Cuba’s food woes worsen
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/03/2010 (4570 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two years ago last month, Raul Castro formally took over as Cuba’s president from his convalescent elder brother, Fidel. The switch raised hopes of reforms, especially of the communist country’s long dysfunctional agriculture. But change has been glacial.
Official figures show that in the first two months of this year, deliveries to the capital’s food markets were a third less than forecast. Nobody starves, but hard-currency supermarkets go for weeks without basics such as milk and bread.
What has gone wrong? Cuba’s state-owned farms are massively inefficient and rarely provide more than 20 per cent of the country’s food needs. Three hurricanes in 2008 made matters worse.
Raul Castro has acknowledged the problem and introduced some changes. Idle state land has been leased to private farmers. The government has raised the guaranteed prices it pays for produce. Farmers can now legally buy their own basic equipment such as shovels and boots without having to wait for government handouts.
But farmers say the reforms have been too piecemeal to be effective. In meetings across the country they have called for more. They want to buy their own fertilizers and pesticides, and to control distribution.
The government still supplies almost everything and does it badly. Much of last year’s bumper crop of tomatoes rotted because government trucks failed to collect them on time.
Significantly, the state-owned media have reported the farmers’ complaints in some detail. They have also announced that 100 of the most inefficient government farms will be closed.
Officials are launching a pilot plan to set up market gardens close to cities. And reports from eastern Cuba suggest that food shortages there are less acute than in the capital.
But Raul continues to move very cautiously. So Cuba will buy much of its food from foreign suppliers. Foreign exchange, never abundant — partly because of the American economic embargo — is again in short supply. The world recession cut Cuba’s earnings from nickel and tourism last year. Imports fell last year by almost 40 per cent.
A foreign businessman in Havana says there have been signs of a further squeeze this year. Transfers abroad by foreign businesses have been blocked, or delayed, for months.
The Spanish owner of Vima, a food importer that supplied many hotels and state-run restaurants, made the mistake of publicly criticizing delays in getting paid. His contracts were promptly revoked.
Foreign companies have been warned the government may stop selling them staples, such as meat and rice, for their staff canteens.
“They told us bluntly that their priority is feeding the general population, that the situation is very serious, and that we should make our own arrangements,” says a manager of one joint venture.