By W. T. Whitney Jr.

July 17, 2020

Food availability was the top concern of 21 percent of Cubans responding to a recent opinion survey. The question thus comes to the fore of how the U.S. economic blockade affects the supply of food that Cubans eat.

U.S. State Department liked the idea of a blockade in 1960 because it would lead to deprivation and suffering.  That happened in 1992 with the so-called Cuban Democracy Act. Under that law, which is still in effect, foreign partners of U.S. companies are prohibited from exporting goods to Cuba, including food and agricultural supplies.

Food supply in Cuba is precarious now, along with Cuba’s economy. What’s going to happen will depend on how the government manages agriculture and on the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the U.S. economic blockade is the crucial factor.

There’s no quick fix for some problems. Sugarcane monoculture took a toll on soil fertility. The woody marabou plant, useful only for making charcoal and requiring heavy machinery to remove, has invaded 4.2 million acres of Cuban land – 18 % of the total.  Cuba has recently experienced severe drought conditions interspersed with intense rains and flooding; 60 percent of the land is at risk of desertification. The agricultural sector accounts for 40 percent of the financial losses due to hurricanes.

According to one report, disempowerment of women in rural areas “impedes progress in the agricultural sector.” Agricultural work lacks appeal for many of Cuba’s highly-schooled young people. More Cubans live in cities these days – 77 percent of the population – and the burden of feeding them has increased accordingly.

Cuba has long had to import 60-80 percent of food that is consumed there – at an annual cost of $2 billion.

Beginning in 2008, Cuba’s government instituted economic changes affecting the entire society, agriculture included. The government and Communist Party fashioned ambitious documents that outlined comprehensive reforms.

In 2008, private individuals and collectives gained long-term usage rights to small tracts of land. Now some 500,000 new, independent farmers work 4.9 million acres of agricultural land. The 5.93 million acres worked by these and other private farmers account for almost 80 percent of Cuba’s domestically produced food.

The largest class of farmers, the UBPC cooperatives, heirs of the dismembered state farms, control 8.42 million acres of Cuba’s total of 15.56 million acres of arable land; 1.16 million acres remain idle and unfarmed.

The new private farmers ought to be producing “even more food,” says one observer.  Supplies, equipment, spare parts, fertilizers, and seeds provided by state agencies are often unavailable, delayed, or of low quality. Access to credit and insurance may be limited.

Cuban farmers face gasoline and diesel fuel shortages, mainly because of drastically reduced shipments from Venezuelan oil producers, the result of U.S. anti-Venezuela sanctions. The resulting decrease in food production in May 2019 led the authorities to bolster food rationing.

Food distribution is inefficient. The National Union of [food] Collection, otherwise known as the “Acopio,” is the Agriculture Ministry’s agency that is in charge of distributing food. Problems include delayed payments to producers, inadequate storage facilities, transportation delays, regional variations in service, and “cumbersome” criteria for defining food quality.

The Acopio operates 400 state agricultural markets and 1200 other food-selling facilities. Consumers experience long wait times, variable quality, and frequent non-availability of desired food products. Vendors setting their own prices often reserve higher-quality food for consumers who pay with the convertible currency used by tourists. Cubans relying on rationed food may be left with lower quality food and smaller amounts, and then face high prices for food they still need.

Some government efforts at bolstering food supplies for urban populations recall the ecologically-oriented initiatives introduced after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, during the Special Period. They bear names like “Program for Municipal Self-supply;” “the Program of Urban, Suburban, and Family Agriculture” (for growing food in small spaces), and the “Program of Local Support for Agricultural Modernization,” for 37 municipalities.

Speaking in February, President Miguel Díaz-Canel called for local self-sufficiency and for the Acopio to collect farm products promptly and thoroughly. With more food arriving at markets, he suggested, the state could regain control over food sales and prices and thus push out speculators and black marketeers.  Later Díaz-Canel spoke approvingly of producers bypassing the Acopio and selling at local markets. Discussion is taking place about the “participation of other state and non-state actors” in the Acopio system.

Citing the examples of Vietnam and China – socialist countries that export food – reformers are proposing that remittances from Cubans living abroad be invested in food production and that way promote farmers’ autonomy. Díaz-Canel recently advocated greater involvement of scientists and academicians in food production, just as with the coronavirus pandemic.

The official response to food-supply problems may at times lack focus and coherence. To the extent that such is the case, it has to stem largely from a regimen of shortages cemented in place, courtesy of the U.S. economic blockade. To learn that planners are often stymied would be no surprise.

While government officials deliberate and farmers and consumers complain, a U.S. presence hovers, specter-like, in the background.  It’s there as officials look abroad to transfer money, secure credit, import food, and seek foreign investment. It’s in the room when they want to import farm machinery, tools, spare parts, premium seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, purebred livestock. and hydrocarbon fuels.

U.S. pressures on foreign financial institutions are unrelenting. Foreign suppliers face merciless penalties if they ship agricultural supplies to Cuba, particularly if they are associated with U.S. companies or if their goods contain some tiny U.S. component.

One imagines, moreover, that recriminations and even animosities crop up whenever agricultural ventures end up badly or when food is short. An undercurrent of anti-government ideas may develop. That would be precisely the object of what the U.S. government does.