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CUBA
Imported food
Lucila Horta
3/9/2007
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Cuban authorities seek to improve country’s food production to offset expensive imports.

“We are tired of the justifications in this revolution,” Cuba’s acting President Raúl Castro said late last year when the lawmakers analyzed the country’s production shortages of beans, corn, rice and other crops.
Castro proposed a commission, directed by Vice President Carlos Lage, of food-related agencies to address the problem. They are supposed to hand over a report in mid-2007.

According to a 2006 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, production levels in Cuba’s agricultural sector dropped between 6 and 7 percent in 2006. The government paid US$948 million last year to maintain supplies of the daily bread basket, which includes bread and pastas, rice, beans, sugar, soap, cooking oil, tooth past, salt, chocolate, coffee, eggs, meat, chicken and fish. In 2006, 84 percent of daily bread basket items were imported.

The government is also subsidizing potatoes and bananas at below-market prices. Other agricultural products are sold at much higher prices.

Few options
Damiana Quiroga, a housewife, says she only buys produce at official markets, which have price caps. “If a pound of tomatoes costs between 5 and 8 pesos (between US$0.25 and $0.40) in the [private] market, they’ll cost here between 2 and 3 pesos ($0.10 and $0.15) in the worst case scenario,” she said.

Economy Minister José Luis Rodríguez told lawmakers that food imports increased from 35 percent in 2005 to more than 49 percent in 2006, making Cuba also more dependent on foreign supplies.

Cuba imported chicken, wheat, corn, rice and soy from the United States at $340.4 million thanks to a US law passed in 2000 that allows the country to purchase agricultural products despite the US-imposed embargo that has been in place on Cuba for nearly five decades.
That amount It was 3 percent less than in other periods, since Cuba also buys agricultural products from China, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Osvaldo Martínez, head of the Parliament’s economic commission, told that, even taking into consideration the effects climate has had on Cuban crops as well as the severe economic crisis of the 1990s the country suffered, Cuban agriculture, which should produce an important part of the food that we “now import at high prices, needs to eliminate the negative aspects of its management and increase production.”

“It’s the only effective formula to reduce agricultural product prices and make a substantial contribution to the people and the country’s balance of payments,” he said.

It is estimated that 30 percent of losses are owed to poor management of crops, on the collection and distribution levels.

In Ciego de Ávila province, for example, “on many weekends we have hung around, waiting for the trucks, but they didn’t appear and the sweet potatoes were just sitting there in the sun,” said Denis Fonseca Alarcón. “That’s how you stop people from wanting to work.” Agricultural production levels were high in this province in 2006, but a significant portion was lost because of poor logistics.

There are various kinds of producers in Cuba: landholders who obtained plots during the land reform and prefer to continue cultivating and selling their products on an individual level, for example. There are others who are grouped in the country’s farming production cooperatives, known by their Spanish acronym CPA, to share expenses and profits.

The Basic Units of Cooperative Production, or UBPC, are another grouping of campesino farmers, who have received land from the state for farming. These three groups produce 65 percent of the country’s food supply.

The CPA and UBPC sell between 70 and 80 percent of their crops to the state, but a major challenge is that state companies do not pay these farmers on time.

Debt-wracked
“While they don’t pay them for their products, they don’t have anything to pay off their debts with and continue paying interest,” said president of the National Association of Small Farmers, Orlando Lugo Fonte. Even Raúl Castro told lawmakers that it is unreasonable to ask a campesino farmer to produce more if he or she is not paid for his or her work.

Fonte’s complaint was published in the official newspaper Granma, sparking an immediate reaction from the National Bank, which created loans and a system to promote solvency and curb debts. But the results were not positive, lawmakers have said.

Cuba’s agricultural sector needs to increase production to diminish the country’s reliance on the international market, said deputy Economy Minister Magalys Calvo Feb. 26, during a Parliament session in Camagüey province.

“To improve the population’s services and food is one of the principal objectives for 2007,” Calvo said. For many this is possible as long as the country improves its efficiency and pays its own workers on time.

 


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