The Cuban Revolution: Fifty Years On and Still No End to Food Rationing
On January 1, 2009, Cuba celebrated 50 years of revolution. Not 50 years since the revolution, 50 years of revolution – ongoing, never ending. As one of the massive billboards in Cuba plastered with Fidel's bearded face says: 'After revolution, more revolution!'
There is a humourous saying in Cuba about the revolution that unfortunately hits the mark: “The three greatest successes of the revolution are health, education and sports. It's three greatest failures are breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
It's easy to find information on the three greatest successes of the revolution: the Cuban propaganda machine is extremely effective. It's a little more difficult to find out about the three greatest failures. The only way is to go to Cuba and stay there – not in an all-inclusive resort or in Havana, where food tends to be more plentiful, but traveling independently throughout the country, to the smaller villages and rural areas. You have to look around, talk with ordinary people, and see what you can find for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
During our three extended visits to Cuba, all since 2003, and the last as recent as 2008, we did just that. And we came to the sad conclusion that many of Cuba's eleven million people are just barely getting by on miserable diets of rice and beans. They can't afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables – which in any case are often simply not available. There's no fresh milk, almost no cheese or yogurt, very few eggs, and only scanty supplies of meat and fish.
Although Cubans' diets may satisfy their nutritional needs (and there has been some question about that), they are hardly varied or balanced. And they are certainly not tasty or even vaguely appetizing.
Why this is so, in a country with such a favourable climate and good arable land, is no mystery. Food is simply not being grown in sufficient quantities to feed Cuba's population of eleven million people.
In 1998, Kost reported that around 60% of Cuba's eleven million hectares could be classed as 'agricultural.' Of that, around 70% was actually being tilled, and only 20% of the tilled land was also irrigated. Almost all food crops require irrigation.
From what we could see in 2008, the percentage of tilled land must now be much lower. Many many fields lay fallow, and have done for years. Of the land that is being actively cultivated, most is dedicated to growing sugar cane, tobacco and citrus fruits for export.
Furthermore, what food is grown in Cuba is gobbled up by those who can afford to buy it: tourists at all-inclusive resorts, Cuban government officials and high-ranking military, and those Cubans fortunate enough to either have relatives from abroad sending them money or have jobs in the tourist industry that give them access to 'convertibles,' the alternate, and only really valuable, currency in Cuba.
Most Cubans work for the state. (Private enterprise is still actively discouraged or prohibited in Cuba.) State employees are paid only in pesos – anywhere from $8 to a maximum of $35 a month – wages that for most Cubans do not cover their most basic living expenses. They are dependent on the government's ration system for the bulk of their food – primarily rice and beans – which they must buy, albeit at subsidized prices. They cannot afford to buy 'extras' like fresh vegetables, fruit, milk, meat and fish.
Cuba as a country also cannot afford to import fresh foods for its people. A few canned and packaged goods come from Russia, Spain and Portugal. Tomatoes, hot dogs, cooking oil and condiments, a few fruits and juices, a few soups, dried noodles, crackers and cookies. These are sold not in the ration shops, but in 'dollar stores,' where purchases must be made in 'convertibles,' not pesos. This puts them out of reach of many, if not most, Cubans.
Even the food aid sent by countries such as the USA – frozen chicken, apples, cheese – are sold in dollar stores. And the Cuban government has consistently refused food aid offered by the United Nations, stating that its people do not need this aid. Let them eat rice and beans!
State Controlled Agriculture: Poor Production and Dismal Distribution
In our visits to Cuba we travelled, mostly by painfully slow bus, throughout almost the entire country. But in all our traipsing about we saw very little significant agricultural activity. Fields once used to grow vegetables lie fallow, covered in weeds, and often garbage.
Old tractors sit rusting where they died, in the middle of a field, by the side of the road. Any that are still running are being used for more important purposes – the transport of people and goods – there's also a chronic shortage of buses, trucks and cars in Cuba.
Cuba once produced quite a lot of food – and sugar cane. Enough to feed its people, enough to export. Even after the revolution, and with the US embargo, agricultural production remained high: the Soviet Union bought Cuban sugar at higher than world market prices and heavily subsidized the Cuban economy. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy collapsed. And so did its agricultural production.
While some other Soviet satellites responded to the collapse of the Soviet Union by opening their economies to free enterprise and encouraging greater agricultural production, the Cuban government chose to continue its central control of all agricultural production and marketing. All farm land is owned by the state. Farmers have contracts with the state which specify the amount of produce they must provide to the state, at rates set by the state.
Farmers we talked to in Cuba uniformly stated that the government did not pay them enough for the crops they grew. The Cuban government does provide farmers with subsidized seed, fertilizer (not all organic as the Cuban government might have the world believe), and irrigation equipment. But even with this help, farmers said they were unable to make ends meet. Many had difficulty meeting their contracts.
Cuba's newly 'elected' President Raul Castro has recently announced policy changes that the Cuban government says will allow farmers to sell 'excess' produce at local markets. This option has theoretically been available – to some farmers – for some time. Farmers growing fruits and vegetables can take them to farmers' markets in various cities and towns.
There are very few farmers markets anywhere in the country, and they are typically very small, with little in the way of produce. There just isn't that much 'excess.' For example in all of Havana, a city of some three and a half million people, we found only three small markets where farmers were selling an extremely limited number of fruits and vegetables – mostly oranges, bananas, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuces and cabbages.
But many farmers have been prohibited from selling their 'excess' produce – particularly farmers raising beef or dairy cattle. Indeed it is a criminal offense to sell beef in Cuba. Anyone caught doing so may be imprisoned for anything from three months to five years. The penalties for selling milk are somewhat less severe – anything from a fine to the loss of the cow.
How Raul Castro's new policies will work to increase the amount and variety of fresh foods available to ordinary Cubans remains to be seen. Considerable investment in the agricultural sector and initiative on the part of the people will be required. Neither of these have been much in evidence for many years.
Most of the farms we saw in Cuba were growing either sugar cane or tobacco. (Around 70% of all agricultural land is planted in either sugar cane or tobacco.) There were a few pineapple groves, a few orange orchards, and a handful of small farms growing vegetables – dry beans, cabbage, corn.
The few farmers we saw out working in the fields were almost all bare-handed (and many bare-footed), toiling under the hot sun. They were using machetes, or broken hoes and shovels, to hack and chop away at the weeds and unwanted stalks of cane or corn – terribly tiring and hopelessly inefficient. They looked as they probably felt – exhausted and defeated. Farm labour is hard labour, made harder by the knowledge that no matter how much you reap, you will not reap the rewards you deserve.
While it was clear to us that large-scale agriculture in Cuba was pathetically anemic, and completely unable to meet the needs of the Cuban people, we had to wonder why, given the paucity of fruits and vegetables, individual Cubans did not plant their own gardens.
As we travel through Central America and Asia we see little gardens everywhere – a patch of ground beside a house, the narrow strip of dirt between the concrete dividers in the middle of a road, a vacant lot – growing lettuce, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, onions, potatoes, and herbs. Why not in Cuba?
We asked several Cubans, especially those who had gardens with flowers, why they didn't grow vegetables. We were given all sorts of answers, from 'because the soil is no good for vegetables' to 'because other people would just steal them.' One woman may have put her finger on the real reason when she said, simply: “it's not our culture.” Perhaps Cubans consider tending vegetable gardens – working the soil – as an activity more appropriate for peasants, not for modern well-educated Cubans.
A young Cuban doctor offered another explanation: “After so many years without eating vegetables, it's no longer part of our culture. We eat rice and manioc, and pork when we can get it. That's what we've become accustomed to, and now, that's what we like.”
The Cuban government has made much of its 'community garden' projects, and on our second visit we visited a couple of them, and saw several others. A variety of vegetables were being grown in raised beds, and the gardens appeared to be well-tended. Most of them had modern drip irrigation systems.
But on our third trip to Cuba we were disappointed to find that several of the community gardens we had visited on our second trip had been abandoned. Although the raised beds were still intact, and the irrigation hoses still in place, the gardens' gates were wired or padlocked shut. Locals told us that the government wasn't willing to pay the workers to tend the gardens any more: its interest had dried up.
It was a similar story with the vaunted 'roof-top gardens' in Havana. Although several of these had been started up with great fanfare, many were literally withering away. In some cases the lack of running water in a building meant that someone had to carry buckets of water up several flights of stairs (no elevators and/or no electricity either) to the garden. The enthusiasm for doing this waned after the initial hoopla: political motivation was apparently not enough.
So what do most Cubans eat? Take a look into the ration shops – there's at least one in every neighbourhood or community – and you'll see.
The Cuban Ration System: Rice and Beans
The Cuban ration system was introduced as a temporary measure in 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its devastating effect on the Cuban economy and Cuban agricultural production.
Contrary to popular belief, the Cuban ration system does not provide Cubans with 'free' food. Rather it sets limits on what Cubans are permitted to buy at special ration shops – and there are almost no other stores where ordinary Cubans can buy food. Rations are limited to a paltry amount of a meagre number of pathetic food-stuffs.
At the ration shops we visited we saw the small bags of low-grade rice, shriveled black beans, coffee beans mixed with a liberal amount of dried peas (or was it dried peas with a few coffee beans?). Dour-faced employees poured out a piddling amount of cooking oil into containers held by equally unsmiling Cuban 'shoppers.' They measured out a little sugar, and a relatively generous amount of salt.
Each Cuban is now entitled to buy five eggs per month (up from three the year before!) at the 'regular price,' and a further four at a higher price. And they can purchase a blob of disgustingly grey 'meat product' (inedible as far as we were concerned), and sometimes some little fish that we might use as bait.
The ration booklet allows parents with children under seven years of age to buy a small bag of powdered milk – enough for perhaps one glass a day. For children between seven and twelve, parents may purchase a packet of soy yogurt a day (around 300 ml).
School children are also given special biscuits, which the government claims are fortified with vitamins and minerals. They are given these at school, and we saw lots of them lying on the streets or in gutters, where even the dogs, hungry though they were, wouldn't touch them.
We tried one. It was tooth-breakingly hard, and tasted like cardboard mixed with dirt. We suspect these biscuits are similar to the 'hard tack' given to soldiers during the First and Second World Wars. Those may have been fortified. Whether the Cuban ones are fortified or not is anyone's guess. If they are, there's a lot of vitamins and minerals being wasted.
The ration booklet also allows Cubans to go to their local bakery to buy one small white bun a day – each. For that they stand in long lines, waiting and hoping that there will still be buns there by the time they reach the head of the line. Sometimes supplies run out. Interestingly, we were able to go to several bakeries and buy buns. The bakers quickly pocketed our coins: selling to foreigners is 'prohibited.'
Although it has been reported that Cubans ought to be able to purchase potatoes and bananas through the ration system, at no time did we see either of these things for sale in a ration shop – or any other fresh vegetable or fruit. These must be procured in some other way – at a market, if one exists, on the black market, or at a 'dollar store' – options which are only available to Cubans who have some 'discretionary' income. And there are precious few of those.
As a non-food related aside, one of the scarcest items in the ration system is toilet paper. Although it's theoretically available, we never saw any in a ration shop. Most Cubans use newspaper – sheets of the only newspaper available in Cuba, the 'Granma,' with its endless coverage of the revolution and diatribes by Fidel Castro. With quintessential Cuban humour, they took particular delight in using pages with Fidel's photo for their dirtiest business! Good for them!
Almost No Protein
But perhaps the biggest problem, in terms of the Cuban diet, is its lack of protein. Meat is incredibly scarce. There are a few dairy and cattle ranches, but we saw almost no fresh milk or cheese, except what was imported from Argentina, France or Denmark, and available only at dollar stores for prices well out of reach of most Cubans. All of the beef that is grown in Cuba goes to the all-inclusive resorts and, according to every Cuban we talked to, government officials and the military.
Even more appalling is this story, repeated several times, in different communities all over Cuba. The all-inclusive hotels, when they serve the various cuts of beef to foreign tourists, keep the bones aside. Every week or two a government truck comes to collect the bones. These are taken to nearby villages and sold – SOLD – to eager and waiting Cubans. The townsfolk get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning of the 'usual day the truck comes' to wait for the truck. Sometimes it comes, and sometimes it doesn't: no notice is given.
The ration system does enable Cubans to buy fresh pork, when it's available, from local butchers. To satisfy their insatiable desire for meat, many Cuban families try to raise a pig or two a year to provide them with pork, which they adore. They eat it all – ears, feet, tail and blood. But they especially relish the fat. 'Chicharones' – deep-fried pieces of pig fat – are the most popular snack in Cuba.
Although the ration system also has a provision for chicken, all of the Cubans we spoke to said that they had not been able to buy chicken for years. We did see several poultry farms in Cuba, many of which appeared to be dedicated to egg production. The only chicken we saw for sale was frozen, in dollar stores, and came from the USA, Spain and France. At pretty much western prices, it was prohibitively expensive for most Cubans.
Fish is almost as scarce in Cuba as meat. Cuba does have a fishing fleet, which according to government ads on the tv catches lots of fish and shellfish, including lobsters. But again the vast majority of these fish go to all-inclusive hotels and government and military officials. Few Cubans can afford to buy or eat fish. It is illegal for them to buy or eat any kind of shell-fish or lobster. These are exclusively reserved for tourists, and for markets in Japan and Europe.
Some Cubans who live in coastal villages may try their luck fishing from the shore. A few have leaky little boats that they take out when they can. Most of these boats do not have engines, and certainly not engines powerful enough to go very far: the Cuban government does not want to give its people a means of escape – too many of them would take it, in a heartbeat. (Cubans are not allowed to leave the country.)
Most fishermen fish just for their own families, or to trade their catch for something else they need. A few may sell it on the infamous 'black market.' All of the fish that we were served by 'ordinary Cubans' (ie. not at our bed and breakfasts or in restaurants) were small and bony. Some of them were so small we would use them only as bait.
A Mother's Plight
It was clear to us from what we saw that many Cuban people are not getting anything close to a proper or balanced diet. We were told that many Cubans suffer from vitamin deficiencies, and in particular from a deficiency of vitamin C. We can't imagine that most Cubans are getting sufficient protein – especially, of course, the children.
One of our friends has an eight year old son. 'Pablito' is thin and almost always tired. He spends a lot of time lolling in his mother's lap, watching other children play. 'Pablito' is anemic – confirmed by blood test. He receives no medications for his condition. And he doesn't like beans, his main source of protein. His mother can't get enough eggs or milk to satisfy his protein – or iron – requirements; meat is out of the question.
When we visited, we brought a couple of jars of peanut butter – without sugar – for Pablito. He had never had peanut butter. He loved it. So much so that one night he got up, went to the kitchen, got a spoon, and managed to make his way half way through the jar of peanut butter before his father stopped him from finishing it off. At least right then.
Pretty much every time we saw him over the next day or two he had that jar in his hands and was dipping a spoon, or a knife, or a finger, into it and licking the peanut butter off. We wished we'd brought a case. We also brought him multivitamins with iron – not as tasty as peanut butter, but hopefully something that will begin to address his chronic anemia.
Amelia, a 30-something year-old mother of two young children, whose husband had a well-paying job, expressed to us what was one of the saddest comments on Cuban food shortages: “What is so hard for me is waking up every morning knowing we have no food and wondering what I will give to my children to eat. I wake up worried almost every morning. It is very hard.”
This is Castro's Cuba. This is where the Cuban people are after 50 years of revolution, 50 years of hardship and sacrifice in the interests of the greater good – as defined by a leader who seemed to us to be more concerned with holding onto power and following his own personal vision of communism – 'Fidelism' – than with the well-being of his people.
Fidel! Your people are hungry! They cannot live on revolutionary rations and slogans any longer. It's time for three real meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner.