Cuba Business

Food shortages in Cuba raising a yellow flag

Posted February 16, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Business.

BY NANCY SAN MARTIN | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

An apparent food shortage in Cuba is raising some concern about a potential nutrition crisis.

A new and apparently growing food shortage in Cuba is making it increasingly difficult for those who depend on Cuban pesos and the government’s ration system to obtain basic staples, according to residents and experts.

Over the past three months, some items have become scarce even in usually well-stocked stores that accept U.S. dollars, raising concerns that the Caribbean nation could be headed toward a nutrition crisis similar to one in the early 1990s.

‘‘It hasn’t gotten to the point where Cubans are using stuff not meant to be eaten, but it’s kind of a yellow flag,’’ said Eric Driggs González, humanitarian aid coordinator for the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

‘‘There is definitely a shortage. As far as the severity of it, that’s hard to measure,’’ Driggs said. “But there’s a need to keep an eye on it.’‘

Cuba has struggled to adequately feed its 11 million people since it lost its massive Soviet subsidies in 1991. In the early ‘90s, a serious eye disease caused by a deficiency of vitamins rapidly spread across the island.


Experts now worry that a severe food shortage could have serious effects on an already undernourished population. The outlook, so far, does not look promising.

‘‘Peso-based food product availability decreased in 2003 compared to 2002,’’ according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council (USCTEC) in New York, which monitors Cuba’s economy. “The government of the Republic of Cuba has [reported] that the quality of food products may increase in 2004, but that the quantity . . . may not increase.’‘

Among the food problems reported from Cuba:

• Residents in the central city of Santa Clara waited in long lines when U.S. ground chicken went on sale at a local store, only to have the supply quickly run out, according to a Jan. 30 report from Cuba posted on Cubanet, a Miami-based group that compiles reports from island residents.

• In Havana, according to a Jan. 27 report, residents complained of a mediocre supply of yogurt sold at peso stores. Mothers complain that with the ration at one liter per child per day, “they end up feeding their children sugar water because they don’t have the money to . . . acquire yogurt in the dollar establishments. Even then, they say, there is a shortage of yogurt in the dollar stores themselves.’‘

Cuba residents reached by telephone also said pasta is harder to find and the supply of vegetables is lean, but that the most scarce product has been eggs—long a cheap and abundantly available staple of communist Cuba’s diet.

‘‘The scarcity of eggs has turned them into luxury items. For Cuban families, the absence of eggs feels like the parting of a loved one who abandons the house to emigrate,’’ said a Feb. 5 Cubanet report from Havana.

‘‘Eggs have disappeared,’’ Lionel Perez, the Havana director for the Catholic-run Caritas charity program, said in a phone interview. “But we always have difficulties here . . . We make do with what we have.’‘


Experts point to a series of problems, including low productivity and inefficient distribution, to explain the shortage of eggs and other food products. For more than four decades, the Caribbean nation produced all its own eggs. Two years ago it began buying U.S. eggs. But the imports stopped when U.S. market prices doubled in mid-2003.

Even as the U.N. World Food Program carries out a supplemental food program in eastern Cuba, its Havana director disputed the reports of a food shortage. ‘‘That’s totally out of context,’’ Rosa Antolin said. “There is always a lack of one item or another, but there is no food shortage.’‘

‘‘Our support program in Cuba was implemented because we don’t want the advances that have been made in health and education, which are outstanding, to suffer setbacks,’’ she said. “We want to help them recuperate and maintain their nutrition.’‘

It is nevertheless clear that monthly subsidized ration allowances have grown slimmer over the years, providing Cubans with what most experts agree is less than two weeks worth of food for every month. Eggs, for example, are restricted to 6 to 8 per person per month.


To supplement their subsidized rations, many Cubans must shop at up to nine different types of state-run and independent markets that charge higher dollar prices—in a country where the average monthly salary is about $10—although many Cubans receive dollars from relatives abroad.

‘‘Under the present Cuban system of distribution, access to basic goods is strongly delineated along income lines and/or access to dollars,’’ according to a September UM report. “While the Cuban people survive with enviable resilience and humor, food security in Cuba remains a gravely serious matter, particularly for those with no access to foreign currency.’‘

The shortage comes even as U.S. food shipments to the island increase. The United States jumped to seventh place among Cuba’s commercial partners in 2003 and it is the island’s largest single source of agricultural and food products, according to USCTEC figures.

But while Cuba has been buying more U.S. food products, the quantities of food available on the island have not increased.

‘‘They haven’t bought more, they’ve just bought the products from us,’’ USCTEC President John Kavulich said. “The truth is there has been a steady decline in food availability in different categories.’‘

Member Comments

On May 03, 2009, connor wrote:

i think this report is fantastic i would love to come and visit cuba one day for a hoilday or maybe for work to find facks and info on cuba!
i cant wait untill i save anof money i will go for a mouth or 2 mouths ill see how much i’ve got
i love all this info u have gave me for the trip to cuba
love you cuban people

On May 03, 2009, paul wrote:

The Cuban govt deliberately pinches supply on the population, but the hotels are flowing with abundant food.

Troll summon.

On May 03, 2009, grant wrote:

Pobre Paul, the high cost of food imports is what is decreasing the supply of food products from abroad. Hotels with tourists are a great source of funds although most of the money stays abroad. Cuba has the most fair system of food etc distribution possible.

On May 03, 2009, paul wrote:

thanks for your open minded writing br0

On May 03, 2009, publisher wrote:


I hope you plan to move to utopia soon.

Great place to live if you want to be on a diet!

On May 04, 2009, Yeyo wrote:

Some people here needs to spend some time in Cuba living like the ordinary Cubans with the rationing card to see if that is really “the most fair system”, maybe the meaning of fair have changed lately and I was not told about it.

On May 04, 2009, Comrade Papo wrote:


There are no food shortages on our beautiful isla.  Those are yanqui propaganda lies speard by the mafia gusanos in Miami.  In Cuba we are very fortuante that all of our nutritional needs are taken care of by the heroic leadership of the Partido Comunista under the enlighted guidance of Comrades Fidel and Raul.  And don’t let the imperialist fool you about our ration cards.  Our libretas are really more like a Weight Watcher diet plan where everything has been thought out for you in advance.  That is why you never see fat Cubanos, unlike the overweight yanquis who eat bad things like steaks and lobsters and over priced Starbucks coffee.  Hope to see you soon in La Habana. 

Viva la Revolucion!

On May 04, 2009, publisher wrote:

Comrade Papo,

If you are serious, I feel bad for you.

If you are kidding, you should put a grin next to your comment.

Either way your comment is ridiculous.

On May 04, 2009, Comrade Papo wrote:


You imperialist overweight counter-revolucionary running dog.  You are obviously jealous of the many Triumphs of our Revolucion such as health care, education, and free HBO cable television.  Because of your insult to our beloved Patria, next time you come to Cuba you will no longer be entitled to our two for the price of one jinetera special offer.  Next time choice your words more carefully.

Viva La Revolucion!

On May 04, 2009, publisher wrote:

My words were chosen carefully.

If you want to screw around, go to some other site.

We welcome open, honest dialog here but I’m guessing you know that since you were here before as another user.

On May 05, 2009, grant wrote:

The ration system is a fair way to distribute any product, we in Canada had a similar system in the war years. Much better than most latin and african countries etc. I expect to be in Cuba for 3 to 6 months at a time now that I have retired.

On May 05, 2009, publisher wrote:

“The ration system is a fair way to distribute any product”

No incentive to work hard if your efforts only go to feed others. Why should I work harder than anyone else if I get the same anyway?

Rations in time of war MAYBE but rations in a time of peace will destroy any country and Cuba is a great example.

Everyone is equal… equally poor.

On May 05, 2009, paul wrote:

Grant can say what he is saying because he is retired and pensioned. It’s a scary idea when the government decides what food someone is going to get.

Grant will have his pension money when he goes to Cuba. That already puts him in a position of relative comfort. Everyday Cubans have to get rations, while tourists can gorge themselves, and the nomenklatura gets first dibs above the general population.

Troll summon.

On May 05, 2009, manfredz wrote:

I dont have a problem with a government system supplying a basic living ration.  Where I start having problems is when the system is set up to make it all but impossible for hard working individuals to rise above that basic ration without becoming wheeler-dealers, and thats what we saw in the East Bloc and still see today in Cuba.
Add to that the complication that those engaged in teh tourist industry, either legally or illegally, directly or indirectly have access to plentiful CUCs which bring them manyfold above that basic level.
So the end result is that a hard working doctor will be making in a month what a resort chambermaid can bake in tips in a day.
Think everyone recognizes the problem, just doesnt have a way out because its obviously not vialble to bring those chambermaids back to teh basic level, and the state of teh Cuban economy will not allow many of teh others to be brought to a level of earnings multifold above that chambermaid.

On May 07, 2009, grant wrote:

The black market is a result of the shortages. We imprisioned such people in Canada.Almost all cubans receive their food from local stores even if they are high government employees or Ministers(My friend the minister of education got no special treatment) Now, of course like Obama, Fidel did receive food deliveries as head of state etc. Cuban centers of employment give their employees food deliveries at special times, fin del ano etc. when they can. Some Ministers who entertain will receive food deliveries also(Foreign Affairs etc.) At one time foreign technicians received special cuotas but no more. I lived without a ration book for three years(62 to 65) until I married, living off local cafes and private paladores. I was never able to find store bought shoes or pants, shirts etc to fit my 6 foot frame unless it was tailor made.

On May 07, 2009, grant wrote:

p.s. I understand that tips are not permitted since several years ago. Gifts yes.

On May 07, 2009, Yeyo wrote:

Hey Grant, so do you feel that your Minister of Education (the new or the old one?) friend receives the same food than the rest of the Cubans??? Give me a break, you either don’t know what you are talking about or were brainwashed.

First and foremost average Cubans cannot afford the “paladares” secondly every single Minister in Cuba have over three hundred times better level of live than the average Cubans. They either receive supplies from the government authorized or steal them without authorization.

Why do you feel that your friend’s house is nicely painted? Do you feel that your friend paid for the paint, renovations and labour? No, they were provided authorized or not by the government.

The advantage of being Minister or other high government positions in Cuba is not the Salary, the salaries are low but they are only the shadow to cover the actual possibilities. Ministers have a bunch of government enterprises subordinated, that’s where the supplies (gas, cars, repairs, home renovations, porks for “fin de ano”, all kinds of foods etc) comes from. You can ask directly your friend, if he is sincere, he would tell you.

Ministers do not go to the average Cuban hospitals; they go to CIMEQ and similar clinics and get all the medicines free from pharmacies where you can always find any medicine you are looking for, a completely different history than the average street pharmacies.

By the way anybody can live without the rationing book, the problem is to live ONLY with the rationing book without money to buy anything else, you should try and let us know later.

On May 07, 2009, Yeyo wrote:

Sorry I mistakenly used the word ” STEAL” when I should had say RESOLVE as it is commonly known in Cuba when somebody takes something that belongs to the government (everything belongs to the government!!!!) without authorization.

On May 08, 2009, grant wrote:

As a Minister my friend did have use of a state owned car with driver.A Lada. And he did have a state appointed doctor but he used the services of my brother in law for his children’s health needs. His house en Habana was in poor shape when he was assigned it. (He came from Santa Clara.) Ministers receive the same as all cubans but with little effort that is true, no line ups for them.  To RESOLVE means just that no need to STEAL. My brother in law resolves by hiring someone to fix his TV for ejemple or his old car etc.

On May 09, 2009, Yeyo wrote:

Amazing to hear this! Wake up, RESOLVE in Cuba mostly equal STEAL no other way around it. That you are not breaking a door may be a fact but, they certainly are taking stuff that do not belong to them.

If your friend came from Santa Clara, his house may have been in poor state when he got it but I guarantee you that by now it is in extremely good shape and not because your brother in law solve anything.

The mechanic that fix his car or the technician that fix his TV had to be paid (either with money, stuff or influences) and even when your brother in law is “RESOLVING” the repairs something is being paid to them in exchange, somehow that something is coming “RESOLVED” from your friend’s ministry.

Regarding your comments that “Ministers receive the same as all Cubans….” you definitely have no idea of how most Cubans live, you should travel across the island and try to live like the real average Cubans, not going to “paladares” or buying food on the free agricultural market or in the 70st Supermarket but living strictly with the rationing book, don’t take taxis or use other cars, try to only use public transport, no air conditioning at night,  and ........  You should later post your comments about your experience.

If you do it you would realize that Ministers in Cuba do enjoy a level of live substantially higher than not only the average Cubans but in fact much higher than most Cubans.