Food is a serious matter
HAVANA – Gonzalo always complains: “When Mayte sends me in search of food, it’s as if she told me to bring back a dinosaur.” He then pockets his wallet, grabs some plastic bags, and he leaves, discouraged. The scene is repetitive: a thousand times one goes out with a shopping list, and comes back with almost nothing.
The tendency of Cubans to talk at length about food is a known fact. But this is different. It is the perennial limited condition of the food: Limited in quantity, quality and variety.
Off the top of my head, several reasons can be given: an obsolete industry, inefficient agriculture, low import capacity … In addition to four million extra mouths, at the rate of one per tourist. The cafeterias, restaurants and rental houses enlarge the demand of the little offered.
The issue is in the priorities of the government and of the people. In other words: food security is part of national security. As a Cuban minister once said, food is a political issue.
“Looking for what to eat on a daily basis is a problem, everything is expensive,” says Luz María, a retired lady. “You leave your house with 100 pesos, and return with one, and still you have nothing. In my case, if I did not have my children, can I live with 200 pesos a month? And even when you have the money, sometimes that does not solve the problem.
“Maybe today you have enough to buy chicken, but you go to the store and there out of it. Then the day they do have chicken, you do not have the money. The variety is difficult, you have to invent. Look, I took the ham, which I do not like, and I made croquettes, to ‘vary …”
Luz María’s diagnosis coincides with the conclusions of a 2011 study (1) which showed that families dependent on the state spent between 59 percent and 74 percent of their income on food.
According to statistics from the World Food Program (WFP), Cuba imports between 70 percent and 80 percent of the food it needs, paying high prices and transportation costs. A significant part of these products are allocated to social protection programs.
And yet, it is not enough. The monthly ration book only covers 40 percent of the recommended dietary consumption, compared to 50 percent that it represented at the beginning of 2000. Complementary programs that contributed another 20 percent of the food intake have been reduced or eliminated.
That means – according to the WFP’s description – that Cuban households find 60 percent of their food needs through purchases in unsubsidized markets, with high prices and irregular supplies.
Overheard at the food stand
If there is a line of people, it can only mean one thing: there is food. And by food I mean actual products. Because for most people, canned or apricot preserves do not count.
Lady talking: “This is the first meat I’ve seen in a week.”
Man answers: “Ten days.”
Another lady: “What did you get? Meatballs, hamburgers … other junk food that only fattens you…”
A young woman: “The problem is that there ain’t much more … Eggs are all they have.”
“People buy everything, more than they need, to have as reserve,” says the clerk. “Because it is not like before when you might say: ‘On Wednesday they will bring such and such’; no, no: it’s only when they have it.
“Now you see chicken breast, but then you do not know if you will find it again in three months. And if you have to buy two, you buy both, and the next person is left without any. That is the hoarding.”
A 2 kilogram package of chicken breast costs 10.80 in CUC (convertible pesos), almost half the monthly average salary of most Cubans, although this does not represent, in most cases, the total income of each family nucleus.
Just look at the labels: most of the products are foreign. The rationality of these external purchases is also questionable. The stores in CUC have sold, for example, packages of pork rinds and bread crumbs. In a country of pork and cheap bread, such imports border on the absurd.
Contained demand or supply side economy are terms that summarize a situation where one consumes what is available, and not what he/she prefers. Just the opposite of food sovereignty, the decision-making capacity of states and people with regard to their food.
“No, I’m not interested in any more chicken. I’d rather eat an egg,” grumbled the girl in front of the refrigerator while crossing her arms.
Professor Betsy Anaya Cruz states: “You can not continue to assume that the domestic market is composed of a mass of consumers willing to buy any food product that is offered in the face of recurrent shortages.”
On March 26, 1962, newspapers announced the resolution that would implement the ration card. What seemed a temporary solution ended up becoming a structural factor.
“During those first years, because of the measures taken because of the Revolution, there was a redistribution of income and many people improved their quality of life,” says Pablo Fernández Domínguez, an economist specializing in agricultural issues.
By increasing solvent demand, the agroindustrial plant, including imports, did not have the capacity for a liberated supply. “That is where the great challenge begins — which has not yet been solved — of the Cuban agricultural development project: how to address that need for food, permanently unsatisfied,” said Fernández Domínguez.
There is a resounding example: at the end of 2017 we had a new record of pork production, over 190,000 tons. And still, prices remained intact. “That is determined by the market,” Fernández Domínguez says. “That is, even when the yield increases, as the demand is higher, the price does not decrease. If it went down, there would be no answer.”
Researchers Betsy Anaya and Anicia García explain that although agricultural production grew an average of 2.2 percent annually between 2006 and 2015, price indexes have increased between 38 and 49 percent in 10 years (2006 – 2016).
This resistance to the downside is due to production costs, segmented markets without wholesale supply for the non-state sector, speculation, the prevailing price level, and excessive intermediation, together with other factors.
Since farmers sell most of the crops to the State in order to satisfy the social protection networks, the amount of food that reaches the agricultural markets is minimal, even in the producing regions, which causes prices to continue high, add Anaya and Garcia.
In the gap between income and prices resides the black market. That not so invisible other hand that is almost impossible to control, simply because, like the forklifts and the old cars, helps to alleviate the shortages.
When one passes by the market on 42nd Street and 19th in Playa (a Havana neighborhood), there is always someone who yells out: “Lobster, shrimp … Lobster, shrimp.” Weeks after Hurricane Irma, the same person, or any other seller, yells: “Lobster, shrimp … potatoes, eggs.” The clandestine menu becomes a map of the scarcity.
No rainwater, no corn
It is clear that we are talking about something much more complex than the impulses of the stomach. “As long as we have less national food production, we are more economically vulnerable; and of course, this also derives aspects of national security from a political point of view,” says professor and researcher Armando Nova.
The kiosk saleswoman explains it simply: “I say: give the Cuban food, then you have a happy Cuban. When there is no food people get stressed.”
During the last 10 years money spent on food imports has fluctuated between 1.5 billion and 2 billion dollars. However, the amount of food has decreased in several areas due to the increase in prices. That is, we spend the same and buy less.
On the other hand, the Island’s circumstance does not compare with the bleak landscape described by the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (except for climatic variability and extreme weather events). In fact, Cuba’s actions and coverage of vulnerable groups in providing food security have been recognized more than once by international organizations.
Even so, there is no denying the level of discomfort generated by the food instability and the exaggerated prices. “It is not politically acceptable to face consumers — mostly workers — with an imperfect situation that therefore becomes a predator of their income, without competent institutions that look out for consumer rights against abuses of the market and other forms of more sophisticated regulation,” say researchers Anicia García and Ricardo González.
Of course the blockade is a problem, and so are the hurricanes and droughts. Those are unsolvable problems. But there are problems that do have remedies, such as the limited autonomy of the farmers; the disarticulation of productive chains, which results in partial or total losses of harvests (food thrown away!); the bureaucratic and centralized design, to the detriment of the local economy and the agro-ecology.