Monday, October 13, 2008

Cuba limits food sales during crisis

Cuba limits food sales during crisis
Sunday, October 12, 2008

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba is limiting how much basic fruits and vegetables
people can buy at farmers' markets, irritating some customers but
ensuring there's enough — barely — to go around.

The lines are long and some foods are scarce, but because the government
has maintained and even increased rations in some areas, Cubans who
initially worried about getting enough to eat now seem confident they
won't go hungry despite the destruction of 30 percent of the island's
crops by hurricanes Gustav and Ike last month.

"Of the little there is, there is some for everyone," 65-year-old
Mercedes Grimau said as queued up behind more than 50 people to buy
lettuce, limited to two pounds per person.

"I'm not afraid that I will be left without food, but it's a pain to
think about all the work we are going to have to go through," Grimau
added. "Two or three months ago the farmers markets were well-stocked."

Cuba's government regularly stockpiles beans and other basics, and
Economics Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez said authorities are ready to
increase the $2 billion they already spend on food imports annually. The
world credit crisis won't affect much of those imports because U.S. law
forces communist Cuba to use cash to purchase American farm goods. But
imports from other countries bought with credit could become more
difficult or expensive.

The government is delivering all items distributed each month on the
universal ration that provides Cubans with up to two weeks of food —
including eggs, beans, rice and potatoes — at very low cost. In some
hard-hit provinces, extra food has been added.

But the rest of the food Cubans supplement their diets with at
supply-and-demand farmers markets and government produce stands has
dwindled, prompting the government to limit consumer purchases and cap
prices on items including rice, beans, root crops and fresh greens.

Rodriguez has sought to dispel speculation about a replay of the
desperate early 1990s, when shelves were bare and people survived for
weeks on one small meal daily. Cubans who lived through deprivation
after the Soviet Union's collapse say the current food situation doesn't
come close.

"It is true that it will take us some time to bring the agricultural
production up to the levels that existed before the hurricanes,"
Rodriguez told state television this week. "Nevertheless, there is no
reason to speculate or assume that there will be any hunger."

Although Cuba's relative financial isolation partially protects it from
the jolts of the world economy, an extended credit crisis could stunt
the island's foreign currency income if Cubans living abroad lose jobs
and stop sending family remittances, or if potential tourists can no
longer afford to travel.

But now, Cuba's top challenge is to increase local production of fruits
and vegetables sold at the farmers' markets.

Waiting at one market on a recent morning, 55-year-old homemaker Regla
Suazo said, "At least with the measures I know I can buy something."
Shortly thereafter, the first truck of the day pulled up with green
beans, green onions, guavas, avocados, corn, squash, cassava root and
sweet potatoes.

But quantities were much smaller than usual. Vendor Nadia Gomez, who
received nothing that day, said police checkpoints leading into Havana
now turn away trucks unauthorized to market produce in the capital or
have been ordered send their goods to harder-hit areas.

Cuban agricultural officials expect six months of food shortages, and
are increasing short-cycle crops such as salad greens and taking other
measures to ensure everyone gets enough to eat.

At Cuatro Caminos farmers market, among Havana's largest and most
varied, vendor Juan Carlos Martinez lamented he had only papayas, guavas
and pineapples to sell. "This isn't the business it used to be," he said.

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