Hard-up Cubans face food crisis

The subsidised food received by Cubans has eroded in quantity and variety. A couple of decades ago, the ration was enough to subsist on, but now there is only the rump of a ration, and it certainly does not include rump steak.

Danae Suarez, writing in www.havanatimes.org/?p=44351  (May 27th 2011) lists the monthly ration as:

  • 3 pounds white sugar
  • 1 pound brown sugar
  • Pack of coffee
  • 10 ounces red beans
  • 5 pounds white rice
  • Half a pound of chicken
  • 12 eggs
  • Cup of cooking oil.

No milk, except for children under seven. No fruit. No green vegetables. No tubers. There is some bread, but state bakeries are handicapped by a shortage of flour:  http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/cuba/110208/bread-rations-flour-prices-food (February 9th 2011).

Ration products and prices in a distribution point in Trinidad, southern Cuba, November 2011. The prices are in national pesos.The typical conversion rate is 24 national pesos to one convertible peso or cuc. One cuc is about 65 pence.

By January 2012, I was reading about disappearing coffee: http://primaveradigital.org/primavera/sociedad/sociedad/3079-ay-mama-ines-idonde-compramos-cafe  (January 9th 2012). The cost of coffee, when it could be found in a hard-currency shop, was about 3.45 cuc for four ounces — more than a fifth of the monthly wage of many medical professionals, for example.

As for rump or any type of steak, forget it. Farmers must by law sell their cattle to the state, and are prohibited from selling beef privately or even eating it themselves. Beef finds its way into menus for tourists but not onto plates in Cuban homes.

The government intends to abandon the ration book system entirely. I have no idea how the elderly, in particular, will survive. Their pensions are so miniscule that they cannot afford to buy on the open market.

Farmers' markets like his one in Vedado, Havana, help Cubans augment the inadequate ration-book supply, but more and more foods are becoming unaffordable.

One would think that, in the circumstances of food scarcity, pedlars would be allowed into the cities to sell their own produce. They do come, but furtively, because this is something else against the law. Customers are supposed to buy fruit and vegetables from designated stalls, not from the backpacks of travelling salesmen. While there is fresh produce to be found on stalls, a lot of the food is past its best. At control points on the roads outside cities, vehicles, passengers and luggage are often searched as police hunt for unauthorised traders and their wares.

It’s  not only food that costs far more than most Cubans can afford. The prices in the convertible currency shops in Cienfuegos, between Trinidad and the Bay of Pigs, made our eyes water. A ‘Hanel’ computer without a monitor, and with memory limited to 160GB plus 512 MB of RAM, cost 445.90 cuc, a shade under £300. A ‘Poulan’ lawn mower was priced at 601.05 cuc, about £400. It did come with a Briggs & Stratton engine, but who in Cuba can afford one? A Panasonic air conditioner was ticketed at 1,057.65 cuc, around £705. I met Cuban professionals earning the equivalent of £12 to £15 a MONTH. Consumer goods like these are impossible for them to buy.

Cienfuegos is a tidy town, a centre of oil refining, an industry largely financed by Venezuela, and the presence of shops at all indicates that some people have money. The cathedral, on the main square, is being renovated. The place feels rather un-Cuban, and was in fact founded by a group of French families in 1819.

We were en route to the Bay of Pigs, scene of the invasion by Cuban exiles two years after the revolution, in April 1961. The seaside resort of Playa Giron, one of the landing points, has a museum dedicated to the invasion and its defeat. The photos are evocative, especially those showing the appalling living conditions pre-1959 in the surrounding swamplands.

More than 50 years later, Cuba is in the throes of another critical transition. Pensioners and workers on the low state salaries see their living standards sinking below subsistence. The minority of Cubans who have plenty of money struggle to find the foods and household goods they want.

Tourists in resorts like Varadero, segregated in their all-inclusive enclaves, sunbathe in blissful ignorance of Cubans’ daily battles to feed themselves and their families. The food crisis is hidden from them.

Weighing the rice ration in a bodega, a food distribution point. Rice is a staple in Cuba but some 400,000 tons, 60% of consumption, are imported. Vietnam is the principal supplier.


6 Comments on “Hard-up Cubans face food crisis”

  1. So stuff like this — http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/43404 — is that just not true? TT Llandeilo showed a film a few years ago — can’t remember the name of it — generally along the same lines. All about growers’ co-operatives and how Cuba was thriving. Or was it true then and things have changed drastically for the worse recently?

    • There is a large and growing gap between Cubans with access to hard currency — because they work in tourism and get tips, or because they receive money from relatives abroad — and those who do not. The outlook did seem a great deal brighter five/six years ago, but food (and tobacco) production was badly damaged by two severe hurricanes in 2008, and the important citrus industry has been devastated by the incurable disease Huanglongbing. It’s very tough for Cuban families now, and even worse for pensioners living on their own.

  2. chinapenguin says:

    this is the Cuba the tourists don’t see – unless they open their eyes to more than the architecture and scenery

    • Agreed, Ivar. I do think people were more optimistic when I was there in 2006. This time, especially in Havana, I sensed a sort of weary resignation. People are tired of trying to make ends meet.

  3. Nick B says:

    I feel so sad after reading this post, Patricia. When we were in Cuba in 2006, we could see problems but you are right, there was an optimism that things were changing.
    It wasn’t that long ago…

    • Hello Nick. I follow some Cuban bloggers on Twitter and have a slightly better idea of what is going on below the surface. It is really hard to understand why the authorities arrest the street sellers who come to Havana from outside, make it through the road checkpoints and bring food items like yoghurt. At the authorised markets, there is some fresh food, but also some that is way past its best.

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