What it Costs to Eat on the Island / Iván García

There’s nothing as complicated and stressful in Cuba as eating. “It’s terrible. Putting three meals on the table every day wipes out 90% of our household income,” says Caridad, a 39 year-old pediatrician.

“Imagine my case,” comments Orlando, a construction worker, 46. “I have four children, a wife and my sick mother to feed. I don’t receive any money from foreign remittances and not one penny of my wage is paid in dollars.” (In Cuba, the dual currency system leaves those who don’t have access to CUC, commonly known as divisas or dolár, much worse off than those that do.) “The only way my family can eat meals of rice, beans, and the occasional bit of pork is through theft. It’s as simple as that.”

On the island almost every aspect of life is difficult. But the food situation borders on insanity. For instance, two married professionals with two children and a combined monthly income of 1000 pesos (45 US dollars) would only be able to provide food for 14 days. The rest of the month, you ‘invent it’.

Now for some calculations. Juan, 26-years-old and a workshop employee, lives with his retired parents who between them receive a state pension of 377 pesos a month (15 US dollars). When he adds to this his wage for a grand total of 496 pesos (21 dollars), he goes to a market and buys 5 pounds of pork at 23 pesos (almost a dollar) per pound. There goes 115 pesos.

Next he heads to the fruit and veg stall. One avocado costs 10 pesos (50 cents), and he gets three small green mangoes for 22 pesos. Two pounds of guava costs 10 pesos per pound and 8 plantains are 3 pesos each.

Juan buys a little garlic and onion for 25 pesos. Five nylon bags are one peso each: for some time now here in Cuban stores there haven’t been any shopping bags. And Juan can brag that he’s a lucky guy, because you can’t always find what you’re looking for at the markets.

When he arrives home and works out the numbers, he shakes his head in disgust. He has spent 211 pesos on being able to eat a little better for 3 days. And he still doesn’t have rice, eggs, oil or tomato purée.

If combined with the basic food rations provided per capita each month by the state (7 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of sugar and 2 pounds of dark sugar, 20 ounces of beans, a few ounces of coffee and a daily bread roll weighing 80 grams), Juan’s family can eat for half the month.

Long ago, his parents replaced a proper lunch with a bread roll and a piece of guava paste or a flour fritter seasoned with chives. Breakfast, when they have it, is a cup of coffee. They can’t ask any more of their son: he already spends all of his wages on food.

There’s more. In his workshop, Juan usually steals what is thrown away. Bulbs, paint, screws, alcohol… anything. The extra money he earns from selling these items is also spent on jama (food).

When he goes out with his girlfriend on the weekends, all they have to share is their love for each other. They are always penniless. Occasionally they sacrifice and go to the cinema, and then to the wailing wall of Cuba: Havana’s seafront, the Malecón.

And just like Juan, Rolando and Caridad, around 40% of the Cuban population receives no money in foreign remittances. General Raúl Castro has repeatedly recognized that beans are more important than guns. He’s even said that the provision of food is a matter of national security.

This matter does not seem to interest his brother Fidel. With his world leader complex, what matters to him are foreign affairs. He doesn’t burden himself with such mundane problems.

According to Jeffrey Goldberg, the American journalist who recently interviewed Fidel, the older Castro enjoyed a Mediterranean diet during lunch: fish, salad, bread with olive oil and wine. Not bad.

If heroes, or in this case heroines, exist in Cuba, then they are the nation’s housewives. They have spent decades inventing ways to provide food for their loved ones. With little to cook, they have the creativity of top chefs. Their top priority is that nobody in their family goes to bed on an empty stomach.

It’s like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. They deserve an obelisk in Havana’s Revolutionary Square.

September 19, 2010