What’s Going On with Rice in Cuba?

By Glenda Boza Ibarra  (El Toque)

Photo: Sadiel Mederos

HAVANA TIMES – “I buy rice,” “Where is there rice?”, “Who is selling rice?”, are some of the phrases you’ll find repeated in Facebook, Telegram and Whatsapp groups; in the line to buy any other product, or in the minds of families who see this grain running out in their cupboard.

In late March, you could find a pound of rice for 10 CUP – the State’s market price for imported rice is 4 CUP/pound -, but over time and with greater shortages, this price has doubled in some places in Havana and Holguin. It has even been sold for up to 50 pesos. Even 2 kg packs of rice for 2.30 CUC (approximately 26 CUP/pound) at hard-currency stores (TRDs) have run out in Santa Clara, for a while now.

What has been going on with the #1 staple of Cubans’ diet in recent months? Why has it disappeared from store shelves?

Cuban rice production data

According to estimates from the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG), Cuban should be producing some 600,000 tons of rice for national consumption by 2030, which would represent 86% of the annual demand for rice.

While the historic record in 2018 (304,000 tons) seemed like the sector was picking up again, production in 2019 dropped – 246,700 tons – as a result of US sanctions, according to official sources, which led to scarcer availability of fuel for land machinery and agricultural aviation.

Figures for 2020 aren’t looking very promising either. The US blockade, the crisis sparked by COVID-19 and pending bureaucratic matters and even a lack of motivation in the agricultural sector, have all led to a shortage of this grain and the government has admitted that we might have little rice this year.

The 2020 plan, set at only 190,000 tons, was recently tweaked to 80,000; barely 11% of the 700,000 tons of rice that Cuba needs to cover the rationed food allotment and for social institutional consumption.

On the other hand, the Cuban government has already announced a budget cut for food imports, where rice accounted for approximately 127 million USD (520 USD/ton of rice) in 2019.

The tense economic situation that Cuba faces as a result of a sharp decline in tourism and services exports, an increase in international rice prices and the suspension of exports from supply countries such as Vietnam, inevitably forces the country to substitute imports with domestic production.

Within this context, the minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero announced, in May, that because of problems with supplies (fuel, fertilizers and pesticides) the winter season planting fell short by 22,000 hectares.

“We had a meeting with the country’s [state] rice companies and we advised them to meet with the over 10,000 farmers across the country. People want to produce rice, we have a rice program, we have land, water in some places. Cuba needs to produce rice,” he said.

A month later, the minister highlighted the dialogue with 20,000 rice farmers (10,000 more than in May) “who conditions are being created for, by handing over land, tools and seeds,” he said.

This time, he announced that the farmers were committed to producing and supplying the state with 104,000 tons, when the 2020 plan only stated 80,000 tons after it was tweaked.

“Seeds, fuel, planes, land and water are available, but there are limited supplies of fertilizer and pesticides, Rodriguez Rollero explained.

Cubans changing diets

Faced with rice shortages, Cubans have had to modify their diets a little.

Some restaurants, such as the Pernilucho restaurant in Santa Clara, excluded rice from their dishes available for take-away during the lockdown.

Many families have changed their diets and are now increasing the amount of spaghetti and other pastas they consume, or dried cornmeal, whenever these products appear in stores.

Several workplaces have also announced reduced portions of rice and bean soup in workers’ canteens, according to an announcement in the weekly paper Trabajadores.

However, a Cuban table can’t go without rice for more than three days.

“It’s the staple of the Cuban diet,” Margarta Torres says in Santo Domingo, Villa Clara. “Portions of meat, beans, vegetables, eggs or root vegetables vary and can even be missing… but not rice. Rice is always the thing that saves us.”

According to Margarita, the seven pounds of rice that is sold as part of the Basic Food rations, only covers a little more than half of what you need for the month. “I always used to buy imported rice, whether it was Brazilian, Vietnamese or Uruguayan, the one for 4 pesos. But you can’t buy rice outside of the ration booklet in Villa Clara since before COVID-19 came along. Sometimes, we eat bread for lunch and leave rice for dinner.”

The government response

In statements to the press, Lazaro Diaz Rodriguez, director of the Rice Technological Division at the government’s Agricultural Business Group, explained that the most immediate and medium-term estimates for increased rice production could benefit from a donation of a set of equipment (valued at 10 million USD), via the Japanese Government’s Large-Scale Financial Cooperation assistance.

“Plus, our country will benefit from means and equipment this year, as part of the Vietnam-Cuba project which is already in its fifth phase, and Vietnam will contribute with 20 million USD in equipment. This agreement also includes the completion of rural transformation brigades, irrigation and road systems for rice,” he added.

According to some Internet users on Cubadebate, good intentions aren’t enough to produce rice. “They [also need to] harvest farmers’ crops on time and not let them go to waste. Like what happened in Granma,” Armando commented.

Eddy Hernandez Moreno also mentioned the case of his neighbor Javiel, who has 24 hectares of land leased for a minimum profit because he doesn’t have an irrigation system. “Could he not grow in the winter farming season and receive government support? He isn’t allowed to grow other grains in the winter because they say that this land is meant for livestock. Does this make sense to anyone?”

Problems in the comments by Internet users are not unknown or made-up. Authorities in the sector and farmers themselves have exposed red tape, mainly bureaucratic, in rice production and the production of other foods, many a time before.

“We have to establish the incentives for people working, so they can make a living off what they produce, so they want to produce, so they want to develop new products,” Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel announced during a work meeting.

“With investments made up until now in farming equipment, tools, the drying industry, windmills and transport, plus the ones being made now, planned harvest and production rates of up to 550,000 tons of rice from 2025 onwards is a possibility, and we would only need the annual budget to sustain this, which is estimated at some 22 million USD,” Lazaro Diaz Rodriguez, director of the Rice Technological Division, at the Agricultural Business Group, explained.

However, 2025 is too far ahead in time and the 5,000 tons that the Vietnamese Government recently donated, is just enough to cover the Basic Food rations for a month.

“The current deficit can only be compensated for in the second half of 2020 by increasing imports, which seems to be difficult and will greatly depend on imports of Vietnamese rice,” economist Pedro Monreal explained on his blog.

“In the medium-term, beginning in 2021, a possible increase in production would depend on access to supplies (limited by a lack of foreign currency) and substantial reform that will strengthen market relations in the country’s farming system.”

“These numbers make you want to cry. We have to start doing something,” user Marcos Godoy Villasmil says. “If we give in to these estimates, our food sovereignty will continue to be a pipe-dream and in 2022, we will still have a rations booklet and our belts will be so tight we won’t be able to breathe anymore.”

9 thoughts on “What’s Going On with Rice in Cuba?

  • The incompetence within the Castro communist regime’s agricultural policies is now on full display. Year after year, the production of food within Cuba, declines. Pathetic excuse follows pathetic excuse.

    Get the State out of the way! Allow private enterprise to flourish and allow the people of Cuba to be properly rewarded for their abilities and work. Fidel Castro’s much vaunted “Socialismo” is a proven dismal failure!

    “We do hope to raise the standard of living to what the middle class has now. We import now $150 million of food. If we grow that, we give work to our people.”

    Fidel Castro 22nd April, 1959.

    Sixty one years have elapsed. The degeneration in food production in Cuba is a disgrace. Those tens of thousands of hectares of good agricultural land reverting to bush and the failure to re-plant citrus groves, and few potatoes ever in sight, and the consequence? Now after those sixty one years of communist planning and practice, Diaz-Canel is at long last suggesting that “we have to establish incentives for people”. Hooray!

    The lousy system is rotting from within, but it is the people of Cuba who are paying the price.

    Castro sycophants will doubtless explain that it is even worse elsewhere and that these criticisms are but propaganda.

    Reply
    • Carlyle is spot on regarding the knee-jerk defense of Castro sycophants to criticism of the failed Castro dictatorship, particularly Cuba’s agricultural decline. But let’s put a fine point on the uniqueness of the Cuban failure. How is it possible that an island country with adequate rainfall, ample arable land, an able workforce and the goodwill of nearly the entire world to succeed can continue to fail to grow the most basic and adaptable food crop in the world? Rice is easy! Virus and pest resistant, relatively short growing season, and low harvest threshold sets rice apart from wheat and corn. Nonetheless, the Castro regime has managed to screw it up.

      Reply
  • So true, SOS (stuck on stupid ) for too long. It’s doomed and the hairbrained solutions are laughable. Total mismanagement can’t last. The revolution means nothing anymore. What a game Fidel played with Cuba ! Must have been cool to own a country.

    Reply
  • The most important thing is to have a system that works for everybody when the Cuban people has not been blocked from their own government to produce and be able to freely deliver their goods then we can say there is a system working, why is communism known for failure and disaster around the world? because the people in power and their functionaries are the problem to society a cancer to the country, the Cubans have been slaves to this system for more than 60 years, there is no official opposition allowed in the country, government controls everything, even the rice crops which is a millennial process and very simple to grow, no need of technology only land and nice weather conditions, Cuba has perfect weather to harvest three times a year when some country have only one season and sometimes none).

    Reply
  • Castro confiscó las tierras a los terratenientes en los primeros años de la revolución y se las dió alos campesinos que la trabajaban. Luego invento las cooperativas les dijo a los campesinos que todo lo que produjeran lo tenían que vender a la cooperativa la cual les pagaba centavos por los productos. Los campesinos no podían vender sus productos a nadie más. De esta forma quería que los campesinos fueran sus esclavos. Así que los campesinos le dijeron quédate con la tierra que yo no voy a trabajarla por centavos, por eso ahora esa tierra está llena de marabú. Hubo un tiempo en los 80’s que permitió el mercado libre campesino pero le molestó que hubieran intermediarios vendiendo los productos de los campesinos. Que esperaba el que el campesino dejara su cosecha para ir al mercado a vender? Claro que los intermediarios ganarían dinero pero el pueblo tenía más comida pero al gobierno le molestó que esos intermediarios y campesinos se enriquecieran así que creo el plan maceta que es como llamaban a los adinerados en ese tiempo y les confiscaron todos los equipos electrónicos, carros casas, etc. La causa “enriquecimiento ilícito” . Los únicos que pueden ser ricos son ellos, Castro familia y su camarilla que está en el poder. Todos los demás se pueden morir de hambre. Así no tienen fuerzas para luchar contra sus opresores. Así es como funciona el sistema socialista. Aprendan liberales lo que les espera si siguen por el camino que les está indicando el partido demócrata. Pronto van a estar como Cuba y Venezuela. Actualmente en Cuba la gente de la ciudad no pueden ir al campo a comprar productos de los campesinos porque en la carretera de vuelta a la ciudad la policía tiene puntos de control que les revisa los paquetes y si les encuentra comida se la decomisa y la vota y luego los multa hasta $1000 pesos que es más del doble de lo que ganan en un mes de trabajo. Así son de canallas. Si no se tiran a la calle como hicieron en el 1994 cuando el maleconazo no van a salir de ese gobierno parásito que solo vive de ellos y culpa su ineptitud al embargo de los Estados Unidos. El verdadero embargo es el de el gobierno cubano hacia su propio pueblo.
    .

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  • There’s only so much blame you can pin on Castro – the rest is on the Cuban people. Cubans per capita are the least productive people in this hemisphere. Cuba is surrounded by Ocean yet it does not even produce all of its salt – salt is one of the easiest minerals to produce, especially if you have lots of coastline and access to salt water. Cubans are just not culturally apt for work. https://havanatimes.org/features/cuba-imports-salt-from-spain-to-make-up-for-national-deficit/.

    Reply
    • Eltur, only the regime is permitted to utilize the natural resources. When Cuba was highly productive, being the largest sugar producer in the world in addition to being a major fruit producer and with an active tourist industry, it was Cubans who were doing the work, it is the communist system that inhibits any individual initiative.

      Reply
      • If your claim that “he communist system that inhibits any individual initiative” why is Cuba #1 in the hemisphere for prostitution? – where prostitution is the archetypical form of “individual initiative” (your body, your sale)? People in Cuba are not even growing small gardens in the back of their homes (all of Cuba, not just Havana). If you are a white, european or American tourist stop making excuses for our failures – that is truly arrogant and racist. We need to correct this ourselves.

        Reply
  • This government 12 years ago blocked effective help from Canada and Holland.. They seized imported equipment and supplies and refused let the aid group pay local workers 3 dollars per day. The government corruption and greed ended the program.

    Reply

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