The Miami Herald
Mon, Feb. 16, 2004
 
Food shortages in Cuba raising 'a yellow flag'

An apparent food shortage in Cuba is raising some concern about a potential nutrition crisis.

BY NANCY SAN MARTIN

A new and apparently growing food shortage in Cuba is making it increasingly difficult for those who depend on Cuban pesos and the government's ration system to obtain basic staples, according to residents and experts.

Over the past three months, some items have become scarce even in usually well-stocked stores that accept U.S. dollars, raising concerns that the Caribbean nation could be headed toward a nutrition crisis similar to one in the early 1990s.

''It hasn't gotten to the point where Cubans are using stuff not meant to be eaten, but it's kind of a yellow flag,'' said Eric Driggs González, humanitarian aid coordinator for the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

''There is definitely a shortage. As far as the severity of it, that's hard to measure,'' Driggs said. "But there's a need to keep an eye on it.''

Cuba has struggled to adequately feed its 11 million people since it lost its massive Soviet subsidies in 1991. In the early '90s, a serious eye disease caused by a deficiency of vitamins rapidly spread across the island.

NOT PROMISING

Experts now worry that a severe food shortage could have serious effects on an already undernourished population. The outlook, so far, does not look promising.

''Peso-based food product availability decreased in 2003 compared to 2002,'' according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council (USCTEC) in New York, which monitors Cuba's economy. "The government of the Republic of Cuba has [reported] that the quality of food products may increase in 2004, but that the quantity . . . may not increase.''

Among the food problems reported from Cuba:

Residents in the central city of Santa Clara waited in long lines when U.S. ground chicken went on sale at a local store, only to have the supply quickly run out, according to a Jan. 30 report from Cuba posted on Cubanet, a Miami-based group that compiles reports from island residents.

In Havana, according to a Jan. 27 report, residents complained of a mediocre supply of yogurt sold at peso stores. Mothers complain that with the ration at one liter per child per day, ``they end up feeding their children sugar water because they don't have the money to . . . acquire yogurt in the dollar establishments. Even then, they say, there is a shortage of yogurt in the dollar stores themselves.''

Cuba residents reached by telephone also said pasta is harder to find and the supply of vegetables is lean, but that the most scarce product has been eggs -- long a cheap and abundantly available staple of communist Cuba's diet.

''The scarcity of eggs has turned them into luxury items. For Cuban families, the absence of eggs feels like the parting of a loved one who abandons the house to emigrate,'' said a Feb. 5 Cubanet report from Havana.

''Eggs have disappeared,'' Lionel Pérez, the Havana director for the Catholic-run Caritas charity program, said in a phone interview. ``But we always have difficulties here . . . We make do with what we have.''

SERIES OF PROBLEMS

Experts point to a series of problems, including low productivity and inefficient distribution, to explain the shortage of eggs and other food products. For more than four decades, the Caribbean nation produced all its own eggs. Two years ago it began buying U.S. eggs. But the imports stopped when U.S. market prices doubled in mid-2003.

Even as the U.N. World Food Program carries out a supplemental food program in eastern Cuba, its Havana director disputed the reports of a food shortage. ''That's totally out of context,'' Rosa Antolin said. ``There is always a lack of one item or another, but there is no food shortage.''

''Our support program in Cuba was implemented because we don't want the advances that have been made in health and education, which are outstanding, to suffer setbacks,'' she said. ``We want to help them recuperate and maintain their nutrition.''

It is nevertheless clear that monthly subsidized ration allowances have grown slimmer over the years, providing Cubans with what most experts agree is less than two weeks worth of food for every month. Eggs, for example, are restricted to 6 to 8 per person per month.

MULTIPLE SHOPPING

To supplement their subsidized rations, many Cubans must shop at up to nine different types of state-run and independent markets that charge higher dollar prices -- in a country where the average monthly salary is about $10 -- although many Cubans receive dollars from relatives abroad.

''Under the present Cuban system of distribution, access to basic goods is strongly delineated along income lines and/or access to dollars,'' according to a September UM report. ``While the Cuban people survive with enviable resilience and humor, food security in Cuba remains a gravely serious matter, particularly for those with no access to foreign currency.''

The shortage comes even as U.S. food shipments to the island increase. The United States jumped to seventh place among Cuba's commercial partners in 2003 and it is the island's largest single source of agricultural and food products, according to USCTEC figures.

But while Cuba has been buying more U.S. food products, the quantities of food available on the island have not increased.

''They haven't bought more, they've just bought the products from us,'' USCTEC President John Kavulich said. ``The truth is there has been a steady decline in food availability in different categories.''