“Getting by” in Cuba’s Food Crisis + Covid-19

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

The bean harvest.

HAVANA TIMES – Today, my family will eat some tamales made from corn that I have grown on my plot of land. This product is extremely expensive right now, even out here in the countryside, because rice is missing from store shelves.

As rice is only sold via the rations booklet and it isn’t enough, (rice hasn’t been sold freely at stores for more than three months now), root vegetables and corn have been a substitute for this precious grain, although supplies are irregular. Things have completely changed.

Having a plot of fertile land, like the hectare my father has, which he lets me cultivate, is a privilege in these times of the pandemic and “temporary” crisis. I have also been able to eat “arroz congri” (rice and beans), which is the way I most like it, after more than a month of eating white rice without beans against my will. I’m making this arroz congri with beans I have harvested myself.

Luckily, my mother had kept a handful of black-eyed beans (also known as caupi) in the fridge, for a long time. I planted them with not many expectations of anything growing, because when she told me, I had already dug furrows to plant corn and I didn’t have time to germinate them. But luckily they all sprouted!

Corn stalks

The thing is, right now you can go to every market in all of the province of Holguin (and I’m sure it’s the same situation everywhere else in the country), and you won’t find a pound of beans for any price. They’ve vanished!

Even though caupi beans aren’t the best to make soups, if you boil them until they are soft enough and prepare them like a semi-dry salad, they are delicious. You can get by at least and won’t go hungry.

As rice isn’t being sold outside of the rations -which cover a third of a citizen’s monthly intake-, root vegetables are being consumed more instead. However, current production of root vegetables was planned according to a normal supply of rice. As a result, it doesn’t meet demand and they are also hard to find and expensive. To make up for this demand, people are planting them more and more, but the agricultural cycle is quite long.

I had been checking a small area of sweet potatoes I have and they are already “ready”, in spite of more experienced farmers telling me, when I planted them, that they “wouldn’t, grow because sweet potatoes planted in May go to waste.” But I insisted, not because I doubted the accumulated experience of these guajiros, but because I know that there are cycles in Nature and these influence crops, but I also know that they aren’t an exact science.

Rains came late in the spring, so I guessed that there wouldn’t be much rain in May, like there usually is, which is I’m guessing why at that time of a normal year sweet potato plants grow so many vines and few sweet potatoes.

That was exactly what happened, there wasn’t so much rain and they are growing normally and I think I’ll have a productive harvest. In early August, they will be ready for us to start eating and it will brighten up our table even more.

My Okra plants are almost magical, still giving us their fruit. Although they are producing less than they did in the beginning, it’s enough for us to eat and share. French beans too. Here in the backyard, we can have a banana bunch from time to time, the sweet variety (fruit), or plantains. They always help to lighten the mental burden that putting food on the table represents.

Okra and corn growing together.

And there are many tables: in my home, at my parents’, my two sisters’ and the table of my eldest daughter with her mother. Not to mention other neighbors, friends and relatives who I share my bounty with, from time to time.

Right now, the trend among farmers seems to be to plant things for our own consumption, varied crops, not a single crop and in quantity, which was the commercial way up until very recently. The problem is that you can evade government controls more like this, which are geared towards cooperatives, seizing everything you produce, for a price that is unprofitable a lot of the time. A kind of “temporary war communism”, which will make farming a lot more unfeasible given high inflation which had doubled the cost of living, or more.

You don’t see large numbers of pigs being reared either. Pens are normally empty or half-empty. I have the conditions to rear up to 10 animals in my iron-fenced pens (to protect them from thieves), and I only have two small sucklings. I don’t have land to plant crops for anything else, and you can’t find “fodder” on the street either. Everything has changed and most small farm businesses have been destroyed, either by the police or out of fear of police actions.

My situation isn’t widespread, I still don’t have many things like every other Cuban, but at least I have this relief. Most people live in urban areas and don’t have anywhere to plant crops. Unless they do what Gerardo Hernandez (former hero/spy turned CDR leader) recommends, urging us to grow food in pots while there are a million hectares of idle land in the country, and at least another two million not being used to their full potential.

In the meantime, we will continue to survive here as a family, sharing the fruits of the earth with our neighbors, relatives and loved ones. Having something guaranteed and within your reach to eat during these turbulent times is a great fortune. We will continue to plant.

Osmel Ramirez

I'm from Mayari, a little village in Holguín. I was born on the same day that the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. A good omen, since I identify myself as a pacifist. I am a biologist but I am passionate about politics, history and political philosophy. Writing about these topics, I got to journalism, precisely here on Havana Times. I consider myself a democratic socialist and my main motivation is to try to be useful to the positive change that Cuba needs.

27 thoughts on ““Getting by” in Cuba’s Food Crisis + Covid-19

  • As Osmel correctly explains, he is fortunate in having land upon which he can grow food. The vast majority of Cubans have no such good fortune. The shortage of food in Cuba is a reality – one which parents face daily in endeavoring to feed their children.

    No doubt the Castro sycophants will explain that that is OK, because things are even worse elsewhere! Where are Dan, Curt and Nick?

    It is interesting that Gerardo Hernandez as a long time MININT employee, has become a CDR administrator under his boss Alejandro Castro Espin. The “former hero/spy” was an abject failure (he got caught), along with his four amigos, so one hopes that he is equally inefficient in his current repressive role.

    Reply
  • Osmel, you paint a very practical picture of the absolute ability of ordinary, down to earth Cuban farmers’ potential to feed their families, neighbors and the wider community given a market driven opportunity.

    In another recent article “Can Science Bring Economic Development to Cuba?” (July 09/’20) the article goes into extreme complex, unrealistic avenues to try and produce basic food for the semi-starved Cuban nation.

    Here you are with a just a plot of land demonstrating agricultural ambition, motivation, pride, self-sufficiency and yet the so called Cuban “scientists” are applying incomprehensible jargon plus further study to a food need that needs drastic overhaul not in the future but immediately.

    You state that presently in your area – Holguin – and probably replicated through out the country farmers only plant things for their own consumption. Why not produce in greater quantity, sell the surplus, and reinvest in your plot of land? That would be an example of an entrepreneur farmer abiding to market forces and profiting from their labor.

    You provide the answer. The government is in total control (state cooperatives – Marxist ideology) and you must render to the government everything beyond family consumption. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar to use a king and serf analogy.

    The government insists the exact opposite of what drives people like you to try and produce enough food to feed your family, relatives, neighbors, community and perhaps earn a small profit for your efforts. No!! The government will not allow this capitalist ideology to exist and will hand over the food shortage predicament to government scientists who will “study” the matter awhile longer, meanwhile Cubans continue to suffer food shortages.

    To add insult to injury you write: “Everything has changed and most small farm businesses have been destroyed, either by the police or out of fear of police actions.” Cuban farmers will not listen to government controlled agricultural scientists. Cuban farmers already know what it takes to be food self sufficient in their farming communities and the government should be listening to them.

    Yes, you are fortunate in having some agricultural space to grow food for your immediate family and relatives yet many Cubans in cities do not have that fortunate opportunity yet the country has countless acres of prime agricultural land sitting fallow waiting for scientists to decide how it will be managed for the greater good of the communist state.

    Osmel, keep on planting and enjoy your tamales.

    Reply
  • Canadians will Now understand the Honest Reality of Cuban Life & The Powers that are Held over a Nations Basic Food Control, Why would the Tourist Return To Cuba Knowing so many are Hungry. Honest Writing Thank you.

    Reply
    • Robert,

      No, most Canadians do not understand the suffering the majority of Cubans must endure in their day to day lives especially those Canadian tourists who stay in all inclusive hotels. Their vision and vacation are clouded by the immense availability of food, drinks, entertainment, recreation facilities, all out of the reach for the majority of the island’s residents.

      Those tourists with some empathy for the trials and tribulations the ordinary Cuban family faces stay in “casas particular”, that is, spending their vacation living in the homes of ordinary Cubans.

      This approach has many benefits for the tourist and the Cuban family. First and foremost the tourist visit provides much needed revenue for the host family. This revenue is used to buy basic necessities which we Canadians take for granted, like purchasing a pair of running shoes for the children. Many Canadians also bring down much needed basics such as toothpaste, school supplies, grooming/sanitary needs which are usually unavailable to most residents.

      The host family will not indoctrinate the guest visitor with Cuban politics but will engage in verbal discourse discussing the present harsh economic predicament facing the majority of Cubans. The visitor begins to understand what is going on in the nation by simply extrapolating what s/he sees on the streets.

      From the tourists perspective they see first hand the conditions the majority of Cubans must live by simply walking down the streets from the host family and witnessing decrepit, dilapidated, run down, roads and houses which would not be tolerated because of health and safety violations here in Canada.

      So, why would tourists return to Cuba when so many are hungry?

      To hopefully provide Cubans with much needed, in a nut shell, help. Because, unlike the Canadian government who will shower Canadians with all kinds of financial help in times of need (the pandemic comes to mind) which is a good thing, the Cuban government is so economically depressed it does not have the wherewithal to help.

      Reply
  • To add to Stephen’s excellent comments and sound advice. For the best selection of ‘casa particulars’ across the whole of Cuba, go to:

    cubaparticular.com

    There you will find accurate descriptions of each casa along with photographs. Prices are given. It is possible through the system to reserve accommodation with confirmation provided by e-mail, but you don’t pay until you arrive at the casa, when you pay the owner directly.

    The service is managed from Havana, by Raul Fuentes and there is no charge.

    AirBnb are cashing in on the system, but to make profit charge higher prices.

    Reply
  • I agree with you Mr. McDuff. also, as you travel in Cuba your previous host will recommend your next casa & phone ahead. At this moment I am assisting a family through this terrible time. They are very thankful & humble about this. It is only a little, but a lot at this time.

    Reply
  • Well done Noel! What is only a little for some of us, is a lot for a Cuban family. I wonder how many of the Castro sycophants who contribute to these pages act similarly? Yes, the Cubans are as you say, humble. But they are able to accept a friendly hand in order to support their families. I have a golden rule, I tell them that they can only say “gracias” once, that we just happen to be fortunate.

    Reply
  • How can anyone abroad such as in Canada come to help Cuban friends we have made and families we have stayed with? How can we help in this great time of need which has no insured travel ability to go to Cuba? I fell so helpless!

    Reply
    • Jap,

      I ditto Carlyle’s remarks. If you stayed with a Cuban family no doubt they have a bank account. If not, not to worry.

      Go to your local Canadian bank and ask them how to send money specifically to a Cuban family. They will give you the particulars. As Carlyle stated you will need to supply the bank with names, addresses, town/city, as much detail as you can regarding the recipient’s location.

      Even better if the Cubans you stayed with have Internet access and can communicate with you directly. Explain to them that you would like to send financial help and they too will go to their local bank to inquire about the exchange procedures.

      Always remember the Canadian currency you send will be worth much less in Cuba, so for example, if you send $100 Canadian the recipient Cuban family will not receive that amount but because of international exchange rates more like, roughly speaking as I do not know the exact current exchange rate, $70.00 CUC. There are also transaction fees deducted from the amount sent.

      Nevertheless, whatever the amount sent goes a long way in Cuba when the average monthly wage is about $40.00 CUC.

      With people like you, Jap, the Canadian – Cuba bond is strengthen and your Cuban host family no matter how much help you provide will refer to you as “familia en Canada”.

      Reply
  • Jap. If they have a bank account and you can obtain the name, address and number of that bank account, it is possible to transfer money from your own account. At the moment, I know no other way.

    Reply
  • Owners of Casas Particulares are, not surprisingly, at or near the top of the economic food chain. To begin with, these owners were fortunate to have homes that could accommodate foreign guests. That’s to say that they had extra bedrooms, bathrooms and probably air conditioning. Most Cubans live in multigenerational homes with no extra space and likely to have somebody sleeping on the sofa. Secondly, these owners typically earn more CUC in a week, than the majority of Cuban earn in two months. Finally, because of the constant contact with tourists, arrendadores have far more access to foreign-made goods, either through gifts or at least great prices. I mention this about Casa Particular owners just to say that if your goal is to “help” Cubans, these Cubans are the ones who need the help the least.

    Reply
  • Correct Moses – as usual! The casa particulars indicate that given opportunity, capitalism also works in Cuba. Imagine the potential if other sectors of the Cuban economy were also given that opportunity!

    Reply
  • Mr MacD,
    I presume that when you mention the name Nick you are referring to myself.
    I hope it is not going to disappoint you when I say (for the umpteenth time) that Cuba needs to implement an effective agricultural policy. I would also broadly concur with all comments relating to Casas Particulares. The good old capitalist trickledown from the profits made by these establishments is crucial.
    It may be of further disappointment to you Mr MacD, to mention that I am categorically not a ‘Castro Sycophant’. The fact that you resort to such absurd name-calling toward anyone who doesn’t agree with all your self reverential points does nothing for the credibility of your position.
    Your nostalgic Cold War ramblings belong largely to a bygone century.
    I hope Cuba finds pragmatic and workable solutions to its various problems. As I have said various times previously, I am one of life’s optimists and hope to see improvements in Cuba for the betterment of those who are dear to me and for all others in La Perla del Caribe.

    Reply
  • I thought Nick that you would favour learning from the experiences of history rather than stumbling into the future without thought or consideration of the past.

    Hope springs eternal – so I guess that sixty-one years of hope by Cubans, is but the blink of an eye. The apparent difficulty is limited life-span.

    Fortunately, with the implosion of the USSR, the Cold War ended. But, did that mean that similar conditions could not recur? Should we not learn from the past, or is optimism sufficient?

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  • Mr MacD, I would wholeheartedly agree that we should learn lessons from the past. What I find though, is that certain aspects of history are repeatedly rolled out by your good self.
    You have a habit of quoting aspects of history which can be dredged up by way of hopefully supporting your political viewpoints.
    But regarding other aspects of history your head is buried deeply in the sand.
    For example you are seemingly in denial regarding the disastrous results of your beloved conservatism intertwining itself with the far-right the best part of a century ago. And you seem to be in blissful denial that this same intertwining is with us again.
    If only the lessons had been learnt huh?
    You mention the end of the Cold War. Moscow became the ‘murder capital of the world’ in the nineties. Former Yugoslavia collapsed into a bloody and murderous civil war. It was the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre last week. These events may have been a sideshow for some folks far away from the blood spilling. They may have been regarded as what is now euphemistically known as ‘collateral damage’’. But for those who’s loved ones were killed, such terrible events were far worse than any aspect of the preceding Cold War.
    I would certainly hope that Cuba will find a pragmatic course which takes note of these chilling events, which shows that lessons have indeed been learnt and averts anything remotely similar occurring on the island.

    In the meantime it would be beneficial for all concerned that Cuba continues to show an excellent survival rate in the face of the Covid threat (given the terrible loss of life in other parts of The Americas).

    I would also hope that a preferable agricultural policy with the objective of Cuban food self sufficiency can be forthcoming. As I said on another thread, anyone who manages to cut through all the BS and deliver such an outcome would be regarded as a Cuban hero.

    Cold War style rhetoric is one of the big drags in Cuba. But surely, trotting out opposing Cold War style rhetoric merely serves to compound this drag.

    Reply
  • Firstly Nick, you may care to become more informed by reading the comments following the article: Where’s the Made in Cuba.

    Secondly, to respond to your comments deprecating my historical observations. History demonstrates that even the British Labour (Socialist) Party had it’s finest hour. At the annual conference in 1940, they decided to support Winston Churchill to become Prime Minister by a vote of 2,450,000 to 170,000 a 93% vote in favour of a Conservative. No doubt you would like that to also be forgotten.

    When a vote was demanded in the House of Commons for such an appointment, the result was 380 – 0 in favour. I say that just to demonstrate that despite the depth of your sand in your pit, that my memories of history can even be to the credit of socialists.

    I have to admit that I had to struggle to remember such creditable action by the British Labour Party, although, in recent times they sensibly dumped the Anti-semitic Marxist, Corbyn and under Sir Keir Starmer may even revert to common decency.

    Reply
  • Thank you so much for your feedback which I appreciate. You are most kind. I will inquire and see how.

    Reply
  • Mr MacD,
    I’m no supporter of any particular political party. I’m certainly no spokesperson for any British political party.
    But it does occur that your latest historical reference goes some way toward illustrating that which I have described.
    It is widely known that the British Labour Party supported Churchill’s leadership significantly more than many of his own Conservative back benchers.
    Why?
    Because a chunk of those Conservatives back benchers were Fascist sympathisers.
    They were in favour of doing endless deals with Hitler. They were in favour of the intertwining of your beloved Conservatism and the Far Right.

    I appreciate you pointing out this historical episode Mr MacD. It sheds further light on the point I was making.

    It also occurs that being critical of Israel’s appalling government is not, in itself, anti Semitic. Any more than being critical of Cuba’s government is a sign of Anglo Saxon racism against those of Hispanic or African heritage.

    Reply
  • So I guess Nick that you are claiming that you know what you are against (Conservatism) but do not support any alternative.

    I won’t bother commenting upon your usual endeavors to link conservatism with fascism. But note, I am always careful to differentiate between democratic socialism, and “socialism” as used as a cover term for communism.

    In the event, it was it not communist Stalin who did “endless deals” with Hitler?

    I didn’t quite catch the purpose of introducing Israel into the discussion, unless it was a oblique comment about the Castro communist regime doing a deal with Israel to market what remains of the original substantial citrus crop.

    Reply
  • Nick you might want to rethink your whole life – Fascism came from Socialism! Both Hitler and Mussolinni where abowed socialists – it may shock you that NAZI is for National Socialist. This crap of associating Fascism with the Right is a crock of Leftist crap – would any Right wing leader drive control of the economy or impose more government? NO. That has been time and again the purview of Socialists today and is exactly what Hitler and Mussolinni did! Even a parrot can repeat words it hears over and over.

    Reply
  • Mr MacD,
    I wouldn’t really describe myself as ‘against’ Conservatism. I am aware that Conservatism is a broad Church. There are many denominations therein. Many Conservatives would not dream of collaborating with the Far Right.
    Many others do so and have done so historically.
    It is categorically a fact the Churchill initially received more support from the opposition benches than he did from his own. The opposition were already sick and tired of Conservative kow-towing to Hitler and Mussolini throughout the Spanish Civil War. It is not me who endeavours to link Conservatives with the Far Right. It is and has been the endeavour of certain Conservatives to align themselves with the Far Right. I am merely referring to the current and historical facts of the matter.
    My reference to Israel was obviously in response to your suggestion that J Corbyn is an anti Semite. I’m no fan of his, but my understanding is that you are repeating an accusation from the British right wing media which is seemingly based on nothing more than his criticism of Israeli Government policies. Criticising policies which include the theft of other people’s land clearly does not make someone an anti Semite. The ‘Marxist’ label is again, a right wing media tactic. It tends to be applied to non conservatives by the media machine whose donations swell Conservative Party coffers.
    Propaganda is the name of the game Mr MacD. And not just in Cuba.

    Reply
    • My comments regarding Corbyn Nick, were subsequent to the criticisms made be members of the British Labour Party and British Rabbis. Nothing to do with right wing media.

      I again explain that I Nick carefully differentiate between democratic socialists and communism. I recall the late British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, who publicly and frequently de-bunked communist propaganda. He was as anti-communist as those sitting on the Conservative Opposition benches, always pointing out the differences between the interests of the “British working man” and communist dictate.

      As currently demonstrated in Cuba, the communists are endeavoring to ride on the coat-tails of democratic socialism, by describing their policies and actions as “socialist” – with Raul Castro re-writing and adjusting the Constitution to match.

      Reply
  • Eltur Kohn,
    I think you will find that Mussolini and Hitler started off with ideas about how to conceive of an alternative to Capitalism/Conservatism but pretty soon started to collaborate with it.
    Some Capitalists/Conservatives didn’t wanna know. Others were only too happy to oblige.
    Try researching the facts.
    By the way, do you believe in the Tooth Fairy ?
    Santa Claus perhaps ??

    Reply
    • Nick,

      Mussolini and Hitler and TOOK OVER their countries’ industrial complex and economies. From Oxford Dictionary – “Socialism is a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”. If you can’t connect the dots you need help – Mussolini and Hitler were textbook socialist. “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” – Benito Mussolini. “We are socialists, we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak, with its unfair salaries, with its unseemly evaluation of a human being according to wealth and property instead of responsibility and performance, and we are all determined to destroy this system under all conditions” – Adolf Hitler. The one that believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Ferry is you sir. Educate yourself – you are believing without verifying.

      Reply
  • Eltur,
    I’m afraid you are incorrect.
    As I said, these individuals may have initially wished for an alternative to Capitalism but they soon collaborated with it.
    Look at all the well known companies which collaborated with fascism (for example those who made use of Jewish slave labour). Look at all the corporate and establishment figures who cuddled up with the Nazis.

    I think you may have been badly misled.

    Conservatives/Capitalists collaborate with the far right when it suits them to do so.
    This is as old as the hills and it is also as modern as today.

    Reply
  • Eltur,
    I think maybe you do believe in Tooth Fairy after all.
    Makes more sense than the term ‘Socialist Fascist’.
    That’s clearly a contradiction in terms.
    Best to stick with that good old Tooth Fairy……….

    Reply
  • Carlyle MacDuff wrote

    “Jap. If they have a bank account and you can obtain the name, address and number of that bank account, it is possible to transfer money from your own account. At the moment, I know no other way.”

    Best method to send money to Cuba is
    https://www.duales.com/

    It’s a Canadian company and you choose your method they even do home delivery of the cash for around 20 CUC’s extra.

    Reply

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