The Durango Herald (Colorado)
May 4, 2004

Cuba's food production falls short

Have you heard the joke about communism and cows? "If you have two cows, you give them to the government " As best I could figure out during my recent visit to Cuba, it's no joke.

Cattle belong to the government. They are registered, and farmers are paid a token salary to care for them. They may not butcher them. The sale of beef is strictly controlled by the government.

On the other hand, other livestock - goats, pigs, chickens and turkeys, for example - may be privately owned - horses, too. Although, I was told that if a horse is to be butchered, it has to be taken to a government slaughterhouse to be inspected for disease before the meat is cleared for consumption.

In a broader sense, agriculture has never reached its potential in Cuba.

Foreign demand for sugarcane, long the island's cash crop, is way down. Half of the country's sugar mills have been closed in recent years and are falling into ruin.

Other important crops include citrus and tropical fruits, rice, potatoes, beans, coffee and, of course, tobacco (for highly prized Cuban cigars).

Large agricultural operations are organized as cooperatives. Individual farmers are free to raise produce, too, so long as the government gets its share.

In addition to aging but operative Russian and Belarus tractors, horse- and ox-drawn wagons are commonly used to transport goods and to work the fields.

Recently the country has experienced alternating periods of drought and flood and was hit by a major hurricane. Crop yields have suffered. Much of Cuba is drier than most people imagine, and there is little irrigation. Fertilizer has been scarce, too, since the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of its aid to Cuba.

Still, in the countryside in March, cane was being harvested. Orange groves and other fruit trees looked healthy. Communal organic gardens in the cities looked promising. And individual gardens at rural homes seemed bountiful.

A huge farmers' market was under way in Camagüey, the country's third-largest city (population 270,000). More than a hundred booths were stocked full of pork, grain, good-looking vegetables, fruit and several items I failed to recognize. The market was crowded with shoppers.

No matter how well stocked the farmers' markets appear, they can't feed the entire Cuban population - or adequately supplement government stockpiles.

Food imports are badly needed.

In 2000, Congress approved an exemption to the trade embargo to allow food sales to Cuba. However, the United States will not allow credit purchases, and other foreign banks are reluctant to extend credit because of Cuba's existing debt and its expropriation of property after the revolution.

Still, according to Pedro Alvarez, head of Alimport, Cuba's foreign trade agency, imports from the U.S. doubled from 2002 to 2003 to more than $300 million.

Worldwide, Cuba's main food imports are wheat, corn and soy. Of the more than 150,000 tons of soybeans imported by Cuba last year, more than 25,000 tons were used to make soy yogurt. Nationwide, children ages 6 to 13 are given a daily ration of a liter of soy yogurt to provide extra protein in their diet.

In addition, Cuba is eager to buy U.S. beef.

"We do not join those who have closed the door to American markets. We have a very good opinion of American production," Alvarez said.

Although the Colorado Department of Agriculture has no record of direct shipment of pinto beans from the state to Cuba, the potential is there. According to Tim Larsen, who oversees international marketing for the department, "that market is heating up." Cuba purchased $824,000 worth of U.S. pinto beans in 2003 and more than $1.3 million in the first month of 2004.

"We have made a lot of friends in the U.S.," Alvarez said. "We are not only ready for American companies to be our suppliers but to be our partners."

In a meeting in Havana in early March with officials from the Houston Port Authority, Alvarez predicted that more than 30 percent of Cuba's food imports this year would come from the United States.

Alvarez would like to see direct American investment in Cuba, but that is prohibited by the embargo.

"We are willing to work in a joint venture, no preconditions, whatever works best for both parties. We're ready right now," he said.