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CUBA: WHERE THE CUPBOARD IS BARE

By Peter H. JohnsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor; Peter Johnson , who works at an international bank and holds his degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, recently returned from a one-week visit to Cuba / May 13, 1980



A man tacks up a sign on a Havana street offering to trade a grand piano for a small refrigerator. * A woman orders four glasses of yogurt in a restaurant. She surreptitiously pours them into a bottle and takes it home to supplement family food rations.

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* A teen-ager asks a foreigner to buy him a radio in a foreigners-only tourist shop, deftly slipping the man a wad of bills.

These people are trying to beat the economic system in Cuba -- particularly the rationing program that sparingly allocates many food and consumer items. Unavailability of goods, rationing, poor quality, and high prices are the complaints most frequently heard from Cubans who are brave enough to speak out to visitors.

They try to beat the system in whatever ways they can.

Many Cubans try to get around the limited purchasing power of their ration coupons by swapping goods with friends and neighbors, eating out more (though most can hardly afford it), and trading on the sly with visiting foreigners.

Others are so fed up they are leaving the country altogether. Ten thousand Cubans flooded onto the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana in early April seeking asylum abroad. Hundreds of thousands may leave in small boats and planes, clandestinely and illegally, before the year is out, many Cuba-watchers suggest.

Though rationing of consumer goods has been a practice throughout Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba, its effects have never been felt so keenly as they are now.

One reason for the shortage is President Castro's twin goals of cutting imports and boosting exports.

On top of this, economic planning was seriously undermined last year by poor sugar and coffee crops. Disease struck both Cuba's cane fields and coffee plantations.

Military ventures, too, are putting the squeeze on consumers. Cuba's export earnings -- along with massive Soviet aid and credit from foreign lenders -- are spent largely on industrial equipment, tractors, and military hardware. They also finance President Castro's expensive ventures in Africa and the Middle East , involving thousands of Cuban troops.

Consumers must use government-issued ration coupons to buy poultry, dairy products, rice, coffee, sugar, soap, and household items.

Chicken is available only occasionally. Beef almost never. And, in this cofee-exporting country, Cubans are restricted to a mere one ounce of coffee a month.

The monthly ration of five pounds of rice per person (an enormous amount by North American standards) indicates how little variety the economy allows in the Cuban diet.

Besides food, goods in short supply include:

* Household appliances. Refrigerators, for example, are highly coveted even though the only kind a available is a four-foot high Soviet model costing about eight months salary (about $1,600). Demand so exceeds supply that a would-be purchaser must wait about a year and even then has to be granted permission from his workplace.

* Clothing. There is a limited supply of merchandise in stores, and many articles of clothing must be bought on the rationing system. Shoes, for example , are available in only eight styles.