Focus on Food in Cuba, Hungry for Leadership in Washington

Dear Friend:

The cost and availability of food is the immediate concern facing Cuba in the aftermath of the hurricanes.

These problems command the attention of the Cuban people, their government, and our news summary. We have updates on the supplies of food, the government’s use of price controls to restrain food prices, the impact of the hurricanes on Cuba’s reforms and the impact of the embargo on the charitable work of humanitarian groups like Caritas. We also provide a report on one effort Cuba has undertaken to reschedule its debts to free up resources to pay for imports of food.

Once again, we return to the question of what the United States ought to be doing to help with this crisis.

More than four decades ago, when Congress rewrote the laws which provide foreign assistance, it made a finding that alleviating human suffering caused by natural and manmade disasters was an important expression of the humanitarian concerns of the people of the United States of America. That is our tradition.

Yet, rules remain in place from June 2004 that restrict how often Cuban Americans can travel to the island and how much financial support they can provide their Cuban relatives. Congress left Washington for the election season without enacting legislation to remove limits on what Cuban Americans can do to help their families on the island deal with this crisis.

President Bush visited Miami today. He could have lived up to our traditions, and in a speech before his most loyal supporters in the Cuban-American community, he could have announced that he set those rules aside, permanently or temporarily, so families could provide help at a time when help is so needed.

Rather than rising to the occasion, the President fell back into the same pattern of sloganeering and anti-Castro rhetoric that has guided the sum and substance of US-Cuba policy for most of the last eight years. His legacy as president will apparently include using a humanitarian crisis as a political stick, a 180 degree turn from where Congress started when it remade the foreign aid program in the 1960s.

Not only is this an inhumane expression of our nation’s values, but it is also really bad timing. In fewer than three weeks, the United Nations General Assembly will debate for the seventeenth consecutive year, its resolution condemning the US embargo of Cuba. This is a vote that the United States loses perennially, and it brings together a broad coalition of America’s best friends in the world along with some of our biggest adversaries, all of whom condemn our embargo.

If they needed fresh evidence of the cruelty of our policy – and if we needed additional evidence that our obsession with punishing Cuba reverberates around the world and boomerangs against our interests – what we have done, and not done, in response to the hurricanes on Cuba provides both.

This week in Cuba news…


Less food, harder to find

Fruits and vegetables are harder to find in Havana and throughout the country in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, the Reuters news agency reported.

The government is tapping food reserves and pressuring farmers to sell to their products to the state to bolster the monthly food ration. Foreign diplomats estimate that Cuba’s food reserves will run out in December and the government has said it will import whatever it needs to avoid hunger.

A survey by Reuters found that starches and proteins can still be found easily, but supplies of vegetables and fruits have dried up in state markets, supply and demand markets and on the black market.

The government has provided double items on ration card to individuals living in the hardest hit areas like Pinar del Rio and La Isla de Juventud. The additional rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil and other items will be provided until March, which is when the government estimates the shortages will ease.

The areas that were not hit by the storms, including Havana, have not had quotas on their ration card increased and food normally destined to markets in the capital is being diverted to other parts of the country.

According to Reuters, price controls and black market regulation have made street vendors disappear across the country and food available at private markets has dwindled.

You can read the Reuters article here.

The embargo is preventing humanitarian aid from arriving in Cuba

The president of Caritas International, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, said yesterday that the “inhumane” U.S. embargo on Cuba is impeding the arrival of humanitarian aid after the two hurricanes, the Mexican news agency Notimex reported.

He announced that Caritas International, the largest catholic aid organization in the world, is looking at the possibility of sending aid from Mexico or Panama to avoid the difficulties of sending from the United States.

“We should not forget that an inhumane blockade exists, blockades are completely unjust because they hurt the poorest part of the population, in this case there are many difficulties based on the fact that Cuba is an island,” he affirmed.

“The aid can only arrive by plane from the United States where the loads are very expensive, or by boat, but the companies don’t want to transport it out of fear of legal retaliation,” he added.

The Cardinal said that food aid needs to arrive soon because “there is hunger” and that the materials for housing reconstruction are needed in order to avoid the establishment of huts and shacks that are vulnerable to future storms.

“With the embargo there are not too many alternatives, we are looking for options with other countries like Mexico or Panama, where the costs of shipping are higher because the distance is greater in comparison with Florida.”

You can read the Notimex article here.

Price controls and the hurricanes’ effect on economic reforms

Cuba is facing a difficult food situation in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which destroyed crops and wiped out food reserves. José Luis Rodríguez, the Cuban Minister of Economy and Planning, has said that the country will not face extreme hunger and that the government has taken “measures in order to regulate the distribution of products starting with controlling speculation through the method of limiting the prices in the supply and demand markets and increasing the availability in the state farmers markets,” the Agence-France Presse reported.

Vendors in the supply and demand markets raised their prices, often times doubling the cost, arguing that the rise in the price of gasoline and diesel, 57% and 80% respectively, greatly increased the cost of transporting the products.

Many economists thought that the price controls would stimulate even more black market activity, but so far authorities have increased control on the highways, inspections in the cities and are punishing speculators and people stealing products.

The government has said that they expect six very difficult months ahead and that if necessary they will find a way to import more than the 2.5 billion dollars worth of food budgeted for this year. As mentioned above, they have accelerated a plan to hand over idle land to private farmers and cooperatives in the hopes that they will be able to assist in feeding the population.

With the world economic crisis and high prices for Cuba’s main imports, food and oil, some economists in Havana believe the tough times obligate the country to reframe the country’s economic policy.

“The structural transformations are what can allow us to activate economic growth again. It doesn’t seem to be the moment to postpone the reforms, but to hurry them up,” said Pavel Vidal, economist at the University of Havana.

Many farmers and economists complained that the government enacted price controls after giving individuals and cooperatives more independence to produce, making it impossible for them to earn a profit.

Fidel Castro has been increasing the frequency of his “reflections”, which have begun to focus much more on domestic policy then previously. He recently complained that some leaders “dream about satisfying all of the requests (transported by ‘flying birds’) that the people desire,” and requested order and discipline, signaling that the priorities at this time are production, food, reconstruction and the rational use of resources like oil.

President Raúl Castro has asked the population “to work hard and be patient,” saying that “little by little” they will resolve the problems of low salaries and the elimination of two currencies.

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said that tough economic times in Cuba and the world “give Raúl Castro and the reformist wing an opportunity to accelerate reforms or the radicals, with Fidel Castro at the head, will succeed at reinstating a hard and pure socialism.”

You can read the AFP article here.

Cuba moves forward with land reforms

Cuba has begun turning over idle lands to cooperatives, state companies and private farmers in one of Raúl Castro’s main economic reforms, the Reuters news agency reported based on state media reports.

According to local economists, the move comes at an important time as the country faces food shortages in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, which devastated crops last month.

Demajagua, the Communist party newspaper for the province of Granma, reported that the “first parcels of vacant land were handed over in Granma.”

The reform was announced in July and the state began accepting applications in September, but the report was the first announcement that land has actually been given to the applicants. According to the Demajagua article, 33 parcels totaling 350 hectares (865 acres) were leased to farmers, cooperatives, individuals and other entities.

The same report said that individuals and entities have applied for 61,808 hectares (152,725 acres) of the 76,675 hectares (189,461 acres) of state lands in Granma.

No announcement at the national level was made, but farmers in Camaguey told Reuters that they had been told that land leases there would start in the next few weeks.

The Granma recently reported that between “September 17-24, 445,347 hectares of idle land were applied for by 34,661 individuals or legal entities throughout the country to exploit free of charge.” According to Pedro Olivera Gutiérrez, director of the State Center for Land Control, of the 34,661 applications, 26,800 came from individuals who have never owned land, meaning they are eligible for up to 13.42 hectares.

Raúl Castro has implemented reforms in agriculture in an attempt to increase domestic food production and rely less on expensive imports. He has decentralized decision-making, reduced bureaucracy, increased the prices paid to farmers by the state and is now giving more land to private farmers, who have been more productive than state farms.

The back-to-back hurricanes destroyed 30 percent of Cuba’s crops and wiped out food reserves as well. A local official in Granma told Demajagua that the process will take time because of the need to do land surveys and other issues, but the September announcement shows that it is already being accelerated.

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read the Granma article here.

Cuba reworking debt payments to Japanese insurance company

According to Japanese officials, a Japanese government-backed body is likely to resume accepting applications for trade insurance on exports to Cuba, the Associated Press reported.

Nippon Export and Investment Insurance (NEXI) and the Central Bank of Cuba came up with an agreement so that the company will be able to insure up to 6 billion yen in 2009 for exports to Cuba.

Cuba was unable to pay for Japanese imports on time over the summer, leading NEXI to suspend new applications for trade insurance for business with Cuba in August. It insured a total of 22 billion yen in 2008 for Japanese exports to Cuba.

The Central Bank of Cuba owes NEXI about 25.5 billion yen in debt, which it has promised to pay off over the next three to four years.

Even before the two hurricanes devastated the island, Cuba was short on cash due to the rising cost of imports, mainly fuel and food. Restructuring debt and accessing credit will be vital to Cuba’s plans to increase the amount of food that they are going to import.

You can read the Associated Press article here.


President Bush going to Miami

President Bush will visit Miami to meet with Cuban-American leaders, the Miami Herald reported.

With his popularity flagging, Bush remains popular among hard-line exiles for his refusal to relax U.S. policy toward Cuba — and his speeches about the island’s dissidents.

”The fact that today you have the most active, widespread civil society in Cuba in the last 50 years is a testament to his commitment to Cuba,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, the head of a pro-embargo lobbying group. “He has sought to make their plight known to the world.”

However, some partisans say that it was Bush’s decision in 2004 to further tighten sanctions against the island that has given them their best shot ever at beating Miami’s three Cuban-American Members of Congress in upcoming house races.

”He opened the door,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Garcia, arguing that the restrictions on remittances and travel to the island are unpopular in the Cuban American community. “He completely misjudged and misread the community that had been solidly behind him, and that support has eroded every day since.”

A senior administration official said that Bush ”will talk about where things are with Cuba and what the president has done.” The official said Bush is also interested to “hear from individuals in his time remaining, what we should be thinking about.”

There have been calls from leaders throughout the Cuban-American community to ease the embargo for six months in the aftermath of the two hurricanes, but President Bush has refused.

He is expected to meet with Cuban-American members of congress and hard-line members of the community, so there probably won’t be too much diversity in ideas of what he should do with Cuba as he time as president runs out.

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

Recommended Reading:

Benjamin P. Tyree, deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times, published this essay on the need to change Cuba policy.

One town’s experiment gives Cuban peso value

The Associated Press reports on a small town in the province of Granma, where the central government has made a special effort to support peso businesses, giving the lowly currency more buying power.

Recommended Viewing:

Another interview from Cuba. This time from the hard hit Isla de la Juventud. More to come next week.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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