TODAY CUBA – As a percussionist with one of Havana’s oldest and best known bands, Orlando Ramos has toured the world, attended dozens of international festivals and collaborated with a host of stars ranging from Billy Joel to Silvio Rodríguez.
But while musicians from other countries might return from such trips with fine wines, aged whiskies or perhaps even exotic drugs, Ramos’s first priority when packing his bags to go home is something far more fundamental: milk.
Regular shortages of milk and other such basic goods underscore the many problems facing Cuba’s centrally planned and US-embargoed economy.
This makes a shopping trip an onerous and often disappointing task – even for those like Ramos who have a little spare cash.
“The hardest thing to find here is milk,” says the 75-year-old, who has played for more than 40 years with Manguaré. “Whenever I travel, my suitcases are full of powdered milk when I return.”
Millions of Cubans have faced similar – or worse – problems for decades, but President Raúl Castro has moved in recent years to change the system with a series of modest market reforms. The recent rapprochement with the US – which was the island’s main trading partner before the cold war – is also a source of hope for fuller shop shelves.
After the 1959 revolution, Cuba adopted a socialist food production and distribution system that ensured a survival level of heavily subsidised food for everyone. With extra rations for children and the elderly, it helps to account for the country’s impressive levels of longevity and low infant mortality.
The system continues today. Every Cuban family registers with a local supply store, where they can use a libreta or ration book. This typically provides about 10kg (22lb) of rice, 6kg of white sugar, 2kg of brown sugar, 250 millilitres (1 cup) of cooking oil, five eggs and a packet of coffee per person per month, along with 2kg of meat (usually chicken) every 10 days, a bun every day and a bag of salt every three months. Milk is provided for pregnant women and children under seven years of age.
The basic libreta products are guaranteed, but they are not enough – so people often have to travel to several places on several different days to make up the shortfall. Where to find eggs is a common subject of discussion.
“The rations are enough for rice and sugar, but for other products, they only last five or six days so you have to buy extra. You have to spend a lot of time before you can get everything you need,” said one of the more affluent families in the Náutico district of the city. “We hire a messenger to do the shopping for us.”
A farmer sells his produce out of the boot of his car at a market in the village of Sagua La Grande in central Cuba.
For decades, many items have effectively been off-limits to those who could only pay in pesos. At a farmers’ market near Miramar, the sign outside a butcher’s stall offers only three cuts of pork. Asked for beef, the butcher scoffs. “I’ve forgotten what it tastes like,” he jokes. “I haven’t had it since I was a child.”
To buy scarcer items, Cubans used to need the currency used by tourists – the CUC (Convertible Unit of Currency), which can be used at “dollar stores” which offer a far wider variety of goods. Partly for this reason, many skilled engineers and doctors found part-time jobs as taxi drivers or hotel staff to add a CUC income to their meagre peso salaries.
This is starting to change. Items on the shelves at the Centro Comercial Náutico – a fairly large dollar store in the suburbs of Havana – are priced in both pesos and CUCs as a step towards the currency integration promised by the government. But they remain expensive relative to incomes. A kilo of milk powder costs almost a third of the monthly salary of 500 pesos (about £14/$21). A steak dinner can cost a family half this income.
Even at these prices, the shop has run out of butter, ketchup and short pasta. The black market partially fills the vacuum. On roadsides further out of town, unauthorised hawkers tout bags of sausages, crackers, potatoes and other products that are scarce or only supposed to be available through the state system.
With money, it is possible to eat well in Havana. One result of reform has been an explosion of private restaurants – known as paladares – which have given those who can afford it a choice of Italian, Spanish and French cuisine, including lobster, steak, shrimps and even crocodile meat.
But for most people, the basics are often hard to come by. The 1960 US embargo is part of the problem as was the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, but Cuba’s inefficient farming system is also to blame. Although agriculture is supposed to be at the forefront of reforms, the changes have been patchy and the results so far unimpressive.
Less than an hour’s drive outside Havana are Cuba’s most productive pastures and croplands, but the country still needs to import about 80% of its food. To boost domestic production, government reforms have created a wholesale market for agricultural goods, leased millions of acres of idle state land to individual farmers and relaxed the old requirement that 70% of farm produce must be sold to the state at below-market prices.
The declared aim of the reforms is to update the socialist model rather than to replace it. Raúl Castro, who has promised to step aside in 2018, has said his motto is “slowly but without pause”. But stuck in transition, older farmers say the new incentives have not made up for the loss of subsidies.
Dairy herders Julia Menéndez and her husband are struggling to make ends meet for the first time in decades. An increase in fodder prices means it now costs more to feed their nine cows than they get from the state for their milk, which sells at a controlled price of 1 peso (less than three pence, or five cents) a litre. The elderly couple are exhausted cutting sugarcane every day as an alternative food for their cattle.
“I’ve been a farmer all my life and this is the hardest it has ever been,” said Menéndez, whose name has been changed. “We want to sell up and move.”
Her son, who has a bigger cattle ranch, is doing better. But his herd has suffered from the pressures of excess demand. A few months ago, he woke to find one of his cows had been butchered in its shed. The rustlers had used the cover of a rainstorm to sneak in, inject the animal with a tranquilliser and then remove its legs, rump and other prime cuts.
It was a high-risk crime. Cuba’s criminal code has also been distorted by economic controls. The maximum penalty for illegally slaughtering a cow and selling the meat is 18 years in prison. “You can get a lighter sentence for killing a person,” exclaims Noriel Menéndez, the nephew of the farmers. And the stiff punishment is not just for steak thieves: last month, a dozen people were sentenced to between five and 15 years for conspiring to divert millions of eggs – another scarce commodity – to the black market.
Closer ties with the US may ease such pressures. Currently, Cuba imports about $2bn a year of food. It is costly because of the distances involved. Most of the rice, for example, comes from Vietnam.
The US is only 90 miles away but it supplied just 15% of the island’s agricultural imports last year. Although the US embargo theoretically allows sales of food and medicine to the island, it also includes restrictions on credit and shipping that make such trade prohibitively complicated and expensive.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the powerful US farm lobby is one of the biggest advocates of ending sanctions and was among the first to send a delegation to Cuba after Castro and Barack Obama announced plans to strengthen ties on 17 December.
Although food shortages are nothing new, they are among several factors behind Havana’s recent engagement with Washington.
“Cuba’s agricultural sector is in dire straits. Raúl Castro is trying to deal with the crisis but reforms put in place have had limited effect. He is trying to pursue other options, including opening with the US,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a US-based thinktank.
“Perhaps ironically, the most intense efforts to address Cuba’s troubles of shortages and high prices on goods are coming from US agricultural business interests keen to lift the embargo. They see an attractive untapped market in Cuba.”
Hopes for greater improvements are growing. But until now, neither diplomatic initiatives nor economic reforms have made a noticeable difference to the empty shelves and high prices of Havana’s shops.
So the coping mechanisms continue – extra jobs, remittances from overseas, chickens in the back yard and luggage full of groceries.
“When I come back, I’ll bring milk, cheese and other stuff,” the musician Ramos says ahead of his band’s latest two-month tour of the US. “I’m thinking of buying a really big box for it all – big enough for a cow.”