Cuba: Living to Eat / Ivan Garcia


Iván García, 28 July 2015 — Juliana, a seventy-three-year-old housewife, devotes much of her time to tasks related to feeding her family. “I spend eight hours cleaning rice, picking through beans, which are very dirty, buying bread, scouring produce markets, butcher shops and corner stores to see what is available and making lunch and dinner,” she explains while preparing black bean soup.

Julia and those like her do not fit the national pattern: They still have breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. “My daughters make good salaries and I get dollars from relatives in the United States, but it evaporates in trying to eat as best we can.”

In Cuba people live to eat. Food costs eat up 90% of the average salary. “And it’s not enough,” notes Renier, a laborer. “The only reason I don’t spend my entire salary on food is because I have to pay the light, water and gas bills.”

The average monthly salary is around twenty-three dollars. The state provides a meager amount of foodstuffs each month at subsidized prices through the ration book. It includes seven pounds of rice, three pounds of refined sugar, two pounds of brown sugar, twenty ounces of dried beans, a pound of chicken and half a kilogram of ground beef mixed with soy. The cost per person does not exceed twenty pesos (less than a dollar). Everyone also has the right to a daily 2.8 ounce bread roll once a day for five cents.

“It doesn’t last for more than ten days. The rest of the month is a problem,” says a Cuban doctor. “The biggest tragedy for Cubans is the issue of food. Even if you have money, you can’t find what you want. Not in the hard-currency store, not on the black market. Finding enough to eat is a very stressful.”

In hospital clinics it is customary to give doctors presents in exchange for good treatment. “Patients often give us food like ham and cheese sandwiches, chicken thighs or pork legs. Many doctors have a more comfortable life thanks to these gifts,” he adds.

The big debate in Cuba is when the country’s vaunted economic growth will reach Cuban dinner tables. According the the regime, the country’s GDP trend line has been moving upward for fifteen years.

However, this incremental growth has not translated into lower food prices or an increase in production. If you look at the figures for meat, poultry, fish or produce production, you will see that any increase has been minimal and in many cases it has  actually gone into reverse.

The former sugar supplier to the world now produces less than two million tons of sugar a year. Fresh milk is a luxury, as are beef, fish and shellfish.

Fruits like guava, chirimoya, sugar apple and orange are distant memories to the Cuban palate. Behind a slight increase in certain legumes and vegetables lies skillful manipulation. The government is blowing smoke.

In no sector of the food industry does the increased growth match the highpoint of 1989. While it was also an era of shortages, the production of bread, milk, eggs and potatoes did meet demand.

But not now. There is a joke that, before the nightly news, people place baskets under their televisions to collect the harvests of fruits, vegetables and meat which only grow in the official media.

The average family in Cuba has only one hot meal a day. “For lunch I heat up something from the night before,” says Regla, a professor who cooks meals at home for her husband and two children. “On Sundays I often make a nice lunch with pork or chicken and at night we eat something light. The regular Monday-to-Saturday menu consists of white rice or congrí (rice cooked with black beans), eggs in some fashion, and a cucumber, cabbage, avocado or tomato salad.”

Except when there are visitors, everything is served on one plate to avoid having too many dishes to wash. Rice makes up the largest portion. Some people do not even sit at the table anymore, preferring to eat while watching television.

Prices in hard currency stores are shocking. A kilogram of domestically produced white cheese costs 3.75 CUC and 8.10 CUC for Gouda. Ham goes for more than 8 CUC while a half-kilogram steak is about 10 CUC. A packet of chicken thighs costs 2.40 CUC. A thousand-gram can of tuna is 8.90 CUC and a liter of cooking oil is 2.10 CUC.

Produce markets accept Cuban pesos but inflation has also impacted the national currency. A pound of pork chops costs 45 pesos. A pound of black beans goes for 12 pesos, 14 pesos for the colored variety. Chickpeas are the most expensive at 18 to 20 pesos a pound. A pound of tomatoes is 15 pesos. An avocado is 10. A pound of mango costs 5 to 6 pesos, while a pound of peanuts goes for 16 pesos.

“I go shopping at the produce market once a week for my household,” says Gerardo, a private sector worker. “I spend 1,200 pesos (55 dollars), which buys enough to last four or five days. No matter what we do, we are always blowing through money.”

Poor people, who make up the majority, and those with low incomes who do not have relatives on the other side of the pond, eat little and poorly. “My main course is often croquettes made from ’poultry’ (chicken, according to the government), sausages they sell for 1.10 CUC a packet or eggs, the national dish par excellence,” says Carmen, a retiree.

Those with fatter wallets eat better. They shop with hard currency, which on the black market buys them shellfish, fresh fish and beef. But everyone — those with more money and those with less money — spends most of his or her income on food. In Cuba you do not eat to live, you live to eat.