Protests in Cuba: Food Shortages Will Persist

Photo: Sadiel Mederos.

Protests in Cuba: Food Shortages Will Persist

26 / marzo / 2024

The appearance of a truck carrying sacks of rice and another with powdered milk after the protest that took place in Santiago de Cuba on March 17, 2024, was no coincidence. The authorities in the eastern city attempted to appease the citizens with some food.

According to Beatriz Jhonson, the first secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago de Cuba, on a social media post, some of the pending rationed food items were sold to the population.

“At this moment, the rations are in a partial distribution process (the first three pounds of rice and the four pounds of sugar), and there is a great mobilization of leaders to respond, because it is now that we have these resources available,” said the official.

In Matanzas and Granma, people also demanded food among their complaints. The food situation has worsened in the last three years due to the progressive increase in prices, the decrease in national production, the shortage of foreign currency for imports, and instability with basic rationed products.

But the protests had a significant political component, although one of its immediate causes was related to the need for food. The roots of the protests are intertwined with more complex political, economic, and social issues.

An Ongoing Food Crisis

Food scarcity is not a new phenomenon in Cuba, but the intensity and frequency of shortages have reached a critical point in recent months.

The government’s inability to meet expectations to provide basic needs —such as snacks for children or milk for newborns— becomes a powerful catalyst that pushed many people to protest.

The image of families desperately searching for basic products or of the elderly rummaging through trash cans to find food is a reminder of food insecurity in the country.

The despair of not being able to guarantee basic food for children is a heartbreaking reality that reflects the severity of the crisis and explains why women have been the protagonists of the most recent protests in the eastern part of the country. Power outages exacerbate the situation, causing the spoilage of whatever little is acquired.

The current situation is the result of a complex mix of internal and external factors. However, it is the failed internal policies and poor economic management that have played a crucial role in recent years.

Dependence on food imports, combined with insufficient domestic production, has created a breeding ground for the current crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation by hitting the tourism sector —one of the main sources of income— which, four years later, has not been able to recover.

The situation worsens when considering unfulfilled government promises and excuses that often look outside the country.

Faced with the current scenario, the Cuban government has failed to fully acknowledge its inability to guarantee the people’s food. In fact, it was forced to seek help from the UN to ensure powdered milk for children under 2 years old.

The Government Cannot Solve Hunger

During a meeting in March 2024 with the Ministry of Finance and Prices, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel acknowledged that food and other product prices will not decrease and that this is one of the reasons why the population does not trust the authorities.

“Prices will remain high because we have a structural problem of supply and demand. We cannot allow abusive and speculative prices as state and non-state entities are doing,” said Díaz-Canel.

The increase in prices in Cuba is not new. According to data from the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), prices increased by 9.45% between 2022 and 2023, with a Consumer Price Index (CPI) of 41.77% in 2023 compared to 33.32% in 2022. Products with the highest monthly variation were red beans, black beans, and malanga. Powdered milk and garlic were the most expensive basic foods.

Although some economists argue that the ONEI’s statistics fall short of reality, nonetheless it becomes an official confirmation of the critical situation experienced by Cubans.

“The increase in food prices continues to lead, by a wide margin, the general increase in consumer prices. Without an increase in food supply, it is difficult to assume that inflation in Cuba would substantially decrease,” explained economist Pedro Monreal in an analysis of official statistics for February 2024.

With three common products —though not always— on the Cuban table (chicken, rice, and bread), the severity of the situation can be exemplified.

Chicken is the main animal protein consumed in Cuba, mainly in thigh form. Cuba imports a good part of it from the United States, and according to available data, in January 2024, 13.3% more tons were purchased than in December 2023, thanks to a price reduction.

Although the data does not specify whether the purchases were made by the state or the private sector, it is known that chicken is one of the main products imported by the Cuban government from the US.

“I don’t know where that goes because the chicken hasn’t reached the ration store for a long time; much less for special diets for medical reasons,” commented a breast cancer patient in Camagüey to El Toque.

Packages of 10 pounds of chicken range from 4,000 to 5,000 pesos, depending on the location and online store, while boxes of 40 pounds cost at least 12,000 pesos. (Most Cubans earn less than 5,000 pesos a month.)

Regarding bread —although since March 12, the distribution of a ship with 8,300 tons of wheat to guarantee production in the provinces from Ciego de Ávila to Guantánamo began— the situation is still difficult in the rest of the country. Bread rolls are distributed according to the planning of each territory, which can range from a few days a week to only for children up to 14 years old and pregnant women.

Alberto Lopez, Minister of the Food Industry, told the press that the arrival of the ship with flour “allowed to shorten the time needed to stabilize bread production, and it will not be necessary to wait until the end of March, as previously announced.”

Sources consulted in Ciego de Avila, Las Tunas, and Camagüey assured El Toque that the situation with food has changed, but it is still difficult to guarantee a bread roll for breakfast and another for the snack for children or the elderly. “Someone in the family has to stop eating for someone else to eat,” said a retired man from Las Tunas.

As for rice, by 2030, Cuba aimed to be self-sufficient thanks to the development of a grain production program that began in 2012. However, out of the 600,000 tons of rice needed annually for the country two-thirds are now imported, and that when there are funds to do so.

According to statements by Oslando Linares Morell, director of the Rice Technological Division of the Agricultural Business Group, the main problems with rice campaigns are due to the general lack of inputs and spare parts for rice combines.

The situation is so tense with rice that the per capita pounds that should be sold through the ration book often arrive incomplete or delayed.

The importation of almost all basic products and the lack of liquidity of the Cuban government are the main causes of irregularity in the availability.

“We must seek ways to generate foreign currency,” reiterated Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in a governmental meeting. “Exports and other things we must do; we have to approach them with careful thought because we need to put food on people’s tables.”

However, as on other occasions, it wasn’t clear from the press report what those “ways of revenue” will be that will allow changing the situation of the food supply, which has been sold in small quantities during the last few months.

Ensuring the completion and timely distribution of the basic rations is one of the main concerns of Cubans, given that these products constitute the only form of sustenance for many families considering the high prices on the illicit market and limited availability of food.

“Only those who have relatives abroad and can buy (food) for them in online stores can eat a little better,” reflects a doctor from Ciego de Ávila. “Every day we see more elderly people searching through garbage hoping to find something to eat.”

There will be more protests because there will be more hunger

Less than 24 hours after the protests on May 17th, they were the talk of the town among Cubans and the foreign press. While all Cuba discussed the events, “Frequency 12, a TV program in Granma, discussed musical events, further studies, lost items, and sent messages for the 205th anniversary of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes’ birth.

“We want to resemble you, your interests, and make your lives easier in terms of information,” repeated the program’s host, while discussing any topic except what the people of Granma surely wanted to know about: the protests and solutions.

Only in Santiago de Cuba did local media mention the protests in the press —though they didn’t call them by their name. In the other provinces where there were demonstrations, no official explained how, specifically, they would respond to the population’s demands for food.

Government propaganda messages have focused on accusing Cubans abroad and the US Government as instigators, highlighting that the reality of social media is entirely different from real life, or referring to the distribution of the basic food rations in some territories.

“Creative resistance” is the call made to a people who still don’t know how they will put food on the table.

No short-term solution to hunger

Food insecurity in Cuba is so severe that the independent Food Monitoring Program recently warned about the illegal hunting and sale of cats for human consumption.

“Until a few months ago, cat meat, like many other products acquired through dubious means, was sold covertly for a very specific market. However, explicit ads proposing cat meat have been circulating on Guantánamo’s sales networks for several days,” revealed the program.

The situation with food is not expected to improve in the short term. The Food Monitoring Program reports reflect a sustained increase in the price of products such as milk, beans, rice, oil, eggs, and pork in 2023.

Each of the basic food items shows instability in retail stores and, therefore, a progressive increase in prices.

Without liquidity to buy food abroad or sufficient incentives to increase agricultural production, Cuban food will continue to depend on purchases made by emigrants for their relatives and whatever appears for those who do not receive assistance or remittances.

The scenario reflects deep social discontent that goes beyond material scarcity; it is also a crisis of confidence and dashed expectations.

The food crisis is not just a problem of logistics or resources; it is a reflection of political priorities and the need for structural reforms that prioritize the welfare of the population.

The Cuban people need and deserve to live with dignity. They have the right to a life free from hunger and the right to protest in order to achieve it.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.
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