for our purchases while the people in front of us chose individual sweets and had them counted out one by one. Eventually, we realized there was another checkout for people who didn’t want any of the “behind the counter” products and made our escape. The idea that biscuits and sweets needed to be kept behind the counter, presumably to prevent shoplifting, was also a little surprising, particularly as the bottles of rum and other alcohol in easy reach of the door didn’t seem to come with any security precautions.

In some cases, queues formed outside shops rather than in them. Many shops had security guards on the door, only letting in a certain number of people at a time, leading to large gaggles outside the front. And when you got in, the shops were wildly different to what you might expect in a European or American convenience store.

With the exception of drinks (alcoholic and non), which seemed to be abundant in number and diversity, the shelves were often barren, with just one brand of each item, and often very few items available. The idea of writing a list and then finding it in the shop just wouldn’t work here, apart from the absolute basics like sugar and oil. Rather, it must be a case of making do with whatever you managed to get at the shop that day — a very different way of life to the one I am used to.

It may seem like the Cubans are a laid-back bunch, making do with what they can find and adapting queues to make them more relaxed and enjoyable, but don’t confuse this with not caring about fairness. In fact, queue jumping in Cuba is one of the worst things you can do, and people will not be afraid to call you out on it.

I must admit, I thought the guidebook was exaggerating with its talk of the anger created by queue jumping, until I witnessed it for myself. One afternoon, as we were walking toward a group of locals waiting for taxis, we began to hear shouting and spotted one woman trying to physically drag another one out of the car she had started to get into. My partner’s translation skills told us that the first lady believed the other was behind her in the queue, and it took several men to restrain the two of them and prevent it from descending into a full-on fistfight.

While I am far from being an expert on Cuban economy after spending three weeks there, I certainly found it a fascinating experience. Talking to locals, it is clear there are some things they adore about their country — the education and healthcare systems always received a lot of praise, and of course the fabulous weather, scenery and rum don’t do any harm.

But many of them were happy to accept that Castro’s regime was far from perfect — the low pay and travel restrictions, and restrictions on the media leaving many wondering if there could be improvements to make. As the changes continue, it will be fascinating to see what the next few years bring for this amazing country and its wonderful people.

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