Fruit and vegetables are often in short supply at state-run agricultural markets, but they are abundant at semi-private markets, where products grown by farmers on their own land are sold at free market prices.
Fruit and vegetables are often in short supply at state-run agricultural markets, but they are abundant at semi-private markets, where products grown by farmers on their own land are sold at free market prices. Tom Gjelten/NPR
A worker at a state food distribution center in Havana records a woman's monthly food allotment in her ration book. Food rationing was introduced in Cuba in the early 1960s and continues today.
A worker at a state food distribution center in Havana records a woman's monthly food allotment in her ration book. Food rationing was introduced in Cuba in the early 1960s and continues today. Tom Gjelten/NPR
As Cuba's president, Raul Castro has made clear he intends to govern differently than his brother Fidel. He's favoring practical policies over ideology, and he's encouraging Cubans to air their grievances about the government. Fidel Castro was more likely to scold them.
Whether the new reforms are meaningful is a matter of debate. President Bush this week said he sees no evidence that Cuba is changing. But expectations have been running high in Havana.
Last week, personal computers went on sale to the general Cuban public for the first time ever. The one store that carried them was jammed as soon as it opened. By mid-afternoon, however, just six computers had actually been sold, at about $700 apiece.
"I don't have money," said one woman, who asked that her name not be used. Like others packing the store, she came out of curiosity. "I'm very interested," she said, "but I can't buy now."
The sale of computers to ordinary Cubans was prohibited until Raul Castro's new government made it legal. Cubans are now also allowed to buy cell phones for the first time. The changes won't bring a rush of consumer spending in a country where the average monthly wage is about $20, but some Cubans still see the restrictions' lifting as a significant step.
"In the first place, it's that you may do it, you may have it," says Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist and dissident in Havana. "Under Fidel Castro, everything here in Cuba was prohibited. So this is more symbolic or psychological. [Cubans] can feel more free. They can buy. They can have a computer. It's not illegal."
Leiva was formerly a Cuban diplomat stationed in Eastern Europe in the 1980s with her husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist. Both broke with the government after they concluded Fidel Castro would not implement the reforms that some socialist leaders in the Soviet bloc were advocating.
In 2003, Espinosa Chepe was imprisoned for his dissident activities. Now free again to speak out, he thinks Raul Castro and his government are moving Cuba in the right direction, though they have a long way to go.
"If they keep doing positive things, I'll keep saying it's positive," Espinosa Chepe says. "But at the same time, I'll criticize the negative aspects. Many things have to be deepened. What's been done until now is absolutely insufficient."
Affordable Food in Short Supply
The big question in Cuba now is how far Raul Castro is willing to go in changing Cuba. Fidel installed a rigid system of state socialism, many elements of which are still in place.
One example is the system of food rationing, introduced in Cuba in the early 1960s. The idea was that a minimal amount of basic food necessities — such as rice, cooking oil and beans — should be available to everyone at heavily subsidized prices. The rationing continues today, but so little food is available at these low prices that the monthly rations fall far short of what's needed.
"It doesn't last more than a week," says Horacio, 28, as he picks up his monthly allotment of cooking oil — four ounces. He lives with his wife, their infant daughter and his mother in a cramped Havana apartment.
The shortage of basic food products at affordable prices is one of the big complaints in Cuba. Raul Castro has said over and over that he is determined to improve the quality of daily life for Cubans. He is not a charismatic leader, and if he is to maintain any support for his government, he will have to deliver on that commitment. In a speech last summer, he promised "structural changes" in the economic system to improve production. Agriculture is his top priority.
The biggest food market in Havana, Tulipan y Boyeros, is supervised by the Cuban military. It takes up an entire city block. Much of what Cubans want can be found there, at partly controlled prices. But many products are in short supply.
"I came here today looking for bananas, pineapple, oranges and squash, but there wasn't any," said Juan O'Hara, a retired transport worker, as he stalked out of the market with a scowl on his face and an empty shopping bag. "I'm leaving without buying anything." He adds that what's there is too expensive.
Cuban shoppers who don't mind high prices can usually find what they need at semi-private markets where fruits and vegetables grown by farmers on their own land are sold at free-market prices. But the high cost of the products put them out of reach for retirees and other Cubans on limited incomes.
Higher food production in the country would bring more supplies and lower prices. But more than half of the arable farmland in the country is currently lying idle. Raul Castro has proposed to take land away from the big collective farms and let private farmers use it, growing the crops they want to grow and selling them at market prices. It's a reversal of the socialism that Fidel Castro introduced 40 years ago, but it is hard to find any Cuban willing to defend the merits of collective agriculture any more.
"The private sector is more productive and more efficient than the collective and state sector," says Juan Triana, an economist at the government-run Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, affiliated with the University of Havana. "It's a fact. You can find some state and collective enterprises with a high level of efficiency and productivity, but it is not common."
Triana and other Cuban economists say deep reforms may be needed if the agricultural sector in Cuba is to become more productive. Farmers, for example, could be allowed to buy tractors or other agricultural machinery for use on their own plots, or even buy or sell land. "Why not?" Triana asks.
'Cubans Are Speaking Out'
Pedro Monreal, one of Triana's colleagues at the economic think tank, has gone even further with his criticisms. In a recent article, Monreal argued that "the economic system in Cuba today cannot serve as a starting point for the country's development."
Monreal now works mainly outside Cuba, but such commentaries are being heard more often in Cuba. One clear change under Raul Castro is that he has allowed more open criticism of the government's performance — not just in agriculture but in education and health care, two areas that were virtually sacrosanct under Fidel Castro.
"Cubans are speaking out, saying what they feel that they need, [whether] food or better wages or transportation," says independent journalist Leiva. "Little by little, they have been expressing themselves."
But will Raul Castro take further steps and allow the deep reforms across all sectors of the government that would actually impress his critics? Leiva is skeptical.
"[Cubans] were very optimistic when Raul Castro started his provisional government," she says. "But they have been losing this hope, because they haven't seen any improvement in their lives or real changes."
Having raised Cubans' expectations, Raul Castro must now worry that the demands on his government will only increase. So far he has shown no willingness to consider major political reforms.
Last month, an editorial in the Communist newspaper Granma warned critics of the government inside and outside Cuba that they should not think about working for a Western-style democracy in the country. "There will be no space for subversion in Cuba," the editorial said.