I’ll begin this post with yet another cab driver conversation, this one following a visit to Cuba’s Jardin Botanico Nacional, where a guide has given us a detailed tour of some of the country’s botanical riches. The driver usually works outside Havana’s Hotel Nacional and the vehicle we’re in is an old Chaika, a luxury car once made in the former Soviet Union. The car used to belong to Fidel Castro—or so he says. But he doesn’t share foreign visitors’ enthusiasm for vintage automobiles, saying that for him they are a sign of economic backwardness.
Cuba has very fertile soil, doesn’t it, I asked him. He readily agreed. And a long growing season, I add. He agreed again. And your population is educated, so shouldn’t Cuba be able to feed itself, I ask. That’s right, he said, but “hay que cambiar mentes.” Minds have to be changed.
According to the British government’s Trade and Investment web site Cuba’s agricultural sector accounts for less than 5% of GDP and “is particularly inefficient, and as a result up to 80% of food is imported. Once a major sugar exporter, production levels have slumped to lower than a century ago. Cuba’s dependence on imported food and oil leaves it vulnerable to rising world prices, fluctuations in commodity prices (particularly nickel) and the knock-on effects of economic downturns on tourism.”
Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, in a post entitled New Zealand Butter, asks why her country is importing such basic products from so far away: http://www.desdecuba.com/generationy/?p=3270
This is a report by the Associated Press, printed in the Chicago Daily Herald http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20121111/business/711119879/ on U.S. food producers at the 30th International Trade Fair in Havana in November of last year. A Cuban official estimated the country will spend $105 million more than necessary on U.S. imports due to unfavorable credit terms, currency exchanges and logistical losses in shipping.
The Lexington Institute’s Philip Peters, whose blog The Cuban Triangle http://cubantriangle.blogspot.co.uk is one of the best, has published a paper on Cuban agricultural reforms under Raul Castro: http://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/reforming-cuban-agriculture-unfinished-business?a=1&c=1186
On a more optimistic note, here’s an excellent piece by Nick Miroff in the Global Post on a thriving night time produce market in Havana: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/cuba/121221/havana-market-cuban-capitalism