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FOOD-CUBA: Anxious About What to Eat

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Mar 2 2007 (IPS) - One of the main worries of the average Cuban family is food, which costs about two-thirds of their income, according to several studies.

“From the time I get up and go out to work every morning, I think about what I’m going to cook for supper at night,” said a 40-year-old teacher, who is married, has two children, and looks after her elderly father.

The problems are different now than when she was first married in the 1990s, at the time of the economic recession when shortages were generalised. As critics of the U.S. blockade of the island, which has lasted four decades, have noted, it continues to have a deeply negative impact on Cuba’s economy.

“Now there are many more goods in the shops and the agromercado (fruit and vegetable market), but we just can’t afford them,” said the woman, who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity.

Her family’s monthly income, including her father’s pension, is about 1,000 Cuban pesos, equivalent to 40 convertible pesos (CUC). Both are legal tender in the country, but CUC are required for some purchases. CUC can be bought in state exchange offices, at 25 pesos or 80 cents of a dollar.

She acknowledged that she is not among the worst off: she lives in her own house, doesn’t pay for schooling for her younger daughter (her elder son is already working), nor for medical care for her father because “the state takes care of that.” But she said: “What we get out of the ration book isn’t enough, not like it used to be.”

Family ration books are given out annually, and rationing is used by the Cuban government to ensure that every citizen has access to a basket of basic goods at subsidised prices, covering “not less than half of nutritional requirements,” according to official estimates.

The system should guarantee equitable distribution of rice, beans, sugar, coffee, oil, eggs, salt, pasta, bread and biscuits, fish, chicken, other meats like sausages, and milk and yoghurt for children.

Monthly expenditure per person on subsidised, rationed goods varies from 26 to 38 pesos, according to a study by the University of Havana Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy (CEEC), to which IPS was given access.

Rationed goods supplied families’ basic needs adequately until the 1980s, but now it only covers their needs for 10 or 12 days a month, according to both researchers and consumers.

For the rest of their food, consumers have to go to the agromercados, where a variety of high quality food is available, but prices are set by supply and demand.

For beef, oil or butter, CUC are required. “Sometimes we buy a 250-gramme packet of butter in the network of shops that only accept CUC, where it costs over 30 pesos,” the teacher said.

“Workers living on a salary have a hard time of it, because their wages can buy a lot of price-controlled goods, but they can’t afford other necessary items that are sold at market prices,” Central Bank president Francisco Soberón admitted in late 2005.

A survey of households carried out by the National Statistics Office in 2001 found that over 66.3 percent of the expenditure of residents in Havana went to food and drink, and only 33.7 percent to other consumption.

“Clearly the situation has hardly changed at all in recent years, showing that the structure of consumer expenditure is inelastic,” the CEEC study indicated. In comparison, households in Costa Rica and Spain spend only 33 percent and 26 percent of their income, respectively, on food.

Although rationed food does not cover all the population’s nutritional needs, there was a slight improvement between 2001 and 2005 due to measures adopted “to improve Cubans’ nutrition both quantitatively and qualitatively,” the research study said.

The report mentioned increased quotas for rice production in the eastern provinces, additional tonnage of rice and beans harvested, more frequent distribution of meat products, wider and more regular delivery of soy yoghurt, and increased distribution of vegetable oil.

Altogether these supplies contributed to “an appreciable improvement in nutrient intake” between 2000 and 2005, quantified as 31 percent more energy, 34 percent more protein and 46 percent more fats, the study concluded.

Statistics aside, the teacher takes plenty of cash with her every time she goes shopping. “In the agromercado closest to home, pork costs 20 to 25 pesos a pound, a head of garlic is three or four pesos, a lettuce costs three to five pesos, and onions are 4.50 to 10 pesos a pound. This week I found malanga (a tuber, much sought after in Cuba) at two pesos,” she said.

An economist who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS that free market prices were up by 4.3 percent in 2006 with respect to 2005, and 2005 prices were 7.1 percent higher than in 2004.

It was his opinion that prices will not come down until food production increases. However, production fell for the second year running in 2006, with 10 percent less root crops and vegetables being grown. In 2005 their production fell by 20 percent, the shortfall being blamed on a persistent drought.

The economist said livestock production, especially cattle, had also failed to recover the higher levels of production and efficiency indicators that prevailed in the 1980s.

“In 2006 there was good rainfall all over the country and there were no hurricanes, which proves that the continued decline in agricultural production can’t all be attributed to bad weather conditions,” he said.

The issue was the centre of debate at the December sessions of the National Assembly of People’s Power (the unicameral parliament). One of the main causes was judged to be the state’s indebtedness to farmers for their produce.

“How can we have food if we don’t pay our largest producers, who provide 65 percent of what we eat?” asked Raúl Castro, Cuba’s acting president, who is also a deputy.

The discussion will be taken up again in the Assembly’s June sessions, when agricultural authorities must deliver a “brief, concrete report, with no excuses” about the problem.

Economic experts say Cuba must increase its agricultural and industrial food production, not only to lower prices, but also to reduce the sector’s dependence on imports, which have risen by 35 percent in the last two years.

According to official figures, the country spent 948 million dollars on the rationed basket of goods for its 11.2 million people in 2006.

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