Cuba’s Food Problem With or Without the Pademic

By Jorge Milanes

Volunteers in fields on the outskirts of the capital.

HAVANA TIMES – We are currently experiencing shortages of rice and meat. Most families run out of the products that they get with the ration’s booklet before the middle of the month. As a result, agro-markets are the only option for millions of Cubans to make up for the rest of their diet. At least, that’s how it used to be, when lockdown was announced.

The pandemic’s impact on Cuba’s food industry has been disastrous and finding something useful at the agro-market is like winning the lottery. Nevertheless, it’s useless to sit with your arms crossed or to try and cheat your stomach when it rumbles to let you know that it has reached its limit. I run out to look for vegetables, root vegetables, fruit, to see what there is.

Food has become a serious problem for Cubans, which has taken firm root for a while now. Products have gotten even more expensive, even more so after Coronavirus. If you add to this the fact that hygienic measures to stop the pandemic’s propagation, only make matters worse.

The challenge for making up my need for food, goes beyond just waking up at 6 AM. The real challenge lies in investing many hours into a line when you don’t even know if you are going to be able to buy the products, or not, because they can run out before it’s your turn.

Furthermore, there’s the risk of finding yourself in the middle of a ruckus or a simple discussion because people are very stressed, and they don’t respect social distancing guidelines.

One might think about many things when standing in line. Most of them are just little flashes, impulses to do something you would not ever do. Sometimes it’s the memories of a better time that overwhelm you. One of the most frequent is when my father used to take me to farm.

It was the 1970s, and there was a campaign endorsed by the revolutionary government that entailed mobilizing lots of people to rural areas in the capital’s outskirts, so as to plant high-quality fruit trees.

Mango, guava, different kinds of citrus fruit and also smaller crops such as coffee and sweet potato. As a result of where these plantations are located, the project was baptized “El Cordon de la Habana”.

For a while, Agro-markets had root vegetables, fruit and vegetables in supply, for quite a modest price. In order to achieve all of this, a lot of effort is needed, mainly human, so that we gave our free time on the weekend, or during the week, to go volunteer and collect the harvest. It was the best moment for Cuba’s post-revolutionary farming, as far as I remember. It endured until the ‘80s.

Over the years, this project was forgotten, and Havana locals have become dependent on a system of intermediaries between farmers in neighboring towns and agro-markets.

In the meantime, these farmers – who are grouped into cooperatives most of the time -, don’t always have the support they need from the State for logistical support to make possible greater productivity, and the effect of resolutions forcing them to sell some of their harvests to the State.

The result? Demotivation under these circumstances and smaller harvests and price increases. Farmers need less than a good harvest to reach their economic expectations.

The State’s economic conditions doesn’t allow for a fleet of enough trucks for efficient transport of harvests. There are private intermediaries, that sometimes form part of a chain that hike up the original price three or four times of products when they leave the countryside.

In the fields, weeds dominate and there are vast expanses of land that aren’t being cultivated. I wonder, who had the “brilliant” idea of getting rid of all of those fruit trees that fed a large part of Havana’s population? Nothing is said about this, not even about why they had to be cut down.

The reality is that the critical food situation we are experiencing today, is the result of absurd decisions that were taken over the years by agricultural institutions. Add to this the current pandemic and its impact on the global economy, which will also affect the country’s chances of importing products and bringing in foreign currency.

Could we implement another plan like the 1970s one to solve the capital’s food problem?