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Food shortages suffocate Cubans; worst crisis since 1990

MEXICO CITY.

“Cubans have always been resourceful,” says Ana, who owns a private garden-to-table restaurant near Havana. “But now we have to be magicians and acrobats.” The communist island faces its worst food shortage since 1990.

Finding ingredients has never been easy in a place that imports about 70% of its food. Now it is almost impossible. When grocery stores are empty, Ana looks online or on the black market and finds very high prices. He says that farmers no longer want to sell him products, since they themselves need them to feed themselves.

The government blames the food shortage mainly on sanctions imposed by the United States, sanctions that the UN General Assembly condemned on June 24, as it has done almost every year since 1992. But since 2001, sanctions exempt food. In fact, the US is the largest food exporter to Cuba, although last year those imports were at their lowest level since 2002.

Some external factors have affected the food supply. The increase in world food prices, which until May of this year rose 40%.

But the main problem is the government’s lack of foreign exchange.

Tourism, which normally accounts for 10% of GDP, has stunted due to the pandemic: while 4.2 million people visited the island in 2019, just over a million did so last year, almost all in the first three months of the year. anus. Remittances have also been affected. Before the coronavirus, commercial airlines offered up to ten daily flights between Miami and Havana, all filled with people with cash, but now only a handful of flights go to Havana each week.

Additionally, this year’s sugar harvest, one of Cuba’s top exports, was the worst in more than a century.

Cubans can no longer buy dollars from state-controlled exchange houses at the airport.

State bakeries are replacing a fifth of the imported wheat flour they use in bread with substitutes made from endogenously grown corn, squash or cassava. Cookie sales have been limited in certain cities to further reduce flour imports.

Since February, in a desperate attempt to raise hard currency, the government has required foreigners to pay in dollars for their mandatory seven-day stay at a quarantine state hotel. To obtain more income from its diaspora, the state also operates e-commerce sites through which Cubans abroad can pay in dollars or euros for food and gifts that are delivered to people on the island.

Government action has made things worse. On June 10, the Central Bank of Cuba announced that, as of June 21, Cubans would not be able to deposit dollars in their bank accounts for an indefinite period. Emilio Morales, director of Havana Consulting Group in Miami, believes this was a way to scare people into depositing more before the deadline.

Ricardo Cabrisas, the deputy prime minister, was recently in Paris to negotiate another extension of the nearly $ 3.5 billion loans owed to foreign governments, the island has been in default since 2019.

The companies that produce food in Cuba earn only pesos, which have little international value, but they must buy almost all their inputs abroad in a foreign currency. The government requires farmers to sell their harvest to the state at uncompetitive prices and imposes draconian regulations on livestock management.

Cubans are no strangers to difficult times. Eliécer Jiménez Almeida, a Cuban filmmaker living in Miami, was a child during the “special period” of hardship after the fall of the Soviet Union and remembers how his grandmother sold her gold jewelry in exchange for soap, so that he and his brothers could bathe. For him and for many Cubans, the question is not how many more of the same humiliations his people can endure, but for how long.

Discontent was slightly less likely when Fidel Castro was in power. Castro had a charisma and a mystique that neither his brother and successor, Raúl, nor the current president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, can replicate. Furthermore, the Cuban diaspora is larger and wealthier and the internet has shown Cubans that many of their economic difficulties are created by their leaders and not by the United States.

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