Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cuba - Living to Eat

Cuba: Living to Eat / Ivan Garcia
Posted on July 31, 2015

Iván García, 28 July 2015 — Juliana, a seventy-three-year-old housewife,
devotes much of her time to tasks related to feeding her family. "I
spend eight hours cleaning rice, picking through beans, which are very
dirty, buying bread, scouring produce markets, butcher shops and corner
stores to see what is available and making lunch and dinner," she
explains while preparing black bean soup.

Julia and those like her do not fit the national pattern: They still
have breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. "My daughters make good
salaries and I get dollars from relatives in the United States, but it
evaporates in trying to eat as best we can."
In Cuba people live to eat. Food costs eat up 90% of the average salary.
"And it's not enough," notes Renier, a laborer. "The only reason I don't
spend my entire salary on food is because I have to pay the light, water
and gas bills."
The average monthly salary is around twenty-three dollars. The state
provides a meager amount of foodstuffs each month at subsidized prices
through the ration book. It includes seven pounds of rice, three pounds
of refined sugar, two pounds of brown sugar, twenty ounces of dried
beans, a pound of chicken and half a kilogram of ground beef mixed with
soy. The cost per person does not exceed twenty pesos (less than a
dollar). Everyone also has the right to a daily 2.8 ounce bread roll
once a day for five cents.
"It doesn't last for more than ten days. The rest of the month is a
problem," says a Cuban doctor. "The biggest tragedy for Cubans is the
issue of food. Even if you have money, you can't find what you want. Not
in the hard-currency store, not on the black market. Finding enough to
eat is a very stressful."
In hospital clinics it is customary to give doctors presents in exchange
for good treatment. "Patients often give us food like ham and cheese
sandwiches, chicken thighs or pork legs. Many doctors have a more
comfortable life thanks to these gifts," he adds.
The big debate in Cuba is when the country's vaunted economic growth
will reach Cuban dinner tables. According the the regime, the country's
GDP trend line has been moving upward for fifteen years.
However, this incremental growth has not translated into lower food
prices or an increase in production. If you look at the figures for
meat, poultry, fish or produce production, you will see that any
increase has been minimal and in many cases it has actually gone into

The former sugar supplier to the world now produces less than two
million tons of sugar a year. Fresh milk is a luxury, as are beef, fish
and shellfish.

Fruits like guava, chirimoya, sugar apple and orange are distant
memories to the Cuban palate. Behind a slight increase in certain
legumes and vegetables lies skillful manipulation. The government is
blowing smoke.
In no sector of the food industry does the increased growth match the
highpoint of 1989. While it was also an era of shortages, the production
of bread, milk, eggs and potatoes did meet demand.
But not now. There is a joke that, before the nightly news, people place
baskets under their televisions to collect the harvests of fruits,
vegetables and meat which only grow in the official media.

The average family in Cuba has only one hot meal a day. "For lunch I
heat up something from the night before," says Regla, a professor who
cooks meals at home for her husband and two children. "On Sundays I
often make a nice lunch with pork or chicken and at night we eat
something light. The regular Monday-to-Saturday menu consists of white
rice or congrí (rice cooked with black beans), eggs in some fashion, and
a cucumber, cabbage, avocado or tomato salad."

Except when there are visitors, everything is served on one plate to
avoid having too many dishes to wash. Rice makes up the largest portion.
Some people do not even sit at the table anymore, preferring to eat
while watching television.

Prices in hard currency stores are shocking. A kilogram of domestically
produced white cheese costs 3.75 CUC and 8.10 CUC for Gouda. Ham goes
for more than 8 CUC while a half-kilogram steak is about 10 CUC. A
packet of chicken thighs costs 2.40 CUC. A thousand-gram can of tuna is
8.90 CUC and a liter of cooking oil is 2.10 CUC.
Produce markets accept Cuban pesos but inflation has also impacted the
national currency. A pound of pork chops costs 45 pesos. A pound of
black beans goes for 12 pesos, 14 pesos for the colored variety.
Chickpeas are the most expensive at 18 to 20 pesos a pound. A pound of
tomatoes is 15 pesos. An avocado is 10. A pound of mango costs 5 to 6
pesos, while a pound of peanuts goes for 16 pesos.

"I go shopping at the produce market once a week for my household," says
Gerardo, a private sector worker. "I spend 1,200 pesos (55 dollars),
which buys enough to last four or five days. No matter what we do, we
are always blowing through money."

Poor people, who make up the majority, and those with low incomes who do
not have relatives on the other side of the pond, eat little and poorly.
"My main course is often croquettes made from 'poultry' (chicken,
according to the government), sausages they sell for 1.10 CUC a packet
or eggs, the national dish par excellence," says Carmen, a retiree.

Those with fatter wallets eat better. They shop with hard currency,
which on the black market buys them shellfish, fresh fish and beef. But
everyone — those with more money and those with less money — spends most
of his or her income on food. In Cuba you do not eat to live, you live
to eat.

Source: Cuba: Living to Eat / Ivan Garcia | Translating Cuba -

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