Food in Cuba: A Vicious Cycle

 “Economic interdependence doesn’t exist in Cuba because a real domestic market hasn’t been built nationally.” (Elías Amor Bravo, economist)

By Vicente Morin Aguado

A truck with produce has just unloaded.
A truck with produce has just unloaded.

HAVANA TIMES — An analysis of the food market in our country reveals the continuity of high prices which tend to increase, taking the official average salary of consumers into account.

When addressing this subject, the greatest problem is that the economic concept “market” doesn’t work in Cuba, we are subjected to an authoritarian socialist creation, which is a puppet that the Government pulls the strings to.

Out of the six commercialization sectors – the puppet´s strings – three of them are directly controlled by the government and display very few changes in prices to consumers, which deal with basic products:

The rations book quota is as scant as the 250 ml of vegetable oil that is assigned to every individual per month.

The parallel State market reduced the price of a pound of imported rice from 5 to 4 Cuban pesos (CUP), but people were unanimously saying:

“Brazilian or Argentinian rice isn´t 100% from these countries, it is mixed with Vietnamese or Chinese rice which is of a lower quality and is stolen from bodega stores where rations are sold, so that they can keep the price difference.”

Hard Currency Stores (TRD) have lowered the prices of some food products by 10-25% by decree, except sweets. Consumers are only able to buy chicken in quarters, entrails or a whole chicken, along with vegetable oil. If we consider the fact that 24 Convertible Pesos (CUC) the same value in USD) is the average monthly salary of Cubans, 1.70 CUC per kilo of chicken still remains out of reach for the majority of the population.

There are more than enough accounts about the instability of stocking these aforementioned products in the TRD network.

maeVegetables and meat are sold via two other direct channels in markets that should compete, the agro-markets which are managed by the government and the Supply and Demand free markets. The latter are closer to the capitalism that dominates the rest of the world.

According to government media, the system declared “socialist” is hoping that the state market will force the free market to lower its prices, but the reality of things is different:

Where supply and demand reigns you can regularly purchase over 40 different products, which are fresh and have a good appearance, while the state equivalent of these stores only stock 5 or 6 different options, concentrating on bananas, yucca, malanga, squash and some kind of salad green from time to time. These markets are managed by the government and prices are fixed so as to prevent speculation, however, customers cry out:

You have to watch out for the truck, when it comes you have to queue up because what’s good always runs out fast, afterwards you only have malangas costing 4.20 pesos which rot away on the gondola, inedible yuccas which still cost you a few pesos, and yellow discolored squash that nobody wants to buy.”

The photograph manipulates the truth, we could only identify (8) products from the list on sale, including malanga and bananas. They were also more expensive than the prices displayed.

So it becomes a daily necessity to go to the supply and demand market. It’s the only market where you know you’ll get what you want, there is fruit, vegetables, spices, which are impossible to get a hold of in other places; fresh meat, boneless; now, of course, hold on to your pockets!”

The price of meat has been stuck at 45-50 pesos per pound for the last year, the price of salad greens and fruit is going up:

The sign shows many more products than the eight that are actually for sale.
The sign shows many more products than the eight that are actually for sale.

Fresh tomatoes are around 25 pesos per pound, garlic and onion cost about the same, Papayas have gone up to 6 pesos the pound and beans haven’t gone down from the price we knew months ago, between 10 and 18 pesos, except for chickpeas which cost 30. If we look back to the same time last year, prices are on an uphill slope.

Then we have the black market, which is very widespread and left out by government analysts. In fact it’s very easy to get hold of the same chicken thighs and drumsticks which are sold as part of the subsidized rations quota, at 20 pesos per pound, while a liter of oil will cost you 50 pesos.

The year that’s coming to an end has revealed a vicious cycle which we are never able to get out of: prices are maintained or increase, the slight increase in production and/or importing food productions, end up watered down in the population’s income.

The influx of foreign visitors is significantly greater, they give out tips, pay for a first world quality of life in a third world country, plus remittances, which have increased thanks to the measures that Obama’s administration have established, along with an unstoppable wave of Cuban migrants, plus pay rises linked to the public health sector and employees for foreign companies.

For the “lucky ones”, their purchasing power might be a little better, they have been able to feel a slight decrease in prices (of some products they can afford) or maybe they appreciate the fact that they are more or less the same as they were last year. However, retirees – 1.7 million in 2014 (of a population of just over 11 million) – think differently. Their average income doesn’t surpass 11 USD per month. The government´s proclaimed socialist equity is shattered if you take into account the fact that the active working population only earns double what is waiting for them when they are 60-65 years old.

Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]


7 thoughts on “Food in Cuba: A Vicious Cycle

  • As a long time member of a national wildlife federation. i have to point out Dan that in your enthusiasm for all things related to the Castro regime, you omitted to explain its supposedly sustainable condition is a consequence of allowing hundreds of thousands of acres of good agricultural land to revert to bush, making the country increasingly dependent upon imported food. The country may be sustainable but the people are dependent upon imports for sustenance!

  • I agree completely, Caroline. We Westerners, Americans above all, are frolicking on our materialist beach, oblivious to the environmental tidal wave growing on the horizon. We are totally unprepared for when it arrives. I may be wrong, but I believe that Cuba continues to be the only country that the World Wildlife Federation qualifies as being sustainable. Life there is hard, but not too hard, and it certainly is easier on the planet.

  • Yes, I think you are correct in your assessment N.J. Marti. Yes, I think Raul knows. His problem is that he is mentally constipated by a complete overdose of Marxism/Leninism and doesn’t have the slightest idea of how to resolve the agricultural morass that has developed as a consequence of his own and Fidel’s policies. Whether introducing the production of senna-pods would relieve his problem is doubtful.
    Think of the huge billboards in Cuba extolling the virtues of ‘Los Ideas’ with portraits of the geriatric octogenarian Generals. New Ideas ? From that lot?

  • Well Caroline, if a repressive communist dictatorship is what you seek, come and live in Cuba.
    When at home in Cuba as I will be again in the not too distant future, I live as a Cuban to the extent that our home is from the exterior indistinguishable from our neighbours, I do the daily shopping on the street using the mercado negra and on Sunday morning the mercado for vegetables – when there are any. My wife works and receives rather less that $400 per year as a Maesrtria, my step daughter is a lawyer receiving even less. , I get my hair cut by a barberia on his street front patio, which costs 10 pesos (not much hair), I take part in a discussion group at the local library and I walk our dog conversing with Cubans of all age groups daily. I am included in the CDR information about my wife.
    Yes, there are some differences consequent to my “extra-terratorial connections” We always have a bottle of rum on our kitchen work surface and beer in the refrigerator. As you may know, Cubans are very casual and friends and relatives will enter without knocking, they know that they can help themselves to a glass of rum or a beer without asking – it is one small way of enabling them to have a treat.
    Yes, we have a seat on our toilet, we are able to afford chicken or pork daily and to take a bici-taxi if carrying a lot of weight (pack of beer).
    I have daily contact with my God-daughter of five years and her younger sibling. They live with their parents nearby and have no extraneous income – the permuta is in consequence important for them.
    I have had in the past experience of walking in quite a lot of countries – including some seven African ones every country in Western Europe and North America. In consequence I have seen the wide variety of living standards which this world offers. I believe in the old saying: ‘When in Rome’.
    You however fail to differentiate between living standards and tyranny. I have sympathy with your view that in a world of finite resources it is impossible for more and more people to have a higher and higher standard of living for ever and ever – the equation is not sustainable. But that is very different from meekly accepting dictatorship whether of the left or right – to me both are abhorrent.
    The significant difference Caroline for humanity irrespective of economic conditions is whether people are able to be individuals and express themselves openly and freely. Freedom is the pearl Caroline which I wish to see all share!
    I say all this in response because there are always doubting Thomases who cannot accept that I as author of ‘Cuba Lifting the Veil’ cannot properly reflect the views of Cubans. I did not write the book to endeavor to make money, but to act as a voice for Cubans as I have the freedom necessary to do so. I think it was Moses Patterson who months ago challenged other contributors to deny or correct anything I wrote – and to date, none have!

  • I hope and believe that you are wrong. It is not inevitable that all of humanity will devolve to living like Cubans. On the contrary, I believe human ingenuity will prevail. I am under no illusion. There will always be poor people. But humanity has continued on a positive trajectory since the Garden of Eden. I am betting that this will continue.

  • Most observers are not brave enough to actively seek similar conditions for themselves, limiting themselves to solidarity, in this I commend Carlyle for actually living the conditions, though I suspect even he relies on his extra-territorial connections to avoid actually experiencing the hardship. The reality is, however, that living as a Cuban is a necessity that we should all be aiming for if our species is to survive. The coming climate genocide starting in equatorial countries, leading to mass migrations, and the possibility of fascism rising in response has already begun. It can only get worse unless those of us who live in relative luxury can find the bravery to emulate the Cuban way of life. In our bubbles of relative wealth, we live with the illusion that we can have whatever we want without the need for overcoming great difficulties. The time is fast approaching where this grand illusion will come crumbling down and the choice of living like a Cuban, which seems so unappealing and arduous at the moment, will become a choice that we will regret not having made. Thank you.

  • The failure of agricultural sector presents the greatest security threat to the sustainability of current regime. The situation is already fragile. As a practical matter, the tourism sector needs to grow to bring in hard currency. But it requires heavy investment if growth to continue. The competition for scare food between tourism and population will undermine support by population. The only real option is to unleash the agricultural sector. Price controls and central management would result in miserable failure and unrest. This is known to Raul.

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