Cuba bolsters food rations to counter shortages
Wed Oct 8, 2008 4:33pm EDT
By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Fruits and vegetables are getting hard to find across Cuba after hurricanes wiped out crops, but the government is tapping food reserves to bolster the monthly food ration that Cubans have received for decades.
It said it would step up imports when needed to make sure no one goes hungry, a situation that could arise by December when diplomats estimate Cuba's reserves will run out.
A survey of major cities and the hardest-hit provinces found that supplies of vegetables and fruits had dried up, even in the usually well-supplied black market. But starches and proteins could still be found with an effort.
"The problem is you have to be at the markets when something comes in, because supply is irregular," said Carlos Pena, a state worker in Holguin province.
Hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck the communist-run island in a 10-day period starting August 30, causing $5 billion in damage and wiping out of 30 percent of Cuba's crops.
Cubans say the monthly ration usually provides enough basic food to get through about two weeks, and then they have to supplement it with purchases.
Across much of the country the ration has been increased with additional rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil, a few cans of fish and meat, crackers and other basics, according to people interviewed.
They said they had been told the additional food would be provided through March, which is when the government has said it expects the shortages to ease.
LINING UP FOR LETTUCE
In the few provinces where there was little storm damage, which includes Havana, rations have not been increased and some food that normally would have gone to the Cuban capital was being diverted to needy parts of the country.
As a result, Havana food markets have been more barren than before the storms.
At one of the city's urban gardens begun to increase food supply during the deprivation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, at least 100 people stood in line on Wednesday to buy the day's primary offering, lettuce.
"I don't think we'll have enough lettuce for everybody in line," one of the vendors said.
In measures that some critics say have only worsened the storm-induced shortages, the Cuban government has slapped price controls on staples and limited how many pounds of rice, for example, an individual can purchase.
It also has cracked down on sales outside the state-controlled distribution system and pressured farmers to sell only to the state.
Street vendors have disappeared across the country and what is available at private markets has dwindled.
Camaguey resident Evelio Cisneros said he got basics such as rice and beans at a state store on Tuesday, then found pork and avocado at a private market.
"There is much less since the storms, but there is food at a decent price to buy," he said.
(Editing by Jeff Franks, Michael Christie and Xavier Briand)