14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 8 December 2020 — Until recently, coffee shops advertised “rice with steak”, “congrí (black beans and rice) and yucca,” “yellow rice with sausage,” and other combinations where the grain reigned, as it does in every Cuban table. But the product, missing from the unrationed market, is now only found on the black market and in dollar stores.
An article published this Monday in the State newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) has added salt to the wound of the rice shortage, boasting that in less than 24 hours almost three tons of the domestically produced grain were sold through a virtual store in foreign currency. The page that hosted the text has been showing an error message all day, which suggests that the critics have forced the withdrawal of the article.
The rice harvested at the Empresa Agroindustrial de Granos Sur del Jíbaro, in Sancti Spíritus, was marketed on a portal where people abroad can make purchases for delivery to the island, a channel frequently used by emigrants to help their families with products missing from the network of State stores.
Orland Linares Morell, general director of one of the largest rice producing companies in the country, explains it to the Communist youth newspaper without hiding his pride. The official considers it an opportunity for Cuban emigrants living abroad “to acquire the grain to be consumed by residents of the national territory.”
According to Linares, the grain that is sold is of the Galano 1967 brand , registered in the Cuban Industrial Property Office, “with great acceptance in the national and international market.” One kilo of the product, sold by state-owned Fruta Selecta, is offered on various digital sites at the cost of $1.78 plus home delivery costs.
In freely convertible currency (MLC) stores that have been selling food and hygiene products since last July, the rice sold is mostly imported and one kilogram of the variant popularly known as “bolito,” which comes from Spain, can exceed $4.50.
With the approach of Christmas and its traditional dinners based on rice, beans, pork, cassava and vegetable salad, the demand for the grain has skyrocketed and it is common for it to be scarce even in foreign exchange stores, despite its high prices. On the black market, the price is also on the rise and is close to 50 Cuban pesos per pound, a figure that may grow as the end of the year approaches.
In his statements this Monday, Linares pointed out that at the moment the supply from Granos del Sur del Jíbaro is only available in Sancti Spíritus, but will be extended to Havana through the Grupo Excelencias y la Industria Alimentaria. It did not specify, however, if there were limitations on the amount that each customer can buy.
The users of these on-line sites selling food are almost entirely people who live outside the Island, since residents in the country do not have credit or debit cards that can be used in digital commerce. For Islanders, the alternative is the TuEnvio.cu store, marked by technological problems, delays in deliveries and a shortage of merchandise.
To address the grain shortage, many private businesses have replaced the commonly offered side dishes of “Moors and Christians” (black beans and white rice) or white rice alone with ones of fried plantains, sautéed vegetables or bread. “We don’t have rice, but I can accompany the pork with some plantain tostones,” explains one of the most popular home delivery services in Havana by phone.
“It is not business to sell dishes with rice because every day it costs more for each pound,” the owner of Sabor a ti, a small business that offers a simple takeout from Monday to Friday for customers in the Cuban capital, tells this newspaper. “All our dishes are now coming out with cassava, taro or plantain but we cannot guarantee the rice.”
At home, the panorama repeats itself. “My family consumes little rice and it is enough for me, but for example at my mother’s house it is impossible, after the first 10 days of the month and she has to go out to look for the product in the street,” Mayelin Ramírez, a resident of the municipality of Plaza de Revolución told 14ymedio.
“Hopefully this offer reaches Havana, my mother is having a hard time without being able to have rice the whole month. She does not have a card in MLC but my brother who lives abroad can buy it without problems,” she explained.
Ramírez believes that what is happening is that “other products are also missing” and that is why rice becomes the main dish in many households. “There are no root vegetables, no pasta, every day the options are fewer,” laments the woman, the mother of a little girl. “At home there are only three of us, with my husband and daughter, and I am always inventing. I like to balance our diet, but everyone does not have that possibility because they are very attached to the custom of always eating with rice.”
The unrationed sale of the grain was suspended in the country at the beginning of the pandemic. According to calculations by official sources, of the 700,000 tons necessary to ensure the distribution of rice for the basic market basket sold in the ration stores, this year less than 163,000 tons will be produced in the network of rice companies.
In this context, five pounds of rice per month can be purchased in the rationed market for each consumer at a subsidized price, and an additional two pounds but without the subsidy. This summer, an additional three pounds were added as part of a group of measures announced “to alleviate the impact” of the pandemic on food.
The official version, released by the media, maintains that the ’blockade’ [i.e., the U.S. embargo], the climate and the international crisis that has followed the pandemic, together with the island’s financial problems, are the causes of the shortage.
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