Slim Pickings in the Special Period: A Visit to a Bodega and an Economics Lesson [State-Run Ration Stores Offer Few, Poor-Quality Goods after Trade Ties with Soviet Union Broken in 1990]

By Ellwood, Wayne | New Internationalist, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Slim Pickings in the Special Period: A Visit to a Bodega and an Economics Lesson [State-Run Ration Stores Offer Few, Poor-Quality Goods after Trade Ties with Soviet Union Broken in 1990]


Ellwood, Wayne, New Internationalist


MY FRIEND Susan and I are laboriously cleaning rice. The smooth, black kitchen counter-top is the perfect spot to pick out the tiny pebbles, bits of husk and dirt. We don't bother with the microscopic white creatures which keep emerging during our work; they leave on their own, desperately scurrying away from our probing fingers.

We've just come back from her neighbourhood bodega, the state-run ration store which is a short five-minute walk away. Cubans have lived with food rationing since 1962 and the daily trip to the bodega is as much a part of life as rum and tobacco. In fact both are 'on the libreta', the ration book which must be presented to the bodega clerk. The young man who first serves us appears to be trying to arrange a date for Saturday night so we wait until his colleague fills the plastic bags we've brought. She pushes them back to us and then scratches in the libreta a record of what's been purchased, at what price and on what date.

Today the pickings are meagre: 500 grams of beans, 500 grams of rice, two small buns, 500 grams of sugar and a litre of rum. The rice is Vietnamese and the quality abysmal. Rice and black beans are a staple and congris (a mixture of the two popularly known as 'Moors and Christians') is standard fare from one end of the country to the other. The island does grow rice but the projected harvest of 165,000 tons last year fell well short of the 600,000 tons necessary to satisfy current demand. Forty per cent of the nearly $700 million the country spent in 1996 to import food was used to buy rice. The irony is that high-quality Cuban rice is exported for hard currency and the cheaper, low-grade stuff imported. The Government is attempting to boost production by encouraging small farmers and co-operatives to adopt traditional (and less expensive) techniques of planting rice in small dry plots. But there's a lot of lost production to make up. Harvests at the gigantic state farms fell by as much as 75 per cent after supplies of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides from the Soviet Bloc were cut off in the early 1990s.

The same situation holds for coffee as for rice, a predicament which causes Cubans even more consternation. Coffee, an important social lubricant, is almost a sacrament. In the relentless search for foreign exchange, the best coffee from the Oriente (the eastern tip of the island) is exported, cheaper stuff imported and then mixed with chickpea flour. Everyone seems to know this but it still rankles.

The monthly rations from the State for a family of four cost around 50 pesos ($2.15), almost a quarter of the average salary of 214 pesos ($9.30). Food from the bodega is not enough to live on and no-one, neither the Government nor the people, pretends it is. It may take you halfway through the month, but no more.

But despite the shortages, people don't seem to hold the Government responsible. Rationing has been around so long it's an accepted part of daily life. And for the most part Cubans sympathize with the State's efforts to distribute available food as fairly as possible. The last eight years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have been a time of belt-tightening and suffering. But the consensus is that the problem is a national one, which all Cubans need to work on together to solve.

In order to understand why the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc was such a hammer blow to the economy I visit George Carriazo, the Director of CIEM (the Centre for the Investigation of the Global Economy), one of a number of quasi-autonomous think-tanks whose job is to analyze and consult on Government economic policy. His modest office is on the second floor of a crumbling mansion on Avenida Cinco. The paint is faded and the ceiling plaster flaking but Carriazo himself is a gracious and welcoming. He is a patient fellow with impeccable English and a clear fix on his country's economic problems.

'We lost 85 per cent of our foreign trade with the breakdown of the Soviet Union,' he tells me. …

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