Yesterday I gave some ibuprofen capsules to a woman working at the art gallery next to our casa particular in Remedios. Her knees were swollen with arthritis, and she was telling us that she can’t get anything for them. I had read before I arrived in Cuba that the pharmacies were empty, but that didn’t prepare me for the sight of the completely bare shelves. The pharmacists still go to work each day, but only to tell people that they don’t have what they are looking for.
Cuba has their own pharmaceutical industry, but right now they have limited access to the materials needed to manufacture drugs. Well-trained doctors fought COVID with their own vaccine and nothing else.
It’s very scary for those who have serious medical conditions, but even for those who don’t, small solvable problems can quickly become big ones. Most trips I get something that sends me to a pharmacy for this or that, but in Cuba that just is not an option. You must bring everything that you think you might need, and extras for the Cubans.
Pharmacies are not the only empty places in Cuba. Whether you have some money, or none, there is very little to buy. We have wandered into several of the expensive American dollar stores, where all purchases must be made with a credit card, and even they have very few things in stock. One large one in Santa Clara had three aisles of beans and an energy drink. The same energy drink lined an entire aisle only to reappear “featured” at the end of the aisle. A department store in a beautiful colonial building in Sancti Spiritus was completely empty on the second floor.
Back in Remedios, the central square is lined with beautifully renovated hotels. The plants in the pots are tended, the tables are arranged and the patios overlooking the square are beautifully lit. On closer examination we realized that two of them are shuttered and empty. Our host explained to us that they were renovated for the arrival of American tourists during Obama’s presidency, but have been closed since Trump and COVID shut down all dreams of large groups of American visitors. What remains are the silent, empty beauties waiting for the tide to turn.