By PAUL HAVEN | The Associated Press
Cuba has slashed food and agriculture imports from the United States - its largest food supplier despite decades of sour relations - as the communist government tightens its belt in the face of a crippling economic malaise.
Imports fell 26 percent in 2009 to $528 million, after peaking at $710 million the year before, according to a report Wednesday by the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Economic Trade Council, which provides nonpartisan commercial and economic information about the island and claims to have no position on policy.
“The decrease has nothing to do with U.S. regulations, U.S. law or U.S. policy,” said John Kavulich, a senior policy analyst at the council. “It is a function of Cuba not having the resources.”
Kavulich said Cuba has increasingly turned to other countries like Vietnam that will sell it lower-quality food and not ask for payment for as long as two years.
Despite the half-century feud across the Straits of Florida, the United States is the largest seller of food to Cuba: Food and agriculture products have been exempted from the 48-year embargo since 2000.
Cuba waited more than a year after that to start importing U.S. food - angered by a provision requiring it to pay cash upfront before delivery.
But a hurricane in late 2001 hurt food production and gave it little choice. Today, Cubans getting food from monthly ration books eat chicken from Arkansas and wheat from Nebraska. Upscale markets stock everything from Kellogg’s cereal to Heinz ketchup to Oreo cookies - though the prices are exorbitant.
Imports from other major trading partners such as Venezuela, China and Spain are also down. Rodrigo Malmierca, the minister of foreign trade, said in November that trade during the first three quarters of 2009 was off 36 percent.
Cuba’s economy has recently been hit by a triple-whammy of bad news: Three major hurricanes did more than $10 billion in damage in 2008, the global economic crisis dampened tourism profits and a drop in commodities prices hurt nickel sales for much of 2009.
President Raul Castro has tried to offset falling imports by increasing domestic agriculture production, turning over tens of thousands of hectares (acres) of fallow land to small farmers.
He has warned repeatedly that the government can no longer afford to spend so much subsidizing life on the island, and that Cubans must work harder and take more responsibility for their economic well-being.
The government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and heavily subsidizes all aspects of life while paying an average salary of about $20 a month. Cubans get free health care and education, and usually pay next-to-nothing for housing and utilities.
Havana has taken baby-steps toward changing that system, eliminating some staples from the ration book, dropping free lunches for workers at some state enterprises and trimming health and education spending.