Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Cuba Prospering From Tourism . . .

"The government has consistently failed to invest properly in the agriculture sector. 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."
Juan Alejandro Triana, economist, University of Havana

"It's a disaster. We never lived luxuriously, but the comfort we once had doesn't exist anymore."
Lisset Felipe, 42, Havana

"We cannot sit with our hands crossed before the unscrupulous manner of middlemen who only think of earning more."
Cuban President Raul Castro

"I don't even bother going to those places [private restaurants]. We eat rice and beans and a boiled egg most days, maybe a little pork."
Yainelys Rodriguez, 39, Havana
Workers in a lettuce field this past week at a farm in Alamar, outside Havana. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
Cubans are recipients of government food subsidies in the form of ration books to aid them in accessing certain staples like rice, beans and sugar. When it comes to food items such as fresh produce however, Cubans are on their own. And there has arisen a reality in Cuba where fresh produce is increasingly unavailable and what is available is priced too steeply for most ordinary Cubans to afford. But not for the 3.5-million tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.

The shortage of fresh produce has several causes, the most obvious, now that the United States has eased its decades-old sanctions and moratoriums on travel by Americans to Cuba with the recent lifting of the trade embargo, is that tourists have been streaming into the island-nation known for its sunny climate and beautiful beaches. And those tourists look for good food at restaurants catering to tourists and at holiday resorts whose kitchens scoop up what is available in agricultural products.

Cap that off with inefficiency in the use of arable lands and their production, bureaucratic red tape and corruption all of which tie up productivity, and add in a lack of fertilizer, leading to a reduced yield. Price hikes have been instituted for foods once considered staples: onions and peppers, pineapples and limes, and people can no longer afford them. The island's private sector in agriculture views the influx of tourists and the money they bring in as a boon to their business.

Government has instituted price ceilings but that patchwork doesn't appear to have filtered down the chain for affordable produce to be available for the Cuban table. Goods have transitioned to commercial markets where vendors and farmers can anticipate higher prices to compensate for their growing efforts. At state-operated markets shelves are full of sweet potatoes, yucca, rice, beans and bananas, a small amount of watermelons. But tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cucumbers, garlic or lettuce, avocados, pineapples or cilantro remain scarce.

At a co-op market close to the state-operated markets, vendors set their own prices and there fruits and vegetables absent from state-run stalls are stacked in abundance. Grapes, celery, ginger and spices are all there -- for a price that Cubans generally cannot afford. Where buyers representing private restaurants [some 1,700 exist in Havana] daily buy up fruits, vegetables and nonperishable edibles on budgets that bear no relation to those of the average household. "Almost all of our buyers are paladares" [the Cuban word for private restaurants. explained one vendor.

Cubans point out that the price of half a kilo of onions and half a kilo of tomatoes at the inflated prices charged for private restaurants would take fully ten percent of a government salary for a family, of around $25 monthly. "We have to be magicians [to prepare decent family meals]", said Leticia Alvarez Canada. "The prices have just gone crazy in the last few years."

It seems that Cuban entrepreneurs prefer the economic advantage of the U.S.-style capitalist free market system to that of collectivism championed by social-conscience communism....?

In this Feb. 27, 2016 photo, Raul Valdes Villasusa, 76, smokes a cigar as he collects tobacco leaves on his farm in Vinales in the province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba. Farmers earn money from the government for their tobacco crop, and keep a small portion for their own use. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
At least tobacco isn't in short supply. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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