The odyssey of finding food in Cuba
The odyssey of finding food in Cuba
High food prices and meager supplies in stores and markets continues to
be a fundamental problem for Cubans on an island where one restaurant
dish can cost a month’s salary. Agricultural output is not improving,
and the government is threatening to pull back on economic reforms.
NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
Armed with the equivalent of 24 U.S. dollars and a huge dose of
patience, I focused on the task of “resolving” the issue of food in
Cuba. Just what can state employees buy with that amount of money —
which amounts to their average monthly salary?
Forty minutes after standing in a long line at a hard currency store
without air conditioning, here is what I managed to buy in late March:
four cups of yogurt, a package of hot dogs, some ground beef, a wedge of
cheese, a bottle of vegetable oil, a package of chicken quarters, 1.1
pounds of peas, spaghetti, a carton of mango juice and a bag of
cornflakes (made in the U.S.).
The store’s name is Maravillas (Wonders). But the purchase did not
comprise a basic food basket because the store did not have many other
products. With a large number of shelves empty or filled with the same
product, the shortages were evident.
Finding beef was the most difficult task. An employee at the Harris
Brothers shop in Old Havana said she had not sold beef for months and
recommended going to the Los Fornos butcher shop on Neptuno Street. The
price for 2.2 pounds of top round steak? Just over 8.5 Cuban Convertible
Pesos — known as CUCs — or about 205 pesos, nearly half the island’s
median monthly salary, which now stands at 460 pesos.
Hard currency stores do not sell fruit or vegetables, except in rare
cases like the exclusive Palco shop. To find those items, Cubans have to
go to agricultural markets. Some are state-owned, with slightly lower
prices, longer lines and poorer products. In the other markets, known as
“liberated,” prices are set by supply and demand.
In one of the “liberated” markets in the Cerro neighborhood, pork was
selling for 40 pesos per pound — about $2. A pound of onions sold for 20
pesos, and the tuber malanga went for eight pesos per pound.
A comparison of food prices around Havana serves as a benchmark for the
socioeconomic status of people, defined by their purchasing power.
Roberto Geilbert, a state employee, usually goes to a cafeteria on
Neptuno Street to buy a soda for one peso. He says that’s all he can afford.
Other “peso” cafeterias might have clients who can afford to pay as much
as 12 pesos for a pizza. But prices go through the roof at the
privately-owned restaurants, known as paladares, that attract foreign
tourists and diplomats.
The sirloin steak that President Barack Obama savored at the San
Cristobal paladar when he visited Havana in March costs 15 CUCs. For 20
CUCs, he could have ordered a grilled lobster.
The most expensive dish costs as much as the monthly salary of a state
An agriculture that does not produce
In 2008, Cuban ruler Raúl Castro approved the long-term lease of fallow
state lands to private farmers, hoping to increase agricultural
production. Although the government claims to have handed over 4.52
million acres to 214,000 people, eight years later food shortages
continue to be the No. 1 headache of many Cubans.
This year’s potato harvest, despite some improvement, has been so
trouble-plagued that the arrival of potatoes in Havana markets competed
with the Rolling Stones concert on March 25 as the day’s top news.
During the recently concluded VII Congress of the Cuban Communist Party
(PCC), the head of the commission in charge of implementing Castro’s
economic reforms, Marino Murillo, admitted the island has imported
nearly $2 billion in agricultural products annually for several years —
even though it could grow at least half the items.
The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization has reported that
Cuba’s agricultural sector employs nearly one million workers — in an
island of 11 million people — yet accounts for barely 4 percent of its
Gross Domestic Product. Figures released by the Cuban government also
show that agricultural production fell by 2.5 percent in 2015 compared
to the previous year.
Cubans who lease state lands and other farmers were hoping the PCC
Congress would approve new measures to stimulate production. Since the
land leases were approved eight years ago, the government has been
trying to ease some of the bureaucratic delays and absurd prohibitions.
But it took four years just for the government to allow the new farmers
to build homes on the land they were working.
Cuban economist Omar Everleny Pérez wrote last year that more changes
were required “for real results to be achieved in agriculture because
the current changes are not enough.” Among the reforms he proposed were
a new system for managing agriculture, creating wholesale markets for
agricultural inputs and eliminating bottlenecks in the transportation
network. He also mentioned “the urgent need to partner with foreign
But Pérez seems to have been going against the current. Just days after
the PCC Congress, he was fired from the University of Havana’s Center
for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
Partial reforms do not work
The Congress, which brought together nearly 1,000 party members, heard
only complaints about the “intermediaries” in agriculture — especially
wholesalers — and a suggestion that the government could reimpose
central controls on the distribution chain through the notoriously
inefficient ACOPIO, the state procurement and distribution agency. An
“experiment” with a decentralized distribution system in the Havana
region was described as a failure.
During the Communists’ gathering, Castro blasted “deviations” such as
“the reappearance of speculation and hoarding” of agricultural products
that increase prices. Although he acknowledged production was low, he
warned that Cubans “could not simply cross their arms in the face of the
unscrupulous manipulation of prices by intermediaries who want to profit
more and more.”
The rhetoric brought back memories of his brother Fidel, who in the
early 1980s and again in the early 1990s allowed agricultural markets
where prices were set by supply and demand — only to shut them down
later, accusing farmers and intermediaries of illicit enrichment.
The Ministry of Finances and Prices recently announced the reinstatement
of price controls on some agricultural products — vegetables, fruit and
grains — but only when sold in state-owned markets.
Carmelo Mesa Lago, a leading expert on the Cuban economy, agreed that
the prices of agricultural products increase significantly after they
leave the farm, and that intermediaries account for part of the
increases because they have to cover costs such as transportation. But
decisions to impose price controls are “difficult to keep in place. They
are not economically sustainable.”
Mesa Lago added that the low productivity and absence of strong
competition among the intermediaries also drive food prices up.
Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist at the Universidad Javeriana in Colombia,
argued that the intermediaries are not the main problem.
The experiment to dismantle ACOPIO in the Havana region “was not
completed because authorities established a wholesale market for the
food items, but none for the required inputs, and paid no attention to
the other factors that limit the productive capacity of the agricultural
sector,” Vidal said.
At the same time, the increase in tourists who can pay more for their
food has put added pressure on an agricultural industry that already
cannot meet demand.
“Agriculture continues to be a market with limitations on its ability to
increase supplies,” Vidal said. “With the increases in demand from
tourists, the growing number of paladares and nominal increases in
salaries, the market reacts by increasing prices. The intermediaries are
not to blame.”
Apparently trying to make up for the absence of good news out of the PCC
Congress, soon after the gathering ended, the Ministry of Finance and
Prices announced a 20 percent cut in prices in hard currency stores as
an expression “of the political commitment of the party and government
leadership to do everything possible to improve the situation of the
people, despite the existing limitations.”
A liter of vegetable oil now costs between 1.95 and 2.10 CUCs, compared
to 2.60 CUCs before the price reductions.
Although the price reductions were well received on the island, and CUCs
can now buy a little bit more, a solution to Cuba’s food problem remains
“The worst part is that the designers of the reforms have not been able
to continue the changes in agriculture, and have yielded to the power of
those who are resisting the changes and want to return to the
inefficient and counterproductive state ACOPIO system,” said Vidal.
The economist predicted more food shortages in shops and markets,
problems that might be compounded by the ongoing political upheavals in
Venezuela that could force Caracas to trim its subsidies to Cuba.
“This will be another difficult year for Cubans,” he said, adding that
the evidence from the agricultural industry “show that partial reforms
do not work.”
Source: The odyssey of finding food in Cuba | In Cuba Today –