Thanks in part to poor planning by Cuba’s government, goods that Cubans have long relied on are going to well-heeled tourists and the hundreds of private restaurants that cater to them, leading to soaring prices and empty shelves.
For Lisset Felipe, privation is a standard facet of Cuban life, a struggle shared by nearly all, whether they’re enduring blackouts or hunting for toilet paper.
But this year has been different, in an even more fundamental way, she said. She has not bought a single onion this year, nor a green pepper, both staples of the Cuban diet. Garlic, she said, is a rarity, while avocado, a treat she enjoyed once in a while, is all but absent from her table.
“It’s a disaster,” said Felipe, 42, who sells air conditioners for the government. “We never lived luxuriously, but the comfort we once had doesn’t exist anymore.”
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The changes in Cuba in recent years have often hinted at a new era of possibilities: a slowly opening economy, warming relations with the U.S., a flood of tourists meant to lift the fortunes of Cubans long marooned on the outskirts of modern prosperity. But the record arrival of nearly 3.5 million visitors to Cuba last year has caused a surging demand for food, causing ripple effects that are upsetting the promise of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Tourists are literally eating Cuba’s lunch. Thanks in part to the U.S. embargo, but also to poor planning by the island’s government, goods that Cubans have long relied on are going to well-heeled tourists and the hundreds of private restaurants that cater to them, leading to soaring prices and empty shelves.
Without supplies to match the increased appetite, some foods have become so expensive that staples are becoming unaffordable for regular Cubans.
“The private tourism industry is in direct competition for good supplies with the general population,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and specialist on the Cuban economy. “There are a lot of unanticipated consequences and distortions.”
There has long been a divide between Cubans and tourists, with beach resorts and Havana hotels effectively reserved for outsiders willing to shell out money for a more comfortable version of Cuba. But with the country pinning its hopes on tourism, welcoming a surge of new travelers to feed the anemic economy, a more basic inequality has emerged amid the nation’s experiment with capitalism.
Rising prices for such items as onions and peppers, or for modest luxuries like pineapples and limes, have left many unable to afford them. Beer and soda can be hard to find, often snapped up in bulk by restaurants.
It is a startling evolution in Cuba, where a shared future has been a pillar of the revolution’s promise. While the influx of new money from tourists and other visitors has been a boon for the growing private sector, most Cubans still work within the state-run economy and struggle to make ends meet.
President Raúl Castro has acknowledged the surge in agricultural prices and moved to cap them. In a speech in April, he said the government would look into the causes of the soaring costs and crack down on middlemen for price gouging, with limits on what people could charge for certain fruits and vegetables.
“We cannot sit with our hands crossed before the unscrupulous manner of middlemen who only think of earning more,” he told party members, according to local news reports.
But the government price ceilings seem to have done little to provide good, affordable produce for Cubans. Instead, they have simply moved goods to the commercial market, where farmers and vendors can fetch higher prices, or to the black market.
Havana offers examples of the growing chasm.
At two state-run markets, where the government sets prices, the shelves this past week were monuments to starch: sweet potatoes, yucca, rice, beans and bananas, plus a few malformed watermelons.
As for tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cucumbers, garlic or lettuce — to say nothing of avocados, pineapples or cilantro — there were only promises.
“Try back Saturday for tomatoes,” one vendor offered.
At a nearby co-op market, where vendors have more freedom to set prices, the fruits and vegetables missing from the state-run stalls were elegantly stacked in abundance. Rarities like grapes, celery, ginger and an array of spices competed for shoppers’ attentions.
The market has become the playground of the private restaurants that have sprung up to serve visitors. They employ cadres of buyers to scour the city each day for fruits, vegetables and nonperishable goods, bearing budgets that overwhelm those of the average household.
“Almost all of our buyers are paladares,” said one vendor, Ruben Martínez, using the Cuban name for private restaurants, which include about 1,700 establishments across the country. “They are the ones who can afford to pay more for the quality.”
By Cuban standards, the prices were astronomic. Several Cuban residents said simply buying 1 pound of onions and 1 pound of tomatoes at the prices charged that day would consume 10 percent or so of a standard government salary of about $25 a month.
“I don’t even bother going to those places,” said Yainelys Rodriguez, 39, sitting in a park in Havana while her daughter climbed a slide.
While many Cubans have long been hardened to the reality of going without, never more than during what they call the “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new dynamic that has emerged in recent months threatens the nation’s future, experts warn.
“The government has consistently failed to invest properly in the agriculture sector,” said Juan Alejandro Triana, an economist at the University of Havana. “We don’t just have to feed 11 million people anymore. We have to feed more than 14 million.
“In the next five years, if we don’t do something about it, food will become a national-security issue here.”
The government gives Cubans ration books to help provide staples such as rice, beans and sugar, but they do not cover items such as fresh produce. Tractors and trucks are limited and routinely break down, often causing the produce to spoil en route. Inefficiency, red tape and corruption at the local level also stymie productivity, while a lack of fertilizer reduces yield (though it keeps produce organic, by default).
Economists also argue that setting price ceilings can discourage farmers and sellers. If prices are set so low they cannot turn a profit, they argue, why bother working? Most will try to redirect their goods to the private or black market.
“From the point of view of the farmer, what would you do?” asked Feinberg, the California professor. “When the differentials are that great, it requires a really selfless or foolish person to play by the rules.”