I spent part of June in Havana, where I advise the Food Sovereignty and Nutritional Education Plan (Plan San). At this point the effects of a set of factors that has hit hard the lives of the population are more evident: the genocidal blockade imposed by the U.S. more than 60 years ago; the pandemic; the climate crisis; and the war between Russia and Ukraine, suppliers of inputs, fertilizers and tourists to the Caribbean island.
With a little more than 11 million inhabitants, the economy of the only socialist country in the history of the West depends on the export of nickel (whose value fluctuates greatly in the international market); the production of cigars (some 80 million units per year) and rum; the sending of teachers and doctors abroad; and tourism, now weakened by the new blockade measures. Biden has kept Cuba on the list of countries that “promote terrorism” and demanded visas to enter the US for Europeans for visiting the island.
The implementation of the Food Sovereignty and Security and Nutritional Education Law, approved by the National Assembly in 2022, is considered a priority in Cuba.
Although the government provides a monthly food basket to all families, current shortages are more severe than in the Special Period (1990-1995), when the Soviet Union, from whose prosperity Cuba benefited, collapsed. In the penultimate week of June, the Minister of Food Industry, Manuel Santiago Sobrino Martínez, admitted on television that the scarce production and commercialization of food, and the high prices, strongly affect the quality of life of the population. At present, Cuba imports 80% of the food it consumes, which represents an expenditure of more than 4 billion dollars annually.
One of the priority objectives of the San Plan is to promote import substitution through new food habits, such as the introduction of cassava in the preparation of bread and thus reduce the purchasing of wheat. An example of the effects of rising food prices on the international market in recent years can be seen in the purchase of chicken meat: a year ago, a ton cost US$900,000, now it costs US$1.3 million.
Energy, predominantly driven by imported oil, affects the productivity of the food industry. Venezuela can no longer guarantee the supplies of previous years. The climate crisis also affects the economy. In the first months of this year, drought reduced milk production by 38 million liters. And it has affected aquaculture by considerably lowering the level of water reservoirs.
The government is now encouraging the opening of micro, small and medium-sized private enterprises. There are already 844, of which 144 are bakeries and pastry shops; 194 are engaged in the production of sausages; 188 produce canned food; and 92 produce dairy products.
In agriculture, more than 350 micro industries have been installed. Since 2022, there have been changes in the trade of agricultural products and work is being done to computerize the sector. “We know that until Cubans see all these changes reflected on their tables, they will doubt all this data, but the Government is determined to reverse this situation,” said the minister. According to Jesús Lorenzo Rodríguez Mendoza, research director of the food industry, as the country’s economic situation worsens, techno-scientific activity becomes more relevant. “In these 46 years we have developed 700 products. Our main mission is to provide tools to all food processors, from the nutritional composition of the product to the execution of technological processes, as well as more efficient equipment to be used.”
Since mid-2022, wheat supply has worsened: “For example, to guarantee stability in grain production and traditional consumption in one month you have to buy three wheat ships, which cost about $35 million,” explains Rodriguez Mendoza.
This year they have only been able to buy four shipments of wheat, due to the price increase. The blockade makes imports difficult, especially because almost no bank agrees to make financial transactions with Cuba so as not to be penalized by U.S. sanctions.
A ship loaded with wheat that recently docked in Cienfuegos took more than 60 days to load in the port of origin, which meant an additional cost to the operation: “We manage to contract grain in countries of the region, and in many occasions the ship owners of these countries do not accept to come to Cuba. Then we have to look for ships from other origins and send them to those places, and this, logically, has a cost,” the Cuban said.
Another example of the effects of the blockade are spare parts: “We have four factories, we had financing available, we paid the suppliers of spare parts and the banks where they work did not accept our payment. We have to look for other alternatives”.
Regarding the production of alcoholic beverages, González Lorenzo explained that the fall in sugar production in Cuba has had a negative impact on the sector. However, he stressed that the new measures approved have become an opportunity to reverse the situation: “We have carried out a systematic control of the production processes and up to June we have managed to produce more than two million cases of rum, which will allow us to recover production. Between July and August, for example, we will deliver figures similar to those we sold in 2019, around 400 thousand cases of rum,” he said. He added that the production of other liquids, such as vinegar and dry wine, will be favored and developed. The fishing situation was also reviewed. The Vice Minister of Food Industry, Midalys Naranjo Blanco, explained that although Cuba is a country surrounded by sea, its waters do not produce enough fish for the population’s demand. Between 1976 and 1990, the country had a fishing fleet that fished in international waters and supplied a good part of the fish consumed in the country (some 100,000 tons annually). Since 1992, due to the blockade, this fleet has had to gradually withdraw from international waters, which has affected the availability of food in Cuba.
Between 1986 and 2009, the country imported some 33,000 tons of fishery products. Due to the levels of financing required, it has not been possible to maintain this volume. As a consequence of this situation, aquaculture is promoted in Cuba with a program that includes all regions of the country. Among the crops, extensive aquaculture is developed, since intensive aquaculture demands volumes of feed that are not currently available. Carp farming is one of the most practiced, although it takes about 18 months to reach a commercial-sized fish.
Naranjo Blanco said they are working to increase fry production and build as many ponds as possible. “There are new economic actors in this activity. We have, for example, 485 private producers,” the deputy minister said.
Among the difficulties facing aquaculture, he referred to the effects of climate change (especially droughts and torrential rains); the waiting time to obtain fish with marketable characteristics; and the deficit of technological and scientific resources to improve fishing.
Among the measures being taken are: the construction and repair of boats; allowing, for a period of two years, commercial fishing in the months of August to January in tourist areas; favoring retail and wholesale sales; expanding the maritime area used for fishing; increasing the power of engines up to sixty horsepower; reviewing the management plans of protected areas, together with all the actors of the territory.
Since October 2022, fishermen are not required to have contracts with state-owned companies and can market their products directly. This, according to Naranjo Blanco, has led to an increase in the sale of non-state commercial licenses, reaching 4,042 licenses at the end of May, a number much higher than in 2022. “All these measures are in the implementation phase and, in the coming months, should allow a greater degree of flexibility in fishing activity,” said the deputy minister.
As for basic basket products, the Minister of Food Industry, Manuel Santiago Sobrino Martínez, acknowledged that there are challenges in terms of packaging, food safety and quality. He cited as an example bread: “In addition to the problems with the raw material, the lack of control is reflected in the quality of the product in places where there is not enough supervision”. Powdered milk also presents a complex situation: “Although in certain areas, such as the central regions of the country, there is good milk production, to guarantee consumption we depend on small imports from Latin America and the Caribbean, which today do not meet the demand”, he said.
Regarding coffee, Santiago Sobrino said that production, from now on, will depend on whether they can import, because domestic production is insufficient.
The chicken of the basic food basket will begin to be distributed to a part of the population. But distribution should improve in July and August, according to the minister.
As for other animal products, in the next few days a ship with raw material and stock for two months should arrive at the Cuban port.
With soybean derivatives, the outlook is complex, due to the deficit of the product in the international market.
In these days, more than five investments with foreign capital and two with national capital are starting to operate: a cookie, jam and coffee factory; another beer factory in the port of Mariel; a chocolate factory in Baracoa; the expansion of Bucanero beer production; among others. This means, undoubtedly, improving the scenario.
In short, the measures envisaged are palliative, contingency measures, with no alternative but to mobilize the population to prioritize food production in order to promote import substitution. To this must be added nutritional education to drastically reduce sugar consumption, the main cause of lethal diseases on the island.
It is time for all of us, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, to intensify the struggle against the U.S. blockade and mobilize international cooperation with the island that dared to conquer its independence and sovereignty against the most powerful and genocidal empire in the history of mankind.
Frei Betto is a writer and liberation theologian
Source: Cuba en Resumen