The Bare Essentials
Rows upon rows of citrus trees grow just 30 miles from Havana, but it is near impossible to find an orange for sale. Vast acres go unfarmed. Cultivated land goes untended. What happens to the food produced is a mystery. Hospitals, schools, and work canteens get priority, but little reaches the bodegas (state grocery stores)—almost 40 percent of produce is stolen as it passes through the distribution system known as acopio. The average Cuban faces absences of everything we take for granted in life.
The libreta—the ration book meant to supply every Cuban citizen with the basic essentials—provides, at best, supplies for perhaps 10 days per month (in 2008, Raúl Castro hinted that the system may be abandoned; potatoes and some other items were deleted). So much is allowed per person per month—six pounds of rice, eleven ounces of beans, five pounds of sugar, four ounces of lard, eight eggs—although the items aren’t always available.
The U.S. embargo—el bloqueois blamed, even though in 2008 Cuba purchased 40 percent of its foods (agricultural goods are permitted by U.S. law) from U.S. suppliers, worth US$870 million! There’s no shortage of other U.S. products, from Marlboro cigarettes to Mack trucks, imported through other countries. Cuba has no problem importing whatever it needs (from Dell computers to US$200,000 Mercedes buses) from other countries. The 2009 International Fair of Havana, Cuba’s largest trade expo, attracted 1,230 companies from 54 countries, including 35 from the United States.
The real problem is that Cubans are paid virtual slave-labor wages in pesos, but all things worth buying—including daily necessities such as toilet paper, detergent, and soap—are sold by Cuban state enterprises for “convertible pesos” (obtainable only in exchange for foreign currency) at an average markup of 240 percent. Fortunately, rent and utilities are so heavily subsidized that they are virtually free, as is health care.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition