Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Eight Eggs and A Quarter of A Chicken

A quick note: yes, this blog post has sources listed.  It's an important topic I've been researching for months and I wanted to make sure you have access to my sources if you want to read more on your own or start an argument with me about public policy. 

I enjoy sharing tales of my joyful adventures at an all-inclusive, all-you-can-eat beach resort, but want to pause the travel dialogue and focus on the reality of what Cuban life is like outside those resorts.  We avoided most of the inconveniences and dangers Cubans deal with every day, and indeed I had to do hours of reading, questioning and research before, during and after the trip to get even a minor understanding of the struggles for food and transportation.  So please stick with me for a diversion from my own travels to understand day-to-day life in this country I came to love.
Ration cards are a concept few in American can relate to at all.  The number of people who experienced rationing during World War II is shrinking each year, and certainly we haven't seen anything similar in recent years.  In Cuba, ration cards are a reality for everyone.  Each family is given a booklet like this one every year:

It lists the names and number of family members, and each month the booklet authorizes them to obtain a designated amount of food, which is jotted down in the book as a record.

The Communism model praises the fact that everyone has food, and I certainly never saw anyone sleeping on the street.  But when the government spends approximately 73% of its total budget on food basics without ever providing enough, I don't think anyone believes that the model has quite worked out (MercoPress).  There's never enough food to go around, as you'll see if you look closely at the ration card.  The provisions are different with every month but most accounts suggest the monthly food rations are significantly low in protein and not in any way enough to feed someone for a full month.  The title of this blog post is based on one summary of what a Cuban can expect in food rations for a month...but many other stories suggest the chicken isn't really chicken but instead chicken "parts" and other meat doesn't always arrive on the rations list either.  The family whose ration card I saw received rice, coffee, sugar and salt every month pretty regularly, but the protein categories were frequently empty.

Why isn't there food?  Several reasons, and of course they're all complicated.  Cuba is an island (technically, an archipelago), so what is not created or grown there must be imported.  There is a significant amount of agriculture, which was focused on growing sugar until the USSR collapsed and sugar was no longer a profitable crop.  The high level of government control made it possible to switch crops much faster than most nations could - it broke up the large state-run sugar farms and focused on growing food for use within the nation, as well (Ellinger, 2010; Peters, 2003).  Farmers have slightly more leeway to run their operations, and even some opportunity to sell excess crops on Cuba's version of the open market.  The enthusiasm for farmers markets here puts ours to shame...likely because we go there to get a prettier eggplant, while they go to get the basics needed to survive.

We didn't get to visit a farmers market; this photograph is from this amazing blog post from someone who did.

Cuba's relationship with the U.S. government plays a role, too, since nations usually pick the opportunity to trade with the U.S. rather than Cuba.  (The political divorce wasn't nice to the global kids - we've made them pick sides for decades.  Rather than summarize the complicated history of our relationship with Cuba, I urge you to take a few minutes to read this summary from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.  Even if you disagree with their outcome, the historical information is helpful and concise.)  I was surprised (in a very, very good way) to learn that the nation that sells the most food to Cuba is...the U.S.!  In 2000, Congress enactede the Trade sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which permitted U.S. firms to sell food and medicine to Cuba (USDA, 2008).  These transactions are cash-based, not on credit, and the Castro government did not accept the option until a hurricane brough significant damage to the island in 2001 (Schweimler, 2001).  It's not foreign aid and it certainly isn't enough to fix the problem, but at least it's a little-known piece of a solution.

Even when there is food for sale, the dual currency system inserts its ugly, complicated influence.  Extra food can be bought in CUC stores, but Cubans who work for the government receive their pay in Cuban national pesos rather than CUCs...about 1/24 of the value. 

You hear frequent talks of miracles during a day in Cuba, from the President to the powers of Amelia's grave in Colon Cemetery.  A miracle is defined as the Cuban people overcoming yet another insurmountable obstacle placed in front of them (independence from Spain, surviving the not-so-special "special period" that followed the collapse of the USSR); anyone who studies the history of the nation or meets the people of Cuba can't help but believe more miracles are coming their way.

I hope this very quick, oversimplified summary of a critically important issue helps you understand how good we have it...and maybe, just maybe, it will increase your interest in the often-hidden conversation about U.S. trade relations with Cuba.  There are many wonderful resources online if you want more information.  The USDA has a great summary of Cuba's agriculture and food situation here, many bloggers from other countries have tales of living - and eating - on little in Cuba that you can find through Google and if you really want to make me happy, take time to read this article from Patrick Symmes in Harper's Magazine.  It's an outstanding story of someone who really tried to live like the poorest of Cubans, and it's eye-opening to say the least.


My best source was Erik, our tour guide that spent hours sharing facts and information about Cuba - I filled an entire notebook with scribbled thoughts from his tours.  These sources, however, are available to you and back up what Erik described to us:

Ellinger, Mickey. Fall 2010. Urban agriculture in Cuba.  Weaving the Threads, Volume 17 Number 2.  Click here for the link.

MercoPress. April 16, 2011.  Cuba admits food imports bill is up 25% and "miracles are running out."  Click here for the link.

Peters, Phillip.  December 2003.  Cutting losses: Cuba downsizes its sugar industry.  The Lexington Institute.  Click here for the link.

Schweimler, Daniel.  December 30, 2001.  US sells food to Cuba.  BBC News.  Click here for the link.

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