When someone shows up in the same place over and over again, in Cuba we say “he’s like white rice.” It’s a very popular way to refer to someone whose presence is excessive, be it in a determined sphere, activity, or process. The metaphor obviously comes from the starring role this grain has in the daily diet of the island.
Many compatriots will maintain they haven’t eaten until they have a portion of this cereal on their plate. From the time we’re tiny our grandmothers fill our bottles with a “a little rice water” if our mother’s milk isn’t enough, and as we grow up cooking “Moors and Christians” — beans and rice — becomes our culinary litmus tests. We are inseparable from constant, even boring rice. But there it is to get us out of a fix and fill our stomachs on days when other flavors are scarce.
According to official statistics rice consumption in recent years has skyrocketed in Cuba, to about 155 pounds per person a year. Which means we need about 750,000 tons, of which only about 225,000 is produced in the country. A figure that was reached last January representing about 16,000 tons more than was produced in the ‘80s, with the machinery and resources provided by the Soviet subsidy of that time. For that reason, the importation of this project becomes a vital, strategic, topic.
Hence the importance of Raúl Castro’s current visit to Vietnam, the main importer of rice to Cuba. This Asian country has become our granary, even supplying us small donations of the precious grain. We now find the General President beginning his four-day stay in country of this important trading partner. A nation which has shown surprising signs of recovery after a devastating war, and one that still calls itself socialist, although its economy responds to market forces. Some claim that the visit of the Cuban leader points to an on-the-ground investigation of Vietnamese reforms that might be applied in the largest of the Antilles. But the evidence points in another direction.
The relaxations that Raul Castro has introduced in agriculture and self-employment have not generated the results that the country urgently needs. Compared to the expectations placed on him in February 2008, when he inherited power due to the illness of his brother, it’s as if a bucket of cold water has been dumped on the stubborn reality. The effects of his changes on productivity don’t even come close to what was expected by a population eager to emerge from a material crisis, as chronic as the lack of civil rights.
Thus, the urgency of this visit to China and Vietnam, especially when in a few days the National Assembly will meet and will be anxious to have positive figures to show. Guaranteeing, at the very least, the rice supply for 2013, becomes an important tool of political control. If people know that their rice ration will not be affected, if they can be assured that this whitest of grains will be on their plates every day, it will offer a respite to the powers-that-be. Because the national history of the last two decades can almost be narrated through the ups and downs suffered by the supply and price of rice.
In August 1994 when thousands of people took to the streets in the uprising known as the Maleconazo, a pound of this food had come to consume about a fourth of the average wage. What’s more, if there is anything that has stopped Raúl’s regime from doing away with rationing, it has been the fear generated in people by the very thought that they will not receive “their” six pounds of rice each month at subsidized prices.
So through this trip to Vietnam, Raúl Castro is guaranteeing something extremely important and decisive for his next years in power. In a scenario where the situation in Venezuela has a “guarded prognosis,” the General must try to at least maintain the imported food supply.
If the health of Hugo Chavez is ultimately bankrupt, or were he to lose the upcoming October 7 election, the economic hit to Cuba would be catastrophic. The better part of the flow of oil to the island would most likely be cut. At the household level our lightbulbs would once again go dark for 8 to 10 hours a day, and in the absence of fuel we would take to the streets of our country on bikes. But the rice — just like the family birdseed — must continue to appear in our cages… excuse me, on our plates.
7 July 2012