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    Raúl Castro Goes to Vietnam to Ensure Rice on Cuban Plates / Yoani Sánchez

    Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sánchez

    "Moors and Christians" — a staple on Cuban tables. From:

    When someone shows up in the same place over and over again, in Cuba we

    say "he's like white rice." It's a very popular way to refer to someone

    whose presence is excessive, be it in a determined sphere, activity, or

    process. The metaphor obviously comes from the starring role this grain

    has in the daily diet of the island.

    Many compatriots will maintain they haven't eaten until they have a

    portion of this cereal on their plate. From the time we're tiny our

    grandmothers fill our bottles with a "a little rice water" if our

    mother's milk isn't enough, and as we grow up cooking "Moors and

    Christians" — beans and rice — becomes our culinary litmus tests. We are

    inseparable from constant, even boring rice. But there it is to get us

    out of a fix and fill our stomachs on days when other flavors are scarce.

    According to official statistics rice consumption in recent years has

    skyrocketed in Cuba, to about 155 pounds per person a year. Which means

    we need about 750,000 tons, of which only about 225,000 is produced in

    the country. A figure that was reached last January representing about

    16,000 tons more than was produced in the '80s, with the machinery and

    resources provided by the Soviet subsidy of that time. For that reason,

    the importation of this project becomes a vital, strategic, topic.

    Hence the importance of Raúl Castro's current visit to Vietnam, the main

    importer of rice to Cuba. This Asian country has become our granary,

    even supplying us small donations of the precious grain. We now find the

    General President beginning his four-day stay in country of this

    important trading partner. A nation which has shown surprising signs of

    recovery after a devastating war, and one that still calls itself

    socialist, although its economy responds to market forces. Some claim

    that the visit of the Cuban leader points to an on-the-ground

    investigation of Vietnamese reforms that might be applied in the largest

    of the Antilles. But the evidence points in another direction.

    The relaxations that Raul Castro has introduced in agriculture and

    self-employment have not generated the results that the country urgently

    needs. Compared to the expectations placed on him in February 2008, when

    he inherited power due to the illness of his brother, it's as if a

    bucket of cold water has been dumped on the stubborn reality. The

    effects of his changes on productivity don't even come close to what was

    expected by a population eager to emerge from a material crisis, as

    chronic as the lack of civil rights.

    Thus, the urgency of this visit to China and Vietnam, especially when in

    a few days the National Assembly will meet and will be anxious to have

    positive figures to show. Guaranteeing, at the very least, the rice

    supply for 2013, becomes an important tool of political control. If

    people know that their rice ration will not be affected, if they can be

    assured that this whitest of grains will be on their plates every day,

    it will offer a respite to the powers-that-be. Because the national

    history of the last two decades can almost be narrated through the ups

    and downs suffered by the supply and price of rice.

    In August 1994 when thousands of people took to the streets in the

    uprising known as the Maleconazo, a pound of this food had come to

    consume about a fourth of the average wage. What's more, if there is

    anything that has stopped Raúl's regime from doing away with rationing,

    it has been the fear generated in people by the very thought that they

    will not receive "their" six pounds of rice each month at subsidized prices.

    So through this trip to Vietnam, Raúl Castro is guaranteeing something

    extremely important and decisive for his next years in power. In a

    scenario where the situation in Venezuela has a "guarded prognosis," the

    General must try to at least maintain the imported food supply.

    If the health of Hugo Chavez is ultimately bankrupt, or were he to lose

    the upcoming October 7 election, the economic hit to Cuba would be

    catastrophic. The better part of the flow of oil to the island would

    most likely be cut. At the household level our lightbulbs would once

    again go dark for 8 to 10 hours a day, and in the absence of fuel we

    would take to the streets of our country on bikes. But the rice — just

    like the family birdseed — must continue to appear in our cages… excuse

    me, on our plates.

    7 July 2012

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