Cape Times

Food shortages leave Cubans in anguish over their next meal


ONE THOUGHT lingers all day in the mind of Diana Ruiz: “How will the Cuban mother feed her 6-year-old son …” A dilemma faced by parents across an island hit by blackouts and food shortages. “The first thing I say when I get out of bed is, ‘What am I going to give my son to eat?’ And when I go to bed, what can I give him for a snack or for his breakfast?” Ruiz told AFP from her home in Nuevo Vedado, the central district in Havana.

The 31-year-old Ruiz, who is four-months pregnant, moves in the narrow space between her cupboard, which holds some rice and a few bread rolls, and a fridge containing more rice, a pot with a little stewed meat, containers of water and some juice.

“That’s all there is,” she said hopelessly, in her house where she also lives with her blind father.

A clamour over food shortages and blackouts led hundreds of people to demonstrat­e in at least four Cuban cities on March 17 – the largest protests since historic anti-government marches on July 11, 2021. The unusual demonstrat­ions erupted first in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city, which has endured up to 13 hours a day of blackouts. Many of the protesters were women …

Days later, President Miguel DiazCanel attributed the unrest to “an accumulati­on of long blackouts that greatly annoy the population”.

Food shortages, he added, were due to “fractures in the timely distributi­on of the basic food basket”. A human rights group, Justicia 11J, reported this week that it tallied 17 arrests related to the protests, while Spain-based Prisoners Defenders told AFP it had documented the detention of 38 people, six of whom were released.

Appeals to UN

The authoritie­s in 2023 said a lack of hard currency impeded imports required to provide basic food rations at highly subsidised prices to the island’s 11 million people.

Meanwhile, according to official figures, agricultur­al production fell 35% between 2019 and 2023.

In February, Cuba requested for the first time support from the UN World Food Programme to guarantee the supply of milk to children, after announcing it would not be able to complete that month’s rations.

At the beginning of the year, the authoritie­s also struggled to deliver bread, due to delays in wheat shipments from abroad and breakdowns in four of the country’s five mills – resulting in the country meeting only about a third of its total demand.

Although the capital does not suffer the long blackouts affecting the rest of the island, for many people food arrives in dribs and drabs. “They come in small quantities, one pound today and in X days another pound,” said Aracely Hernandez, 73, a resident of Bacuranao, a town on the outskirts of Havana.

The retiree said she receives a pension of 1 500 pesos (R28) and that a package of chicken costs her 3 000 pesos outside the rationing system.

“You have to squeeze and pedal hard, because everything is very expensive,” she lamented.

Rupture of social pact

Since 2021, private stores also offer milk, bread, chicken and other basics, but at prices that are out of reach of those earning an average wage.

Mired in its worst economic crisis in three decades, the island is experienci­ng an inflationa­ry spiral. In 2021, prices shot up 70%, followed by increases of 39% and 30% the following two years, a surge not seen before during the more than six decades of communist rule on the island.

For Arturo Lopez-Levy, a research associate at the School of Internatio­nal Studies at the University of Denver, the US embargo hinders all of Cuba’s efforts.

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