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Rice and distress: Cuba's national dish

Five families in Cuba share their struggles to put food on the table under the trying circumstances of 2023. Some households have gone from three meals to one.

A market at 19 Street & B Street, in Havana.
A market at 19 Street & B Street, in Havana. Diario de Cuba

Mireya Linares gets out of a taxi in the municipality of Playa, but she's not out for a walk. Rather, she's looking for food for her family. Although she lives in Centro Habana, she has gone to a private store some eight miles from her home, where her friends told her they're selling rice and eggs at a better price. She takes her cell phone out of her purse, writes a few lines in a Telegram group, and quickly puts it away again. She has just ordered a box of chicken and tomato sauce to be delivered to her doorstep.

The scene described here might seem normal if this 54-year-old Havana native lived in an inhospitable part of the island, or if she were looking for caviar, but this is not the case; she is searching for basic groceries, and lives in the heart of the Cuban capital. A few years ago she could find all those products without having to leave her neighborhood.

In spite of all this, this Cuban describes herself as "fortunate" for two reasons: she is paid in euros for her work as a translator and has a sister who sends her a monthly remittance of $300.

She says that she was lucky this time out, and was able to buy what she wanted: rice for 180 pesos per pound and eggs for 2,700, for a carton of 30. "I paid through the nose, but there's no other way. It's not like I can eat the bills either, and at home or in El Vedado it would've cost me much more, because rice is at 200 pesos a pound, the carton of eggs, 3,000, or 100 pesos an egg," Linares told DIARIO DE CUBA by phone.

"It's horrible, I have to spend twice or even three times as much money, time and effort to getting food as I did five years ago. The price increases have been brutal and what affects me most is that it's a daily task, it's impossible to shop for the whole week, the way things are," she added.

Norbis Pérez, a 72-year-old retired university professor who lives in El Vedado, says that  the money with which, a year ago, she used to buy two one-kilogram bags of milk, today she can only buy one. "Everything's gone up a lot, the most terrible thing is that even the most basic things, such as rice, beans and sugar, have skyrocketed," she says.

She explains that very close to her house a small business selling food was opened. It is called Reyes Manso, and is located on the Calle 12 between 25th and 27th. "They opened it a few months ago and the prices are sky high, very similar to those in the stores in MLC, but the problem is that at those stores there's almost nothing, they're always empty. Yesterday I bought a kilogram of chicken breast for 2,000 Cuban pesos, a one-kilogram package of powdered milk for 2,000, a package of soda crackers for 1,000 pesos, and a medium-sized bottle of mayonnaise for 1,300," he said.

Doing the math, Pérez spent 6,300 pesos on groceries, which is three times the monthly payment of almost 2,000 pesos she receives as a retiree. And what she bought, she says, "isn't even enough to start the month." Another of the Havana markets Pérez goes to is the one at 19th and B, where she has paid up to 400 pesos for a pound of beans. "Horrible," she says. This retiree can make a purchase like this only thanks to the fact that she has kept working since she officially retired: "Luckily, my health allows me to do so. I work at a young woman's house helping her with her children when they get out of school. I cook, do homework with them, clean a little, and that's it. She pays me well because she's married to a Frenchman who works in a company and they have a much higher standard of living than the average in Cuba. Even so, I can't afford anything special. I can only pay for the basics, to eat."

A Holguín man who preferred to remain anonymous told this paper that his case was exceptional in his province, explaining that he eats like a bird and does not stop "fighting" to support his family (wife, three children and his elderly parents). "When I say exceptional, I say that with pain. People are going through hell," he says.

"People eat what they can, because it's not only a matter of lack of food, and a variety of it, it's mainly a matter of cost versus salary. Agricultural products are in short supply and expensive: a banana for 30 pesos and a pound of cassava or sweet potato also for that price," he explained.

With taro selling for 100 pesos a pound and rice for 200, "most families have shed the habit of having three meals a day, and skip one. In August sugar hit the astronomical price of 250 pesos a pound, and instant soft drinks, of dubious healthiness, become the solution to appease hunger," he complained.

"My neighbor ate mashed banana with shrimp last night. Here at the dam the poachers catch them, and you can get them," he adds.

The data confirms these accounts. Half of the participants in a recent Cubadata survey say that the situation between April and June worsened, leading many to skip meals or even stop eating for whole days. With no money, basic foodstuffs at skyrocketing prices, and products that can only be acquired at the high prices offered by the foreign exchange market, SMBs, or the black market, everything points to the tragic adversity that Cubans endure to put a plate of food on the table every day.

According to the Cubadata survey, 83% of Cubans surveyed agreed that it is difficult to find basic products at affordable prices, and a similar number (83.2%) are dissatisfied with the measures implemented by the government to deal with food shortages.

The survey, conducted from July 15 to 31, 2023, with 1,101 people from all over Cuba participating, revealed data on the ways in which families in Cuba currently obtain income to cover their daily expenses, as well as the hardships suffered during the period analyzed.

During the three months prior to the interviews, the participants' main source of household income was state employment (36.0%). Of those interviewed, 35.3% obtained it from the non-state sector (private employment with 12.3%; self-employment with 14%; SMBs with 9%) and 10.7% obtained their money through remittances.

Aleyda Díaz, 45 years old and a receptionist at a ministry, reported that in her most recent outing she found a pound of pork for 700 pesos, a pound of carrots for 300, and a pound of tomatoes for 400, but she couldn't buy anything, and had to go out in search of other cheaper options. "This is chicken picadillo, each pound costs 290 pesos in national currency at the Minimax [supermarket]. The ordeal of putting a plate of rice with something on the table keeps me up, it's a daily struggle," she says she shows a photograph she took of her bag as she left the market.

She also shares a photograph of a blackboard listing the products that are "sold with the rationing card, but that are controlled on a monthly or 45-day basis. They're the ones that are regulated, agricultural products like cassava and sweet potatoes for 70 pesos per pound, plantains for 35 or 40, and pineapples for 160 pesos each," she explains. Díaz confesses that in her house it has been months since anyone has eaten a whole piece of chicken. She says that when she buys chicken she boils it and cuts it into small pieces to make it a sauce or prepare it with rice.

With a mixture of anger and mockery she comments that the representative of her district shared several "special deals" this week in of the WhatsApp groups she created a few months ago "so that people would find out what's for sale in the neighborhood. You have to be have some nerve: how can a mother pay for a can of cookies for 2,400 pesos when her salary is 2,100?" asks Diaz.

A 38-year-old woman from Santiago who lives in Havana, but who has lived in Matanzas as well, she explained that in that city "some products appear, although nothing is cheap," so "you find a lot of people choosing what to buy, because the money doesn't go very far."

"The biggest problem there is that the  inspectors have been especially strict for the past few months, and places prefer not to open on some days. Others have closed because they can't turn profits selling agricultural products, so they've opted to resell other products also found at the MLC stores. All this means that you have to walk further to find food," she says.

According to her, in Havana there is now "everything," both at the agricultural markets and at small points of sale "like bodegas, which are proliferating."

"For example, I bought almost everything within a five-block radius of my house. Of course, nothing is cheap. A pound of lamb is 500 pesos, a pound of chicken is between 250 and 300 pesos, beef was at 900 pesos the last time I saw it, and fish is through the roof. Rice is 200 pesos a pound, grains around 400, and a bag of bread costs 200-250 pesos (with about eight or ten small loaves)."

At home, she says, they try to "eat a balanced diet" and three meals day, but they are aware that "this isn't what's happening in the vast majority of households in the country."

To illustrate this, she shared what recently happened to her at a market where she was shopping for her family: "A senior citizen was buying a piece of papaya, which had risen from 30 pesos a pound, in 2022, to 75 pesos a pound today. She was counting her bills over and over again, but she couldn't afford the piece she'd chosen. I helped her with the difference, and she was able to take the fruit home. One of the things that pains me the most today is that: seeing older people going hungry, not being able to buy the basics."

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