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    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.

    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
    far away.

    “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 –