Cuba Has No Bread, but ‘You Can Drown in All the Flour’

Once it arrives on the Island, the product is unloaded in full view of the population, as happened this Wednesday on Ayestarán Street, in Havana / 14ymedio

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Madrid, February 29, 2024 — “In Cuba there is enough flour to drown in, but the State doesn’t have any.” Everyone knows it, and María confirms it. She spends the morning sending messages to several contacts – found through social networks –  to buy the raw material, with which she makes bread, pizzas, cakes and all kinds of sweets. The offers are so overwhelming that she only has to find the best one, economically and logistically, to be able to continue supplying her business.

Emerio González Lorenzo, president of the Food Industry Business Group, admitted over the weekend that the “complex situation” – a concept applicable to transport, fuel, electricity, chicken and everything that goes wrong in the country – will produce “affectations” in the basic basket that began to be “reflected” this Saturday, according to the official, even in tourist establishments.

Although Cubans have been struggling more than a year to find anything other than small, hard and tasteless bread, the news has made them tremble. Several provinces have announced changes in distribution, from Pinar del Río, where bread has been reserved for children up to 14 years old, to Sancti Spíritus, where sources of this newspaper report that it will be available only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

The Government says that the “financial restrictions basically due to the intensified blockade” are to blame

The Government says that “financial restrictions, due basically to the intensified blockade and the logistical limitations that Cuba suffers to bring wheat from distant markets” are to blame, and its efforts to circumvent them do not work. Sources in the import sector tell 14ymedio that the State uses mipymes that are connected to the Regime to get the product without restrictions, even if the amount isn’t enough to feed the population.

“Here is a large private MSME [Micro Small Medium Enterprise], which has several gastronomic businesses: a paladar [privately run restaurant], two candy stores…,” says the source, who asks to protect his identity and location, but has documentation that supports what he says. “They rented a place and are setting up another bakery. They are supposedly “private,” but when you look at the import papers and trace the funding, you realize that there is money that comes out of State accounts,” he says.

The State uses them, he continues, to import goods under the cover of private companies, which act legally and comply with the rules and tariffs on all imports. At the end of 2023, the Government announced the increase in import tariffs for final products and a decrease in those for raw materials, in order to encourage the manufacture of consumer goods in the country.

To date, only alcohol and tobacco have suffered the tax increase, because the authorities specified that it would be necessary to define precisely when a product is final and another intermediate. The example of flour was the one used by the Minister of Finance and Prices, Vladimir Regueiro Ale, who showed how it would depend on whether payment is for a direct sale to the consumer or to a food processing business.

Be that as it may, and while the Official Gazette publishes the set price, the MSMEs continue to buy flour from Ukraine, Russia, Spain, Colombia and, above all, from Turkey. The informal market is overflowing with offers.

“Bags of flour of 55 pounds each are available. The container has 960 bags, at 9,000 pesos or $30.50 in US dollars. The complete container is sold,” says a seller. “Russian flour. Payment in dollars or euros by transfer abroad and a percentage in dollars in cash,” specifies another that delivers to the warehouses for Havana, Cienfuegos and other provinces. In this case, the cost is $1,200 per ton, and the commission is $100 more.

The payment methods are very diverse, but most of them require a deposit of a good part of the amount in dollars or even in banks outside Cuba. It is also not uncommon to ask for an amount in cash, pesos in that case, to ensure the day-to-day on an Island devoid of liquidity and where the ATMs work only when they want.

“To say they can import anything they want without the State intervening is a lie”

Those ads, on pages and social networks, mostly talk about contracts and documentation, but when contact is made in private, the transparency is diluted, despite the fact that, according to the source, it is almost impossible to get the merchandise into the country illegally. “To say they can import anything they want without the State intervening is a lie,” he says emphatically.

“The State places the order through an importer, either CubaExport or Alimport. Those MSMEs that are combined, half-private, half-State, which are actually fronts for the Regime, have direct contact with the Government, which is behind the business.”

The private businesses do more work because they find their own suppliers and take care of the whole process, before going to the Government and delivering all the information for import authorization. 

“It is mandatory to contact an inspection agency, either Intermar or Cubacontrol, to be able to bring in the merchandise, but they still have to contract with the health services, with the whole Health network,” he explains. Once it arrives on the Island, the product is unloaded in plain sight of the population, as happened this Wednesday on Ayestarán Street, in Havana.

In Santiago de Cuba, subsidized bread in the ration book has been suspended until the end of March

“The MSMEs, in fact, are overflowing with flour, and there is bread at 20 and 100 pesos, whatever you want,” says a neighbor from Santiago de Cuba, where the subsidized bread in the ration book has been suspended until the end of March. The problem, rather, is the blackouts, which prevent the ovens from working well.

When it arrives, nothing gets in the way of a Cuban and his bread. Except for a minor issue: no money. “Guarantee your monthly bread with payments from the outside. Offers for 30 days for your family to have their daily bread,” says a Havana MSME, which sells 2.8-ounce hamburger buns for $0.19, 28.2-ounce sliced bread for $1.50 and even combos of 10 hamburger buns a day plus a package of cookies for 86 dollars.

Nor do they lack the product in a candy store in El Vedado. “Right now we are fine with flour because there are many offers. We got ten bags at 20,500 pesos each, which a MSME that can import sold us. As we need to have all the paperwork and records for the inspectors, we prefer to buy like this and not on the street,” says the owner, who already talks about a similar situation for another product, sugar, for which an alarming shortage is feared, especially if one takes into account the catastrophic sugar harvest that looms over the country.

“The flour they sold me is Turkish and expires in June of this year; it is multipurpose flour, and the bags weigh 110 pounds. With that same MSME we got a sugar that is very good from the Caña Brava brand, Peruvian, which cost 24,000 pesos a bag.”

Translated by Regina Anavy


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.