For Cubans, the struggle to supplement meagre rations is a consuming
The trials of food shopping in a land of inefficient agriculture and a
US embargo, where travellers stuff suitcases with powdered milk and eggs
Joe Lamar in Havana
Friday 24 April 2015 11.00 BST Last modified on Friday 24 April 2015
As a percussionist with one of Havana’s oldest and best known bands,
Orlando Ramos has toured the world, attended dozens of international
festivals and collaborated with a host of stars ranging from Billy Joel
to Silvio Rodríguez.
But while musicians from other countries might return from such trips
with fine wines, aged whiskies or perhaps even exotic drugs, Ramos’s
first priority when packing his bags to go home is something far more
Regular shortages of milk and other such basic goods underscore the many
problems facing Cuba’s centrally planned and US-embargoed economy.
This makes a shopping trip an onerous and often disappointing task –
even for those like Ramos who have a little spare cash.
“The hardest thing to find here is milk,” says the 75-year-old, who has
played for more than 40 years with Manguaré. “Whenever I travel, my
suitcases are full of powdered milk when I return.”
Millions of Cubans have faced similar – or worse – problems for decades,
but President Raúl Castro has moved in recent years to change the system
with a series of modest market reforms. The recent rapprochement with
the US – which was the island’s main trading partner before the cold war
– is also a source of hope for fuller shop shelves.
After the 1959 revolution, Cuba adopted a socialist food production and
distribution system that ensured a survival level of heavily subsidised
food for everyone. With extra rations for children and the elderly, it
helps to account for the country’s impressive levels of longevity and
low infant mortality.
The system continues today. Every Cuban family registers with a local
supply store, where they can use a libreta or ration book. This
typically provides about 10kg (22lb) of rice, 6kg of white sugar, 2kg of
brown sugar, 250 millilitres (1 cup) of cooking oil, five eggs and a
packet of coffee per person per month, along with 2kg of meat (usually
chicken) every 10 days, a bun every day and a bag of salt every three
months. Milk is provided for pregnant women and children under seven
years of age.
The basic libreta products are guaranteed, but they are not enough – so
people often have to travel to several places on several different days
to make up the shortfall. Where to find eggs is a common subject of
“The rations are enough for rice and sugar, but for other products, they
only last five or six days so you have to buy extra. You have to spend a
lot of time before you can get everything you need,” said one of the
more affluent families in the Náutico district of the city. “We hire a
messenger to do the shopping for us.”
For decades, many items have effectively been off-limits to those who
could only pay in pesos. At a farmers’ market near Miramar, the sign
outside a butcher’s stall offers only three cuts of pork. Asked for
beef, the butcher scoffs. “I’ve forgotten what it tastes like,” he
jokes. “I haven’t had it since I was a child.”
To buy scarcer items, Cubans used to need the currency used by tourists
– the CUC (Convertible Unit of Currency), which can be used at “dollar
stores” which offer a far wider variety of goods. Partly for this
reason, many skilled engineers and doctors found part-time jobs as taxi
drivers or hotel staff to add a CUC income to their meagre peso salaries.
This is starting to change. Items on the shelves at the Centro Comercial
Náutico – a fairly large dollar store in the suburbs of Havana – are
priced in both pesos and CUCs as a step towards the currency integration
promised by the government. But they remain expensive relative to
incomes. A kilo of milk powder costs almost a third of the monthly
salary of 500 pesos (about £14/$21). A steak dinner can cost a family
half this income.
Even at these prices, the shop has run out of butter, ketchup and short
pasta. The black market partially fills the vacuum. On roadsides further
out of town, unauthorised hawkers tout bags of sausages, crackers,
potatoes and other products that are scarce or only supposed to be
available through the state system.
With money, it is possible to eat well in Havana. One result of reform
has been an explosion of private restaurants – known as paladares –
which have given those who can afford it a choice of Italian, Spanish
and French cuisine, including lobster, steak, shrimps and even crocodile
But for most people, the basics are often hard to come by. The 1960 US
embargo is part of the problem as was the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union,
but Cuba’s inefficient farming system is also to blame. Although
agriculture is supposed to be at the forefront of reforms, the changes
have been patchy and the results so far unimpressive.
Less than an hour’s drive outside Havana are Cuba’s most productive
pastures and croplands, but the country still needs to import about 80%
of its food. To boost domestic production, government reforms have
created a wholesale market for agricultural goods, leased millions of
acres of idle state land to individual farmers and relaxed the old
requirement that 70% of farm produce must be sold to the state at
The declared aim of the reforms is to update the socialist model rather
than to replace it. Raúl Castro, who has promised to step aside in 2018,
has said his motto is “slowly but without pause”. But stuck in
transition, older farmers say the new incentives have not made up for
the loss of subsidies.
Dairy herders Julia Menéndez and her husband are struggling to make ends
meet for the first time in decades. An increase in fodder prices means
it now costs more to feed their nine cows than they get from the state
for their milk, which sells at a controlled price of 1 peso (less than
three pence, or five cents) a litre. The elderly couple are exhausted
cutting sugarcane every day as an alternative food for their cattle.
“I’ve been a farmer all my life and this is the hardest it has ever
been,” said Menéndez, whose name has been changed. “We want to sell up
Her son, who has a bigger cattle ranch, is doing better. But his herd
has suffered from the pressures of excess demand. A few months ago, he
woke to find one of his cows had been butchered in its shed. The
rustlers had used the cover of a rainstorm to sneak in, inject the
animal with a tranquilliser and then remove its legs, rump and other
It was a high-risk crime. Cuba’s criminal code has also been distorted
by economic controls. The maximum penalty for illegally slaughtering a
cow and selling the meat is 18 years in prison. “You can get a lighter
sentence for killing a person,” exclaims Noriel Menéndez, the nephew of
the farmers. And the stiff punishment is not just for steak thieves:
last month, a dozen people were sentenced to between five and 15 years
for conspiring to divert millions of eggs – another scarce commodity –
to the black market.
Closer ties with the US may ease such pressures. Currently, Cuba imports
about $2bn a year of food. It is costly because of the distances
involved. Most of the rice, for example, comes from Vietnam.
The US is only 90 miles away but it supplied just 15% of the island’s
agricultural imports last year. Although the US embargo theoretically
allows sales of food and medicine to the island, it also includes
restrictions on credit and shipping that make such trade prohibitively
complicated and expensive.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the powerful US farm lobby is one of the
biggest advocates of ending sanctions and was among the first to send a
delegation to Cuba after Castro and Barack Obama announced plans to
strengthen ties on 17 December.
Although food shortages are nothing new, they are among several factors
behind Havana’s recent engagement with Washington.
“Cuba’s agricultural sector is in dire straits. Raúl Castro is trying to
deal with the crisis but reforms put in place have had limited effect.
He is trying to pursue other options, including opening with the US,”
said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a US-based
“Perhaps ironically, the most intense efforts to address Cuba’s troubles
of shortages and high prices on goods are coming from US agricultural
business interests keen to lift the embargo. They see an attractive
untapped market in Cuba.”
Hopes for greater improvements are growing. But until now, neither
diplomatic initiatives nor economic reforms have made a noticeable
difference to the empty shelves and high prices of Havana’s shops.
So the coping mechanisms continue – extra jobs, remittances from
overseas, chickens in the back yard and luggage full of groceries.
“When I come back, I’ll bring milk, cheese and other stuff,” the
musician Ramos says ahead of his band’s latest two-month tour of the US.
“I’m thinking of buying a really big box for it all – big enough for a cow.”
Source: For Cubans, the struggle to supplement meagre rations is a
consuming obsession | World news | The Guardian –