Cuba Faces Elusive Horn of Plenty
Cuba Faces Elusive Horn of Plenty
November 2, 2011
By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, Nov 2 (IPS) — Cubans are still waiting for changes and
measures implemented in agriculture to translate into cheaper food.
Meanwhile, the government is adjusting its budget, because more than the
1.6 billion dollars initially allocated for food spending will likely be
In an interview with IPS, Blanca Rosa Pampín, an expert on agricultural
issues and a business advisor to the National Association of Cuban
Economists (ANEC), pointed out that the country could not escape the
impact of higher prices on the international market, both for food and
for supplies to produce it.
According to her figures, a ton of basic food, such as rice, soy or
beans, went up by 47 percent from 2010 to 2011. During that same period,
seed prices rose by 67 percent, fertilizers by 90 percent, and
pesticides by 50 percent.
"That means producing food now costs much more than it did a few years
ago," she said.
The situation is even more complicated because of "the U.S. blockade
(embargo), which drives up spending on freight because we have to buy
products in distant markets or because we have to use more expensive
payment methods, such as bills of exchange," Pampín said. Washington's
restrictions on doing business with Cuba impact the entire economy, she
Despite these considerations, many people in Cuba feel impatient because
the promised "structural and conceptual changes," applied in good
measure by President Raul Castro to boost agricultural production, have
not yet translated into better prices for consumers.
The average Cuban family spends an average of 60 to 80 percent of their
income on food.
"I think the farmers' markets are well supplied. What we need now is
more money for buying these products," Mercedes López, a primary school
teacher who is married with two children, told IPS.
Pampín said prices would go down when production increases enough to
make markets overflow with meat and fresh produce.
In the farmers' markets created in the 1990s, prices – in Cuban pesos –
are set by supply and demand, and tend to be high.
Other essential goods such as clothing, footwear, furniture, home
appliances, personal hygiene and household products, as well as food
products long since absent from the ration book system, are sold in the
government's hard currency shops, to which about 60 percent of the
population has access in one way or another.
In addition, each Cuban family has a ration book, a system used by the
government to ensure that everyone has access to a basket of basic goods
at extremely low prices, including rice, beans, sugar, coffee, oil,
eggs, salt, pasta and bread. However, for years it has failed to meet
"Even so, for that ration book that we criticize so much and that at
least guarantees part of what we need, we pay only 12 percent; the rest
of the price of the products is subsidized by the state," Pantín said.
But the economist agrees with those who say the pace of change has been
slow in agriculture, including the distribution of idle state land based
on a 2008 law.
A report released on Oct. 29 says more than 1.2 million hectares have
been distributed so far to individuals and cooperatives, under that law.
The head of the government-run National Centre for Land Control, Pedro
Olivera, told the official daily newspaper Granma that 79.2 percent of
the total land distributed is now being cultivated, and is
"fundamentally" in the hands of 147,000 individuals, one-third of them
young people between the ages of 18 and 35.
Experts say that this influx of youth, in addition to women – who now
comprise more than 13,000 of the total of 147,000, according to Olivera
– poses the additional challenge of providing training and greater
possibilities for access to credit, among other means of support,
because most of these new farmers have never been involved in
Pampín admitted that the process of land distribution has involved "lots
of red tape" from the start, creating unnecessary delays. "There also
was a lack of supplies for cultivating the land, and then stores were
especially created for their sale, but at very high prices, which were
recently lowered," she added.
Rubén Torres, a farmer from the central city of Santa Clara, confirmed
to IPS that supplies in the stores were insufficient and that there is
little variety. He said there are shortages of irrigation equipment,
fertilizers and fungicides. "The problem is that agriculture does not
wait for tomorrow," he said.
Possible modifications to the 2008 land distribution law are being
studied. One possible change is lengthening the period of usufruct
rights, which is 10 years, although it can be extended. The question of
housing on these lands is also being considered, a factor that
economists consider decisive for ensuring that the new farmers stay in
Economists and agronomists are looking at different options for farmers
to sell their products, as an alternative to the state food distribution
monopoly. "Personally, I think cooperatives could be created, similar to
the ones already operating in the areas of production and services,"
While it is considered the most important step, the distribution of idle
land to people who want to work it is not the only measure taken in the
last three years to revitalize agriculture with a view to replacing
imports to feed the population of 11.2 million.
The government has also made sure that outstanding payments to farmers
were paid off, that prices for milk were raised, and that new forms of
distribution were created. At the same time, it was decided to
decentralize decision-making, giving greater powers to municipal
Nevertheless, the Cuban president himself, who has said that food
production is a question of national security, admitted in August to
parliament that "failures to meet goals persist" in agriculture and
other sectors "due to planning errors and the lack of a comprehensive
approach in leadership."
The first half of this year ended with seven percent growth in
agriculture and four percent growth in livestock raising, compared to
the same period last year. However, production dropped in basic products
like milk and beef. The production of poultry and other products in high
demand also fell short.
In an article on the issue to which IPS had access, economist Armando
Nova predicted that by the end of the year growth in agriculture could
reach between two and five percent, while food imports, in the face of
higher world prices and insufficient domestic production, would range
between 1.7 and 1.75 billion dollars.