14ymedio, Havana, 31 August 2022 — The shortage of wheat flour in Cuba, with the consequent increase in the price of bread and cookies on the market, has quickly reached its critical point. In addition to the difficulties in making the products, there is the absence of an effective mechanism for the import of the necessary raw material.
However, without offering solutions to the problem of hunger, which will be further aggravated by the arrival of the new school year, or facilitating imports for the self-employed, the Cuban Government, more inefficient than ever, has concentrated its efforts on a raid against food vendors.
“Any small or medium-sized business (SME) can, in theory, import products,” a cookie producer in Sancti Spíritus tells 14ymedio. “Of course as long as you can find them. What you can’t do is go to another country and bring a container of flour, for example, to sell here to producers who need it for their businesses.”
“A month ago,” he continues, “when the disappearance of flour began, I went to Cubaexport to request the import of the quantities I needed. But they can only supply small amounts, so dealing with them doesn’t work. The same thing happened to me with other state import routes: they’re a problem.”
From Havana, they told him about someone who sold flour in quantities: “They told me it was legal, but of course you always know what’s happening.”
The producer says several of them met and went to the Government to request permission to import a container of flour that they would later distribute among all. “The officials straightened us out,” he laments. “The justification was that you can make contract as a SME or self-employed person, under the terms of the Government, but that collectively you can’t. “That’s reselling,” they told us.
The sellers of Sancti Spíritus have begun to approach the official reporters on the street. “Now they say that from next week we will not be able to sell any product with bread or wheat flour. Do you know about this?” they asked the author of a chronicle published in the newspaper Escambray about the shortage of flour in the province.
The journalist, who advances along Espirituano Boulevard overwhelmed by the “stratospheric prices of almost everything,” has to admit his ignorance when citizens demand explanations from him in the face of the unstable fluctuations in bread and cookie prices.
Another seller suspects that “the provincial government banned its sale and we don’t want to take risks.” At twenty or twenty-five pesos, the packages of cookies exceed 120, that is if you manage to “capture” some improvised merchant passing by on bicycle or on foot.
The rise in prices is an expression of doubt and insecurity on the part of the self-employed, the journalist recognizes, but when he must point out a culprit, he doesn’t look for him in the bureaucracy of state trade, but in the producers themselves.
Once the “enemy” has been identified, Escambray lashes out at the private sector: “What if because of the war in Ukraine, the price of flour went up on the black market, and people could no longer could get it so easily, and if the price of the dollar on the street exceeded 145 pesos…, in short, a string of excuses to justify the rise in price.”
Not satisfied with making the increase in price and disappearance of flour clear to the official culprit, the reporter goes to the provincial authorities. Ricardo García Hernández, coordinator of Programs and Objectives of the provincial government of Sancti Spíritus — the same person who declared the “innocence” of the officials who ordered the destruction of a patrimonial locomotive of 1917 in Jatibonico — makes his position clear: “There is no justification for private companies to continue raising prices.”
The Government has not issued any prohibition, he says. It’s rather a strategy of the private sector to “manipulate the people” and justify the rise in prices.
“Here we haven’t talked about prohibiting anything; we haven’t even restricted prices, although we draw attention to some abusive prices that we’ve detected in recent days with respect to cookies and bread,” says the official, washing his hands of the problem.
He warns, however, that the government has already released a pack of inspectors throughout the province, with instructions to “detect any illegality associated with the production of such food.”
After concluding his meeting with García Hernández, the reporter ignores or pretends not to know why food prices in Cuba are rising: “If the government of the province hasn’t banned the sale of bread, cookies, sweets or any product that contains bread or wheat flour, why then do some insist on constantly raising prices? Why is it so easy to keep squeezing the already battered pocket of the workers?”
As in Sancti Spíritus, other state media have turned to local governments to repeat the pantomime of an “official explanation.” In each of the cases, the official invokes the note published by the Ministry of Internal Trade on August 23: the shortage is due to an “intensification of the blockade [i.e. the US embargo], the current international logistics crisis and the financial limitations of the country,” which has limited its imports of wheat.
On the other hand, the authorities ask for more “creative resistance” and offer examples such as that of Gabriel Pérez, a young man from Guanabacoa who makes “alternative” flour. Together with his sisters, Pérez sold an apartment in Havana and bought a plot of land to “get into the flour business.”
The farmers of the area taught them some cultivation techniques that they then took advantage of to make their brand, Bacoretto. Its product, which the Government exposes as an emblem of self-ownership, manufactures flour from carob, rice, cassava, coconut and banana. “It’s the same thing that has always been done, many years ago, in the Cuban east and in the countryside,” Pérez says, to reassure his clients.
While the official press interviews “inventors” of flour and seeks to absolve the Government of all guilt, Cuban mothers are still concerned about the coming school year and the impossibility of offering their children bread to take to school as a snack. Families continue to buy bags of cookies at inconceivable prices, and producers try to maintain a “low profile” in front of inspectors who, more than criminals, are looking for scapegoats.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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