CubaBrief: Cuban art historian addresses the Oslo Freedom Forum. The Washington Post on the frantic search for milk in Cuba, and the internal blockade.

On Monday, May 23, 2022 the Oslo Freedom Forum launched its 2022 session, and a Cuban speaker addressed the international audience about the San Isidro Movement, the 27N, child prisoners and the desire Cubans have to live in freedom. The Cuban speaker’s name is Carolina Barrero, and her presentation is titled “Art and Resistance: The Story of a Citizens’ uprising,” and can be viewed below.

In the United States, the announcement of a change in U.S. – Cuba policy has renewed interest in the Caribbean island, and the subject of economic sanctions.

Havana continues to call the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba a “blockade.” This is not true, as the State Department 2021 fact sheet on the provision of humanitarian aide to Cuba, and U.S. – Cuba trade statistics over the past 22 years demonstrate. Considering the economic policies of the Castro regime, this appears to be a textbook example of psychological projection turned into propaganda. There is a blockade on Cuba, but it is an internal blockade placed by the Cuban government on Cubans.

The Washington Post on May 21 published the article “In Cuba, a frantic search for milk” by Mary Beth Sheridan that highlights the dire food crisis in the island, and how it has impacted access to dairy products. A graph published in the article, using an official source, places the number of metric tons of milk produced in Cuba in 2020 at 455,300 metric tons for a population of 11.3 million. This is a substantial drop from the 1.034 million metric tons produced in 1990, during the last year of Soviet subsidies, with a population of 10.9 million. In 1958, the year prior to the communist revolution, Cuba produced 828,000 metric tons of milk for a population of 6.9 million Cubans, according to the Cuban Studies Institute in a 2019 monograph.

Cuban Studies Institute (2019)

Sheridan in The Washington Post article claims that prior to 1959, Cuba was “a nation plagued by malnutrition.” According to the Cuban Studies Institute, between 1952 and 1958 there was “a successful nationalistic trend aimed at reaching agricultural self-sufficiency to supply the people’s market demand for food.” Despite the efforts to violently overthrow the Batista regime in the 1950s, “the Cuban food supply grew steadily to provide a highly productive system that, in daily calorie consumption of 2,730 calories, ranked Cuba third in Latin America.”

Cuban Studies Institute (2019)

What ended Cuba’s self-sufficiency in domestic food production? Cuba’s communist dictatorship seizing properties, imposing collectivised agricultural policies, and prohibited farmers selling their crops to non-state entities.

Farmers could no longer decide how much to produce, or at what price to sell their crops. Havana established production quotas and farmers were (and are) obligated to sell to the state collection agency, called Acopio. The most recent law on agriculture in Cuba ( Decreto Ley 358 de 2018) continues to prohibit private sales of agricultural products to non-state entities. The Washington Post article alludes to this in describing the path taken by the Castro regime after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991.

“Gradually, private farmers took over, but under the thumb of the Communist government. The state rented land to farmers and bought their produce, meat and milk at low, fixed prices — often falling behind in payments. “Since August, we haven’t been paid for our avocados,” Rojas said. And lately, the weather hasn’t cooperated. “There’s no rain,” he said. He looked up at a nearby hill. A neighbor clip-clopped by on a horse-drawn cart. “There goes Osvaldo,” Rojas said. “He sold his cows. He couldn’t deal with the situation.”

However the same article claims that “a nation that imports 70 percent of its food has run desperately short of the cash to buy it.” Left out is that the only entity with the right to import food to Cuba on a commercial scale is the Cuban government. In 2021, the Cuban government bought $320.6 million in mostly agricultural products from the United States, and dramatic increase from 2020, in the midst of the worst of the pandemic when Havana purchased $161.9 million.

Rafaela Cruz explains how government priorities in Cuba contribute to the absence of food in her article published in Diario de Cuba on May 17, 2022 titled “Something’s rotten in Cuba … and it heralds more hunger.”

“There is hunger because agriculture is not recovering despite the much-touted “63 measures.” The production of roots and tubers and fruits and vegetables has stagnated at levels far below the 30 pounds per capita per month that the Government has been promising for years, and in 2021 the production of rice, a popular staple, fell by 15%, while that of proteins such as beef, eggs and milk fell by 13.5%, 10.5% and 16%, respectively; and drops in pork production hit records (it plummeted another 53.5% after a fall the previous year).

Of course, when you allocate 13 times more to tourism than to agriculture, it is difficult to reduce hunger. You read that right: agriculture, which employs almost 20% of the labor force in Cuba, and that could produce the 2 billion in annual food imports that the country needs now, receives one thirteenth of what tourism does. But it gets even worse: in 2021 Cuba invested half what it did in 2020. How, then, can there not be hunger in Cuba?

Adding insult to injury, in an aberrant move the Government is spending 1.5 billion dollars building hotels at the same it is reducing the importation of Vietnamese rice, and domestic production is waning. It imported a mere $74.4 million worth of chicken, practically the only protein on Cubans’ tables, during the first quarter of 2022. Couldn’t they at least  import twice as much chicken, when the prices of their American suppliers have not risen?”

Sheridan’s article in The Washington Post addresses that “[w]hile there are exemptions to the embargo for food — much of Cuba’s chicken comes from the United States — it’s not permitted to purchase on credit, as is common in global trade.” Left out by the reporter is that [1] the Cuban government owes tens of billions of dollars to the rest of the world, and is a bad credit risk and [2] the food purchased, for example the chicken she mentions, is bought at market prices and the Cuban dictatorship hikes up the prices several hundred percent so that Cubans are buying that chicken at prices three of four times more expensive than an American does.

But that is not all. For example, Western Union in business with Fincimex, an entity of the Cuban military, used an official exchange of $1 to 24 Cuban pesos, when the real exchange is about $ to 100 Cuban pesos. This means that for each 100 dollars a Cuban abroad sends to a relative in the island the Cuban military takes a little over half $52.00, and the remaining $48.00 that the Cuban living on the island receives is used to purchase food at the inflated prices described above that also goes to the Cuban government.

The silence around these systematic abuses of the Cuban government that enriches the military and regime elite while leaving Cubans impoverished is an outrage. The facts are known because courageous independent journalists on the island have spoken out on the subject, but the new penal law passed this past week in Cuba aims to silence them, and punish them.

Regime priorities during the 2009-2017 Obama opening generated unexpected outcomes reported by The New York Times on December 8, 2016 in their article “Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Keeps Food Off Residents’ Plates.”

“But the record arrival of nearly 3.5 million visitors to Cuba last year has caused a surging demand for food, causing ripple effects that are upsetting the very promise of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch. Thanks in part to the United States embargo, but also to poor planning by the island’s government, goods that Cubans have long relied on are going to well-heeled tourists and the hundreds of private restaurants that cater to them, leading to soaring prices and empty shelves. Without supplies to match the increased appetite, some foods have become so expensive that even basic staples are becoming unaffordable for regular Cubans.”

During President Obama’s 2009-2017 repeated loosening of sanctions, or President Trump’s 2017-2021 tightening of sanctions, but exempting food and medicine, Cubans find that food remained unaffordable throughout the entire period. The problem is not the United States, but the Castro regime that has perfected a system to extract hard currency from Cubans both inside and outside of Cuba, price gouging their victims, and threatening them with prison if they complain.

Diario de Cuba, May 17, 2022
Opinion

Something’s rotten in Cuba … and it heralds more hunger

While the Government spends $1.5 billion building hotels, it slashes food imports and investment in agriculture.

Rafaela Cruz

La Habana 17 Mayo 2022 – 19:42 CEST

A man drags a suitcase in Havana. Diario de Cuba

In Varadero, the waiters had barely finished clearing the tables of the big party bringing the 2022 FITCuba International Tourism Fair to a close when rescuers and firefighters were already looking for victims in the rubble of what was left of the Saratoga Hotel in Havana.

“Bomb!” was what was repeated by the thousands of passers-by who nervously surrounded the mortal remains of the iconic building. One lady in a nurse’s uniform was heard saying, with evident anger: “I’m not surprised, with the hunger there is, and these people do nothing but build hotels.”

It was not a bomb, they say, but rather an accident. The nurse was right, however: these people, the Castro government, are building hotels at such a rate that an unaware observer would assume that they govern a country where education, health, food and infrastructure are in strong condition. But, how can anyone understand a country investing 44 times less in public health and social assistance than in tourism development and real estate for foreigners?

To repeat: the “very humanist” Castroist government is investing 44 times more in hotels than hospital infrastructure. There is no need to speculate what the hospitals are like in this country at this point ? referring to hospitals for the people, as clinics for foreigners, the military and politicians are a separate issue.

The nurse spoke of hunger – that of a people whose plight stands in sharp contrast to the photographs regularly sparking waves of indignation on social media of banquets attended by Castroism’s top brass merrily celebrating official events featuring fine wines and three Michelin-starred tapas.

There is hunger because agriculture is not recovering despite the much-touted “63 measures.” The production of roots and tubers and fruits and vegetables has stagnated at levels far below the 30 pounds per capita per month that the Government has been promising for years, and in 2021 the production of rice, a popular staple, fell by 15%, while that of proteins such as beef, eggs and milk fell by 13.5%, 10.5% and 16%, respectively; and drops in pork production hit records (it plummeted another 53.5% after a fall the previous year).

Of course, when you allocate 13 times more to tourism than to agriculture, it is difficult to reduce hunger. You read that right: agriculture, which employs almost 20% of the labor force in Cuba, and that could produce the 2 billion in annual food imports that the country needs now, receives one thirteenth of what tourism does. But it gets even worse: in 2021 Cuba invested half what it did in 2020. How, then, can there not be hunger in Cuba?

Adding insult to injury, in an aberrant move the Government is spending 1.5 billion dollars building hotels at the same it is reducing the importation of Vietnamese rice, and domestic production is waning. It imported a mere $74.4 million worth of chicken, practically the only protein on Cubans’ tables, during the first quarter of 2022. Couldn’t they at least  import twice as much chicken, when the prices of their American suppliers have not risen?

Castroism’s handling of the nation’s resources is truly outrageous. There is no economic justification for devoting 43% of national investment to a single sector when the country is, literally, falling apart, when it is not exploding. This aggressive investment in tourism has never made sense, turning the country into an importer of all the supplies it needs, which are not produced in Cuba due to a lack of other investments, which greatly reduces its profit margins.

It makes even less sense to continue investing at the same pace in the wake of a pandemic that brought the world to a standstill for two years, suppressing demand for leisure travel like never before, and when many hotels in Cuba are closed, and when even the most optimistic forecasts for 2022 predict 32 tourists per room will arrive ? when in 2018 there were 69, which was hardly a banner year. Above all, it makes no sense when the world is on the verge of a historic economic recession that is poised to devastate the cheap and monotonous tourism that Cuba sells.

Why Castroism is doing this is a mystery, but one thing is crystal clear: it is not possible to do something that is, clearly, so bad, for so long, for good reasons. There is something very shady behind it: money laundering? Under-the-table commissions and bribes? Direct investment in the foreign companies involved in the hotels’ construction so as to have enough properties to distribute between the oligarchs who are ready to tear Cuba up and divvy the spoils if Castroism falls? In the absence of proof, the only thing that can be said, to borrow from Shakespeare, is that, if “something’s rotten Denmark,” in the tropical heat it is downright putrid.

https://diariodecuba.com/economia/1652809324_39564.html

The Washington Post, May 21, 2022

Americas

In Cuba, a frantic search for milk

Laurent Alemany watches as her mother, Yohana Perdomo, holds the small amount of milk powder they have left

Story by Mary Beth Sheridan

Photography by Sarah L. Voisin

May 21, 2022

HAVANA — Her 4-year-old was still asleep when Yohana Perdomo stubbed out her cigarette, grabbed her blue ration book and set out to find Cuba’s most prized product. “As good as gold,” she called it. She padded out the door in flip-flops, past the metal-roofed shacks warming in the morning sun, past the wall spray-painted: Viva Fidel + Raul.

And then she saw it: the local “bodega” that sold government rations. With no line in front. That could only mean one thing, Perdomo thought.

“There’s no milk.”

It was one of the great promises of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. In a nation plagued by malnutrition, Fidel Castro pledged a liter of milk every day for every child. He enshrined a super-producing cow, Ubre Blanca, as a national hero. He was such a dairy nut that the CIA once tried to poison his daily milkshake.

Today, as Cuba careens through its worst economic crisis in 30 years, milk is one of the most potent symbols of the country’s precarious state. Cubans have been hit by mass shortages of dairy and other basic goods, reflecting a confluence of setbacks: The coronavirus pandemic crippled the vital tourism industry. Then-President Donald Trump squeezed the island with extra sanctions, and President Biden held off on reversing them. Socialist ally Venezuela reduced aid and investment.

The result: A nation that imports 70 percent of its food has run desperately short of the cash to buy it.

Inside a state-run store in Havana are a photo of Fidel Castro and a painting of Cuba’s patron saint. The store won’t open for hours, yet even before the sun rises, people are waiting to get into the nearby market.

Cubans wait in lines for hours to get a bottle of subsidized cooking oil or some chicken. “Since you wake up, you are always thinking, what can you eat, where can you find food?” said Perdomo, 28, a manicurist. Milk is among the hardest-to-find products. The government has continued to provide subsidized rations for young children and the sick. Beyond that, though, it has disappeared from most stores.

[Cubans arriving along the Mexican border in record numbers]

Spiking food prices and shortages are threatening to unleash turmoil in many countries, of course, but in Cuba the upheaval is well underway. Young people are fueling the biggest exodus to the United States since the 1980 Mariel boatlift. U.S. border agents have logged more than 114,000 apprehensions of Cubans since October. Perdomo’s 25-year-old brother-in-law, an air-conditioning technician named Esteban, is talking about joining them. “I don’t think we can live this way,” he said.

The Communist government, nervous that the shortages could pose risks to the one-party system, is trying to stimulate agricultural production. “We have to improve things quickly,” Johana Odriozola, the vice minister of economy, acknowledged in an interview. Protests over the lack of food and electricity swept the Caribbean island last July, and another hot summer is coming.

The frustration simmers in Perdomo’s neighborhood, a warren of tiny concrete block and wood homes in a riverside area of Havana called El Fanguito. Perdomo long ago gave up her morning cafe con leche. But her daughter is another story. Milk is Laurent’s entire breakfast, and as Perdomo returned home on that recent Wednesday, the girl was hungry. In her kitchen nook, the mother filled a baby bottle with boiling water, sugar and three scoops from her dwindling supply of milk powder.

“There’s enough milk for tonight,” Perdomo said, shaking the powder jar. “For tomorrow, we don’t know what we’ll do.”

[Cuba’s leaders have long feared change. A big protest shows the risk of resisting it. ]

The chain of calamities leading to Cuba’s milk shortage begins at farms like Victor Rojas’s bucolic spread, a 45-minute drive from Perdomo’s home. The 66-year-old farmer knows exactly what cows need to produce plentiful milk: fortified feed. But in state-run stores, there isn’t any.

“We give them whatever we find — grass, leaves from the banana trees,” Rojas said.

He remembers the glory days, when Castro created massive state-run dairy farms, and a glass of milk was cheap. “Anywhere you went, you could find it,” said the farmer, in a dirty blue shirt and rubber boots. “Because many things came from the Soviet Union.”

They included fertilizer, animal feed and genetic breeding supplies. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did its subsidies. Cuba went from producing a million metric tons of milk in 1990 to 638,000 tons five years later.

Gradually, private farmers took over, but under the thumb of the Communist government. The state rented land to farmers and bought their produce, meat and milk at low, fixed prices — often falling behind in payments. “Since August, we haven’t been paid for our avocados,” Rojas said. And lately, the weather hasn’t cooperated. “There’s no rain,” he said.

He looked up at a nearby hill. A neighbor clip-clopped by on a horse-drawn cart. “There goes Osvaldo,” Rojas said. “He sold his cows. He couldn’t deal with the situation.”

Cuban authorities, anxious to jump-start the economy, have announced a series of changes. For the first time since 1968, thousands of Cubans have been allowed to register small- and medium-size businesses — a big expansion from an earlier “self-employment” program that led to a flowering of private restaurants. Dairy and beef farmers may now sell any output above their official quotas, at market rates. Officials have appealed on TV for Cubans to take advantage of a program to cultivate government-owned farmland for free.

That’s what turned Carlos Chamizo, a sushi-loving Airbnb manager, into a man of the soil.

“My life went from being the perfect guy on Instagram,” he said, pulling his phone from his spotless American Eagle jeans and swiping. He beamed. “100,000 followers.”

Around him, the sun was rising on 54 acres of beautiful but neglected farmland at the edge of the Cuban capital. Chamizo, 33, had studied accounting in Havana before moving to Dubai; the pandemic and a desire for a quieter life brought him back here.

Now he was walking by an old, dilapidated cow shed. “We have to clean this up,” he said, touching the tattered thatched roof. He currently had five milk cows. “With proper food and machines, it will be 20.”

[U.S., Cuba hold first migration talks in four years]

Yet he lacked even basic infrastructure. Only 7 percent of arable land in Cuba is irrigated. Chamizo’s farmhands sloshed buckets of trucked-in water onto the vegetable crops. He had started purchasing sprinklers during his trips abroad. “I buy them on Amazon,” he explained. “I bring them in my luggage.”

Despite the challenges, he was enthusiastic. “We privates are having new ideas, new ways of doing things,” he said in English. “It will get better.”

But when? Alain Rodríguez León, director of cattle farming at the Agriculture Ministry, acknowledges the new reforms will have little effect in the short term. “With the cycles of production, it will take us three or four years to see the results,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cuba will remain dependent on imports. It buys about half its milk abroad, in powdered form, with distant New Zealand its biggest supplier. Shipments have been slowed by disruptions in the global supply chain, as well as the Communist government’s “lack of currency,” according to Fonterra, the biggest dairy exporter in New Zealand.

On Thursday morning, Perdomo returned to the government bodega. She’s entitled to a kilo of powdered milk, three times a month, for the equivalent of 12 cents per ration.

“The milk still hasn’t arrived?” she asked.

“They just called me,” the employee said. “It’s coming.”

Back at the house, Perdomo’s younger sister, Yanira, was curled up in a threadbare armchair, scrolling through social media and keeping an eye on her 4-year-old niece. “Milk,” the girl whimpered, as her mother walked through the door, empty-handed, and settled onto the couch. Laurent nestled alongside her and began to cry. “Mommy, the milk!”

Yanira got up and pulled a bottle from the refrigerator. She had brought milk powder from her home next door to make up for her niece’s shortfall. But here’s the rub: Yanira had originally borrowed it from her sister. Even with some delays, the government is still providing milk rations for the sick and for kids through age 6. There’s little for anyone else, though — including Yanira’s 7-year-old son.

Sometimes Yanira’s mother-in-law helps out, buying milk powder on the black market. But a two-pound sack had soared to 1,200 pesos, a week’s salary for a typical Cuban worker. So her older sister chipped in, watering down Laurent’s milk so there was enough to share.

[Fidel Castro is dead but Cubans want some of his policies to continue]

Before the problems of the past two years — the pandemic, the food shortages, the spiraling inflation exacerbated by a government monetary reform — the sisters could enjoy an occasional dairy treat. Maybe a caramel flan, or ice cream. Those delicacies had disappeared from their homes, appearing only on Facebook, where millions of Cubans had started selling things and engaging in once-unthinkable gripe-fests, and Yanira was now staring at a post.

“Look,” she said.

“Delicious ice cream, various flavors,” she read from her phone. “Fifty U.S. dollars, payment in foreign currency.”

She smirked. “You like ice cream,” she said to her sister.

Yanira continued scrolling. The ice cream situation was all over social media. It was one more sign of the glaring inequalities in a supposedly socialist society. Some people had foreign currency and access to tubs of the creamy delight. Others could manage only a few subsidized scoops at Coppelia, the massive ice cream parlor in Havana created by Fidel Castro.

Even there, the strains were showing. Yanira read the complaints: rising prices, diminishing quality. Sometimes it seemed the government didn’t know how to do anything anymore. The Communist “cathedral of ice cream” once boasted a list of 26 flavors, intended to compete with the Colossus of the North — Howard Johnson’s. Now, on any given day, there might be three or four.

Yanira showed her husband the phone. “Look at the photo of the ice cream they have at Coppelia,” she said. “What a lack of respect.”

Despite their privations, the family didn’t join last July’s demonstrations. “Why protest, if it doesn’t resolve your problems?” Yohana said with a shrug. But she couldn’t help wondering what had happened in a nation so rich in coffee, tobacco, sugar: “Where did this all go?”

Government billboards around Havana left no doubt about what was to blame: the decades-old American trade embargo.

“It’s United States, United States, United States,” Yohana said. But couldn’t the government do something?

“It’s easier to say, it’s all the fault of the blockade.”

[Cubans who joined July protests now face stiff sentences]

Of course, it isn’t all the fault of the blockade. The coronavirus pandemic pummeled Cuba’s already-fragile economy, contributing to an 11 percent plunge in gross domestic product in 2020. The tourism industry, powered by planeloads of sun-seeking Canadians and Europeans, is Cuba’s top source of hard currency. But the island didn’t fully reopen to vacationers until last November, well after other Caribbean destinations.

“We decided that, whatever it cost, you had to preserve the health of the Cuban people,” said María del Carmen Orellana, vice minister of tourism.

Beyond the pandemic, though, a raft of U.S. sanctions does explain some of the economic pain. One of the most affected sectors is travel: while Americans have not been allowed to visit Cuba as tourists for years, there was a surge of educational and “people-to-people” cultural visits thanks to the rapprochement initiated by President Barack Obama. Trump, his successor, sharply curtailed Americans’ trips to the island — banning U.S. cruise ships from docking, stopping flights to cities outside Havana and barring stays in most hotels, saying they were controlled by the government or its allies.

Trump also blacklisted Western Union’s Cuban financial partner Fincimex, which is linked to a military-run company. That led to the shutdown of more than 400 money-transfer offices on the island. This month, the Biden administration lifted some of Trump’s prohibitions on travel and remittances, including a cap on how much money may be sent to relatives in Cuba. The step could eventually help ease some of the shortages. A senior U.S. official told journalists, however, that it’s “going to take time” to find a mechanism that doesn’t involve Fincimex.

And the Biden administration left in place many of Trump’s penalties — including the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that has discouraged banks from financing the nation’s purchases abroad.

Trump administration officials said their measures were intended to isolate the Communist government over its “oppression of the Cuban people.” Obama’s opening, they noted, hadn’t translated into any major improvement in Cuba’s dismal human rights record. The government’s crackdown on the July protests underscored its intolerance of organized dissent, and led Biden to postpone his plans to loosen sanctions. Analysts say both U.S. presidents’ actions have been shaped by a desire to appeal to politically powerful Cuban Americans.

The Trump measures added up to a gut punch for the island. Lacking hard currency, Cuba suffered a 40 percent decline in imports in the past two years, officials say. While there are exemptions to the embargo for food — much of Cuba’s chicken comes from the United States — it’s not permitted to purchase on credit, as is common in global trade.

Juan Triana, an economist at the University of Havana, said that the Cuban government’s economic policies were responsible in part for the long lines of people waiting for food and medicine. Washington’s sanctions, though, contributed. “I’m not one of those who says that Trump’s policies to intensify the blockade are the cause of all of this,” he said. “But without a doubt, these measures have cost us a lot.”

The sanctions have added even more unpredictability to a helter-skelter food distribution system. Yohana Perdomo has become used to its vagaries. On the recent Wednesday, when she first went to the bodega for milk, she was told it was unavailable — but the store finally had the salt she had been entitled to receive a month earlier. Adding to the confusion, the bodega manager told a reporter later that day that he indeed had milk — it just wasn’t Perdomo’s day to buy it.

[The Cuban town Mr. Hershey built]

Every now and then, some long-vanished food item suddenly reappears in Cuba. It happened that Friday, after Perdomo had, at last, picked up her child’s powdered milk. An employee of another store had knocked on doors in her neighborhood, bearing some remarkable news.

A shipment of liquid milk — flavored with vanilla — had arrived from Spain.

It was, Perdomo learned, some sort of Cuban government program. The gold-and-white carton would cost her 50 pesos, the equivalent of about $2, or half a day’s wages. When she brought it home and set it on her manicure table, her daughter approached reverently, studying the carton, kissing it and then disappearing into the bedroom with it. Perdomo found her in bed, snuggling with it.

“We’d never seen anything like it,” Perdomo later recalled.

The delivery didn’t signify any big change in Cuba’s enduring crisis. Perdomo would continue to struggle with her business, sidelined by the cost of replacing a worn-out manicure brush. She and her sister would continue to obsess over where to find chicken. The coronavirus — which everyone thought was tamed — would infect the women’s grandfather.

But for two glorious days, life was different. A little girl had milk.

Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2022/cuba-economy-milk-shortage/

From the Archives

The New York Times, December 8, 2016

Americas

Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Keeps Food Off Residents’ Plates

By AZAM AHMED

Workers in a lettuce field this past week at a farm in Alamar, outside Havana.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

HAVANA — For Lisset Felipe, privation is a standard facet of Cuban life, a struggle shared by nearly all, whether they’re enduring blackouts or hunting for toilet paper.

But this year has been different, in an even more fundamental way, she said. She has not bought a single onion this year, nor a green pepper, both staples of the Cuban diet. Garlic, she said, is a rarity, while avocado, a treat she enjoyed once in a while, is all but absent from her table.

“It’s a disaster,” said Ms. Felipe, 42, who sells air-conditioners for the government. “We never lived luxuriously, but the comfort we once had doesn’t exist anymore.”

The changes in Cuba in recent years have often hinted at a new era of possibilities: a slowly opening economy, warming relations with the United States after decades of isolation, a flood of tourists meant to lift the fortunes of Cubans long marooned on the outskirts of modern prosperity.

But the record arrival of nearly 3.5 million visitors to Cuba last year has caused a surging demand for food, causing ripple effects that are upsetting the very promise of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch. Thanks in part to the United States embargo, but also to poor planning by the island’s government, goods that Cubans have long relied on are going to well-heeled tourists and the hundreds of private restaurants that cater to them, leading to soaring prices and empty shelves.

Without supplies to match the increased appetite, some foods have become so expensive that even basic staples are becoming unaffordable for regular Cubans.

“The private tourism industry is in direct competition for good supplies with the general population,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and specialist on the Cuban economy. “There are a lot of unanticipated consequences and distortions.”

There has long been a divide between Cubans and tourists, with beach resorts and Havana hotels effectively reserved for outsiders willing to shell out money for a more comfortable version of Cuba. But with the country pinning its hopes on tourism, welcoming a surge of new travelers to feed the anemic economy, a more basic inequality has emerged amid the nation’s experiment with capitalism.

Rising prices for staples like onions and peppers, or for modest luxuries like pineapples and limes, have left many unable to afford them. Beer and soda can be hard to find, often snapped up in bulk by restaurants.

It is a startling evolution in Cuba, where a shared future has been a pillar of the revolution’s promise. While the influx of new money from tourists and other visitors has been a boon for the island’s growing private sector, most Cubans still work within the state-run economy and struggle to make ends meet.

President Raúl Castro has acknowledged the surge in agricultural prices and moved to cap them. In a speech in April, he said the government would look into the causes of the soaring costs and crack down on middlemen for price gouging, with limits on what people could charge for certain fruits and vegetables.

“We cannot sit with our hands crossed before the unscrupulous manner of middlemen who only think of earning more,” he told party members, according to local news reports.

But the government price ceilings seem to have done little to provide good, affordable produce for Cubans. Instead, they have simply moved goods to the commercial market, where farmers and vendors can fetch higher prices, or to the black market.

Havana offers stark examples of this growing chasm.

At two state-run markets, where the government sets prices, the shelves this past week were monuments to starch — sweet potatoes, yucca, rice, beans and bananas, plus a few malformed watermelons with pallid flesh.

As for tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cucumbers, garlic or lettuce — to say nothing of avocados, pineapples or cilantro — there were only promises.

“Try back Saturday for tomatoes,” one vendor offered. It was more of a question than a suggestion.

But at a nearby co-op market, where vendors have more freedom to set their prices, the fruits and vegetables missing from the state-run stalls were elegantly stacked in abundance. Rarities like grapes, celery, ginger and an array of spices competed for shoppers’ attentions.

The market has become the playground of the private restaurants that have sprung up to serve visitors. They employ cadres of buyers to scour the city each day for fruits, vegetables and nonperishable goods, bearing budgets that overwhelm those of the average household.

“Almost all of our buyers are paladares,” said one vendor, Ruben Martínez, using the Cuban name for private restaurants, which include about 1,700 establishments across the country. “They are the ones who can afford to pay more for the quality.”

By Cuban standards, the prices were astronomic. Several Cuban residents said simply buying a pound of onions and a pound of tomatoes at the prices charged that day would consume 10 percent or so of a standard government salary of about $25 a month.

“I don’t even bother going to those places,” said Yainelys Rodriguez, 39, sitting in a park in Havana while her daughter climbed a slide. “We eat rice and beans and a boiled egg most days, maybe a little pork.”

Mrs. Rodriguez’s family is on the lower end of the income ladder, so she supplements earnings with the odd cleaning job she can find. With that, she cares for her two children and an infirm mother.

Trying to buy tomatoes, she said, “is an insult.”

Another mother, Leticia Alvarez Cañada, described what it was like to prepare decent meals for her family with prices so high. “We have to be magicians,” she said.

The struggle is somewhat easier now that she is in the private sector and no longer working for the government, she said. She quit her job as a nurse to start a small business selling fried pork skin and other snacks from a cart. Now she earns about 10 times more every month.

“The prices have just gone crazy in the last few years,” said Mrs. Cañada, 41. “There’s just no equilibrium between the prices and the salaries.”

While many Cubans have long been hardened to the reality of going without, never more than during what they call the “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new dynamic that has emerged in recent months threatens the nation’s future, experts warn.

“The government has consistently failed to invest properly in the agriculture sector,” said Juan Alejandro Triana, an economist at the University of Havana. “We don’t just have to feed 11 million people anymore. We have to feed more than 14 million.”

“In the next five years, if we don’t do something about it, food will become a national security issue here,” he added.

The government gives Cubans ration books to help provide staples like rice, beans and sugar, but they do not cover items like fresh produce. Tractors and trucks are limited and routinely break down, often causing the produce to spoil en route. Inefficiency, red tape and corruption at the local level also stymie productivity, while a lack of fertilizer reduces yield (though it keeps produce organic, by default).

Economists also argue that setting price ceilings can discourage farmers and sellers. If prices are set so low they cannot turn a profit, they argue, why bother working? Most will try to redirect their goods to the private or black market.

“From the point of view of the farmer, what would you do?” asked Dr. Feinberg, the California professor. “When the differentials are that great, it requires a really selfless or foolish person to play by the rules.”

Paladares sometimes go directly to farms to buy goods, and even provide farmers seeds for specialty products that do not ordinarily grow in Cuba, like arugula, cherry tomatoes and zucchini.

Most acknowledge that they distort the market in some ways, and this year the government stopped issuing licenses for new restaurants in Havana. But some restaurant owners argue that it is the government’s responsibility to create better supply.

“It’s true, the prices keep going up and up,” said Laura Fernandez, a manager at El Cocinero, a former peanut-oil factory converted into a high-priced restaurant. “But that’s not just the fault of the private sector. There is generally a lot of chaos and disorder in the market.”

On the outskirts of Havana, Miguel Salcines has cultivated a beautiful farm. Rows of tidy crops stretch toward the edge of his modest 25 acres, where he employs about 130 people.

Though he grows standard products on behalf of the government, there is no product he is more excited about than his new zucchini. A farmer for nearly 50 years, he had never grown the crop before, but planted a batch two months ago.

Now, the vegetables are coming into shape, the spots of bright orange flowers visible amid the green plumage. He knows this crop is not for the regular market, or for the government. It is like the arugula he grows.

It is for the tourist market and, by extension, the future.

“We are talking about an elite market,” he said. “The Cuban markets are a market of necessity.”

Hannah Berkeley Cohen and Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Havana, and Frances Robles from Miami.

A version of this article appears in print on December 9, 2016, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Is Keeping Food Off Its Residents’ Plates.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/08/world/americas/cuba-fidel-castro-food-tourism.html