January 1, 2009, Cuba celebrates 50 years of revolution. Not 50
years since the revolution, 50 years of revolution – ongoing, never
ending. And if the Castros and their cronies continue have their way
with Cuba, Cubans can anticipate another 50 years of revolution. As
one of the massive billboards in Cuba says: ‘The present: revolution. The future: more revolution!’
is a humourous saying in Cuba about the revolution that unfortunately
hits the mark: “The three greatest successes of the revolution are
health, education and sports. The three greatest failures are
breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
easy to find information on the three greatest successes of the
revolution: the Cuban propaganda machine is extremely effective.
It’s a little more difficult to find out about the three greatest
failures. The only way is to go to Cuba and stay there – not in an
all-inclusive resort or in Havana, where food tends to be more
plentiful, but traveling independently throughout the country, to the
smaller villages and rural areas. Look around; talk with ordinary
people. See what you can find for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
our three extended visits to Cuba, all since 2003, and the last as
recent as 2008, we did just that. And we came to the sad conclusion
that many of Cuba’s eleven million people are just barely getting by
on miserable diets of rice and beans. They can’t afford to buy fresh
fruits and vegetables – which in any case are often simiply not
available. There’s no fresh milk, almost no cheese or yogurt, very
few eggs, and only scanty supplies of meat and fish.
Cubans’ diets may satisfy their nutritional needs (and there has been
some question about that), they are hardly varied or balanced. And
they are certainly not tasty or even vaguely appetizing.
this is so, in a country with such a favourable climate and good
arable land, is no mystery. Food is simply not being grown in
sufficient quantities to feed Cuba’s population of eleven million
1998, Kost reported that around 60% of Cuba’s eleven million hectares
could be classed as ‘agricultural.’ Of that, around 70% was actually
being tilled, and only 20% of the tilled land was also irrigated.
Almost all food crops require irrigation.
what we could see in 2008, the percentage of tilled land must now be
much lower. Many many fields lay fallow, and have done for years.
Of the land that is being actively cultivated, most is dedicated to
growing sugar cane, tobacco and citrus fruits for export.
what food is grown in Cuba is gobbled up by those who can afford to
buy it: tourists at all-inclusive resorts, Cuban government officials
and high-ranking military, and those Cubans fortunate enough to
either have relatives from abroad sending them money or have jobs in
the tourist industry that give them access to ‘convertibles,’ the
alternate, and only really valuable, currency in Cuba.
Cubans work for the state. (Private enterprise is still actively
discouraged or prohibited in Cuba.) State employees are paid only in
pesos – anywhere from $8 to a maximum of $35 a month – wages that
for most Cubans do not cover their most basic living expenses. They
are dependent on the government’s ration system for the bulk of their
food – primarily rice and beans – which they must buy, albeit at
subsidized prices. They cannot afford to buy ‘extras’ like fresh
vegetables, fruit, milk, meat and fish.
as a country also cannot afford to import fresh foods for its people.
A few canned and packaged goods come from Russia, Spain and
Portugal. Tomatoes, hot dogs, cooking oil and condiments, a few
fruits and juices, a few soups, dried noodles, crackers and cookies.
These are sold not in the ration shops, but in ‘dollar stores,’ where
purchases must be made in ‘convertibles,’ not pesos. This puts them
out of reach of many, if not most, Cubans.
the food aid sent by countries such as the USA – frozen chicken,
apples, cheese – are sold in dollar stores. And the Cuban
government has consistently refused food aid offered by the United
Nations, stating that its people do not need this aid. Let them eat
rice and beans!
us take a closer look at the three greatest failures of the
revolution: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Controlled Agriculture: Poor Production and Dismal Distribution
our visits to Cuba we travelled, mostly by painfully slow bus,
throughout almost the entire country. But in all our traipsing about
we saw very little significant agricultural activity. Fields once
used to grow vegetables lie fallow, covered in weeds, and often
tractors sit rusting where they died, in the middle of a field, by
the side of the road. Any that are still running are being used for
more important purposes – the transport of people and goods –
there’s also a chronic shortage of buses, trucks and cars in Cuba.
once produced quite a lot of food – and sugar cane. Enough to feed
its people, enough to export. Even after the revolution, and with the
US embargo, agricultural production remained high: the Soviet Union
bought Cuban sugar at higher than world market prices and heavily
subsidized the Cuban economy. But with the collapse of the Soviet
Union, the Cuban economy collapsed. And so did its agricultural
some other Soviet satellites responded to the collapse of the Soviet
Union by opening their economies to free enterprise and encouraging
greater agricultural production, the Cuban government chose to
continue its central control of all agricultural production and
marketing. All farm land is owned by the state. Farmers have
contracts with the state which specify the amount of produce they
must provide to the state, at rates set by the state.
we talked to in Cuba uniformly stated that the government did not pay
them enough for the crops they grew. The Cuban government does
provide farmers with subsidized seed, fertilizer (not all organic as
the Cuban government might have the world believe), and irrigation
equipment. But even with this help, farmers said they were unable to
make ends meet. Many had difficulty meeting their contracts.
newly ‘elected’ President Raul Castro has recently announced policy
changes that the Cuban government says will allow farmers to sell
‘excess’ produce at local markets. This option has theoretically
been available – to some farmers – for some time. Farmers
growing fruits and vegetables can take them to farmers’ markets in
various cities and towns.
are very few farmers markets anywhere in the country, and they are
typically very small, with little in the way of produce. There just
isn’t that much ‘excess.’ For examplein
all of Havana, a city of some three and a half million people, we
found only three small markets where farmers were selling an
extremely limited number of fruits and vegetables – mostly oranges,
bananas, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuces and
many farmers have been prohibited from selling their ‘excess’ produce
– particularly farmers raising beef or dairy cattle. Indeed it is
a criminal offense to sell beef in Cuba. Anyone caught doing so may
be imprisoned for anything from three months to five years. The
penalties for selling milk are somewhat less severe – anything from
a fine to the loss of the cow.
Raul Castro’s new policies will work to increase the amount and
variety of fresh foods available to ordinary Cubans remains to be
seen. Considerable investment in the agricultural sector and
initiative on the part of the people will be required. Neither of
these have been much in evidence for many years.
of the farms we saw in Cuba were growing either sugar cane or
tobacco. (Around 70% of all agricultural land is planted in either
sugar cane or tobacco.) There were a few pineapple groves, a few
orange orchards, and a handful of small farms growing vegetables –
dry beans, cabbage, corn.
few farmers we saw out working in the fields were almost all
bare-handed (and many bare-footed), toiling under the hot sun. They
were using machetes, or broken hoes and shovels, to hack and chop
away at the weeds and unwanted stalks of cane or corn – terribly
tiring and hopelessly inefficient. They looked as they probably felt
– exhausted and defeated. Farm labour is hard labour, made harder
by the knowledge that no matter how much you reap, you will not reap
the rewards you deserve.
it was clear to us that large-scale agriculture in Cuba was
pathetically anemic, and completely unable to meet the needs of the
Cuban people, we had to wonder why, given the paucity of fruits and
vegetables, individual Cubans did not plant their own gardens.
we travel through Central America and Asia we see little gardens
everywhere – a patch of ground beside a house, the narrow strip of
dirt between the concrete dividers in the middle of a road, a vacant
lot – growing lettuce, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes,
onions, potatoes, and herbs. Why not in Cuba?
asked several Cubans, especially those who had gardens with flowers,
why they didn’t grow vegetables. We were given all sorts of answers,
from ‘because the soil is no good for vegetables’ to ‘because other
people would just steal them.’ One woman may have put her finger on
the real reason when she said, simply: “it’s not our culture.”
Perhaps Cubans consider tending vegetable gardens – working the
soil – as an activity more appropriate for peasants, not for modern
young Cuban doctor offered another explanation: “After so many
years without eating vegetables, it’s no longer part of our culture.
We eat rice and manioc, and pork when we can get it. That’s what
we’ve become accustomed to, and now, that’s what we like.”
Cuban government has made much of its ‘community garden’ projects,
and on our second visit we visited a couple of them, and saw several
others. A variety of vegetables were being grown in raised beds, and
the gardens appeared to be well-tended. Most of them had modern drip
on our third trip to Cuba we were disappointed to find that several
of the community gardens we had visited on our second trip had been
abandoned. Although the raised beds were still intact, and the
irrigation hoses still in place, the gardens’ gates were wired or
padlocked shut. Locals told us that the government wasn’t willing to
pay the workers to tend the gardens any more: its interest had dried
was a similar story with the vaunted ‘roof-top gardens’ in Havana.
Although several of these had been started up with great fanfare,
many were literally withering away. In some cases the lack of
running water in a building meant that someone had to carry buckets
of water up several flights of stairs (no elevators and/or no
electricity either) to the garden. The enthusiasm for doing this
waned after the initial hoopla: political motivation was apparently
what do most Cubans eat? Take a look into the ration shops –
there’s at least one in every neighbourhood or community – and
Cuban Ration System: Rice and Beans
Cuban ration system was introduced as a temporary measure in 1990,
after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its devastating effect on
the Cuban economy and Cuban agricultural production.
to popular belief, the Cuban ration system does not provide Cubans
with ‘free’ food. Rather it sets limits on what Cubans are permitted
to buy at special ration shops – and there are almost no other
stores where ordinary Cubans can buy food. Rations are limited to a
paltry amount of a meagre number of pathetic food-stuffs.
the ration shops we visited we saw the small bags of low-grade rice,
shriveled black beans, coffee beans mixed with a liberal amount of
dried peas (or was it dried peas with a few coffee beans?).
Dour-faced employees poured out a piddling amount of cooking oil into
containers held by equally unsmiling Cuban ‘shoppers.’ They measured
out a little sugar, and a relatively generous amount of salt.
Cuban is now entitled to buy five eggs per month (up from three the
year before!) at the ‘regular price,’ and a further four at a higher
price. And they can purchase a blob of disgustingly grey ‘meat
product’ (inedible as far as we were concerned), and sometimes some
little fish that we might use as bait.
ration booklet allows parents with children under seven years of age
to buy a small bag of powdered milk – enough for perhaps one glass
a day. For children between seven and twelve, parents may purchase a
packet of soy yogurt a day (around 300 ml).
children are also given special biscuits, which the government claims
are fortified with vitamins and minerals. They are given these at
school, and we saw lots of them lying on the streets or in gutters,
where even the dogs, hungry though they were, wouldn’t touch them.
tried one. It was tooth-breakingly hard, and tasted like cardboard
mixed with dirt. We suspect these biscuits are similar to the ‘hard
tack’ given to soldiers during the First and Second World Wars.
Those may have been fortified. Whether the Cuban ones are fortified
or not is anyone’s guess. If they are, there’s a lot of vitamins and
minerals being wasted.
ration booklet also allows Cubans to go to their local bakery to buy
one small white bun a day – each. For that they stand in long
lines, waiting and hoping that there will still be buns there by the
time they reach the head of the line. Sometimes supplies run out.
Interestingly, we were able to go to several bakeries and buy buns.
The bakers quickly pocketed our coins: selling to foreigners is
it has been reported that Cubans ought to be able to purchase
potatoes and bananas through the ration system, at no time did we see
either of these things for sale in a ration shop – or any other
fresh vegetable or fruit. These must be procured in some other way –
at a market, if one exists, on the black market, or at a ‘dollar
store’ – options which are only available to Cubans who have some
‘discretionary’ income. And there are precious few of those.
a non-food related aside, one of the scarcest items in the ration
system is toilet paper. Although it’s theoretically available, we
never saw any in a ration shop. Most Cubans use newspaper – sheets
of the only newspaper available in Cuba, the ‘Granma,’ with its
endless coverage of the revolution and diatribes by Fidel Castro.
With quintessential Cuban humour, they took particular delight in
using pages with Fidel’s photo for their dirtiest business! Good for
perhaps the biggest problem, in terms of the Cuban diet, is its lack
of protein. Meat is incredibly scarce. There are a few dairy and
cattle ranches, but we saw almost no fresh milk or cheese, except
what was imported from Argentina, France or Denmark, and available
only at dollar stores for prices well out of reach of most Cubans.
All of the beef that is grown in Cuba goes to the all-inclusive
resorts and, according to every Cuban we talked to, government
officials and the military.
more appalling is this story, repeated several times, in different
communities all over Cuba. The all-inclusive hotels, when they serve
the various cuts of beef to foreign tourists, keep the bones aside.
Every week or two a government truck comes to collect the bones.
These are taken to nearby villages and sold – SOLD – to eager and
waiting Cubans. The townsfolk get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning of
the ‘usual day the truck comes’ to wait for the truck. Sometimes it
comes, and sometimes it doesn’t: no notice is given.
stood with a crowd of Cubans, waiting for the ‘bone truck’ in one
small town. It didn’t come. They left disappointed, but determined
that it would come ‘next week,’ and they’d be there. Again. Even
though we didn’t see it, I have an indelible image of the Cuban
government tossing old bones to its people. This is Castro’s Cuba.
ration system does enable Cubans to buy fresh pork, when it’s
available, from local butchers. To satisfy their insatiable desire
for meat, many Cuban families try to raise a pig or two a year to
provide them with pork, which they adore. They eat it all – ears,
feet, tail and blood. But they especially relish the fat.
‘Chicharones’ – deep-fried pieces of pig fat – are the most
popular snack in Cuba.
the ration system also has a provision for chicken, all of the Cubans
we spoke to said that they had not been able to buy chicken for
years. We did see several poultry farms in Cuba, many of which
appeared to be dedicated to egg production. The only chicken we saw
for sale was frozen, in dollar stores, and came from the USA, Spain
and France. At pretty much western prices, it was prohibitively
expensive for most Cubans.
is almost as scarce in Cuba as meat. Cuba does have a fishing fleet,
which according to government ads on the tv catches lots of fish and
shellfish, including lobsters. But again the vast majority of these
fish go to all-inclusive hotels and government and military
officials. Few Cubans can afford to buy or eat fish. It is illegal
for them to buy or eat any kind of shell-fish or lobster. These are
exclusively reserved for tourists, and for markets in Japan and
Cubans who live in coastal villages may try their luck fishing from
the shore. A few have leaky little boats that they take out when
they can. Most of these boats do not have engines, and certainly
not engines powerful enough to go very far: the Cuban government does
not want to give its people a means of escape – too many of them
would take it, in a heartbeat. (Cubans are not allowed to leave
their country. They are virtual prisoners on their little island.)
fishermen fish just for their own families, or to trade their catch
for something else they need. A few may sell it on the infamous
‘black market.’ All of the fish that we were served by ‘ordinary
Cubans’ (ie. not at our bed and breakfasts or in restaurants) were
small and bony. Some of them were so small we would use them only as
is Castro’s Cuba. This is how ‘his’ revolution is affecting his
was clear to us from what we saw that many Cuban people are not
getting anything close to a proper or balanced diet. We were told
that many Cubans suffer from vitamin deficiencies, and in particular
from a deficiency of vitamin C. We can’t imagine that most Cubans
are getting sufficient protein – especially, of course, the
of our friends has an eight year old son. ‘Pablito’ is thin and
almost always tired. He spends a lot of time lolling in his mother’s
lap, watching other children play. ‘Pablito’ is anemic – confirmed
by blood test. He receives no medications for his condition. And he
doesn’t like beans, his main source of protein. His mother can’t get
enough eggs or milk to satisfy his protein – or iron –
requirements; meat is out of the question.
we visited, we brought a couple of jars of peanut butter – without
sugar – for Pablito. He had never had peanut butter. He loved it.
So much so that one night he got up, went to the kitchen, got a
spoon, and managed to make his way half way through the jar of peanut
butter before his father stopped him from finishing it off. At least
much every time we saw him over the next day or two he had that jar
in his hands and was dipping a spoon, or a knife, or a finger, into
it and licking the peanut butter off. We wished we’d brought a case.
We also brought him multivitamins with iron – not as tasty as
peanut butter, but hopefully something that will begin to address his
night before we left Cuba we shared a dinner with friends – a
family we had visited on each of our three visits, a family with whom
we had grown close. When dinner was over, we sat around the table
and talked about Cuba, about the daily hardships they endure, and
about their hopes for the future.
a 30-something year-old mother of two young children, spoke little
English, and usually chose not to participate in our discussions.
But she understood everything we were saying, and on this occasion
she was finally moved to speak, to have her word.
is so hard for me,” she said, “is waking up every morning knowing
we have no food and wondering what I will give to my children to eat.
I wake up worried almost every morning. It is very hard.”
are few things as sad, as heart-wrenching, as witnessing a mother’s
abject despair at not being able to properly feed her own children.
is Castro’s Cuba. This is where the Cuban people are after 50 years
of revolution, 50 years of hardship and sacrifice in the interests of
the greater good – as defined by a leader who seemed to us to be
more concerned with holding onto power and following his own personal
vision of communism – ‘Fidelism’ – than with the well-being of
a Cuban exile we met in Mexico said: “The problem with Cuba is
that Castro doesn’t love his people.” From what we saw, we’d have
go to Cuba and see for yourself. Tour the farms, go to the markets,
visit the ration shops, the dollar stores. Ask the Cuban people what
they’re having for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ask them if they
think the sacrifices they have made, and continue to make, are worth
will undoubtedly say yes. But many would say no – if they were
free to do so.
you go to Cuba…
some Spanish before you go, and practice it as much as you can.
You’ll get a lot more out of your trip if you can speak the language.
as much Vitamin C and children’s multi-vitamins as you can. Other
good things to take are peanut butter, protein powders, bouillon
cubes, and tinned fish or meat. Non-food items that will be
appreciated include clothes, shoes, cosmetics, magazines (in
Spanish), plastic bags (ziploc), batteries, DVD players, digital
cameras, flash drives and laptop computers. Pretty much anything you
bring will be put to good use.
first-hand observation and a lot of in-depth discussions with Cubans
who cannot be identified for security reasons (theirs). To all of
them I give my most sincere thanks, and my hopes that, in time, their
lives will be better.
additional information about agricultural production and the ration
system I also referred to the following articles:
report, April 4, 2008. Cuba’s
Agricultural Decline Sparks Major Reform. Flexnews:
Business News for the Food Industry (online).
report, July 9, 2008. Cuba Sees Continued Growth in Sugar
Production. Flexnews: Business News for the Food Industry (online).
William, October 1998. Cuba’s
Agriculture: Collapse and Economic Reform,
Agricultural Outlook, Eonomic Research Service, USDA
in Cuba, Wikipedia, December 2008