Hunger in Cuba: A Problem That Doesn't Officially Exist

LAURA FRAILE ROMERO holds open a tattered coin purse to reveal a few small coins and a 10-peso bill.

"Do you think I can make it to the end of the month on that?" she asks. "The truth is, I go to bed hungry at night."

The retired English teacher is waiting for the doors to open for lunch at Comedor 75, a soup kitchen for retired workers in Old Havana. Today, she will pay 50 centavos - about two pennies - for rice, beans, and soup. It's a bargain, but on a state pension that equals a little over $2 a month, every penny counts.

Miss Fraile puts a face on a topic that remains controversial here: the existence - or not - of hunger in Cuba.

That hunger exists in Latin America, or even in the wealthy United States, is never questioned. But in Communist Cuba, hunger is the kind of problem that was not supposed to happen.

Even if little else remained, the pride of Fidel Castro Ruz's revolution was still that children went to school, health care was free - and no one went hungry.

Now even Cuban officials say the country's economic collapse, steep declines in food production, a free fall in food imports since the loss of fat Soviet subsidies in 1992, and the US trade embargo have caused continuing problems in meeting Cubans' food needs. While they hesitate to speak of "hunger," they readily refer to "unmet needs."

"Yes, there are needs that these days are not always filled," says Jose Gonzalez, director of Comedor 75. He makes no effort to counter the claims of those, like Fraile, who complain of hunger. He only says, "Maybe the hungry ones don't come here again for dinner, they have that right."

But other Cubans claim that hunger is in fact a growing problem. Even Mr. Castro acknowledged that the "basic basket" of subsidized foods guaranteed Cuban families does not meet basic needs - which is one reason the farmers' markets were reintroduced last year.

One monthly ration of food is actually only enough to feed an individual for 10 days, according to the National Association of Independent Economists of Cuba, a group of dissident economists that support a rapid transition to a market economy.

Milk is rationed and only available for children up to age 7. Families with children between 7 and 13 can get two pounds of yoghurt a month. The elderly are allowed some milk in powdered form. A family in Havana is rationed seven eggs a month, a provincial family three. Rice, cabbage, bananas, everything is carefully rationed.

"Children go to school hungry, and hungry children don't learn," says Marta Beatriz Roque, an economist with the National Association of Independent Economists of Cuba.

But with little open acknowledgment of the problem, Cubans are left to anecdotal evidence that hunger exists.

A Mexican woman in Havana says she went to see her Cuban husband's family on the eastern end of the island recently and found they had not eaten for three days. "They had no food," she says.

A Cuban journalist whose work focuses on women says many people she talks with report pinning skirt waists or cinching belts another notch to keep their pants on. "A lot of people definitely aren't eating their fill," she says.

Hunger here is starting to get some international attention. Oxfam America, for example, sent its Caribbean program director to Cuba last month and may be considering establishing an assistance program there for the first time.

Still, a topic that strikes at the heart of the Cuban revolution remains controversial here, even among ordinary Cubans. Back at Comedor 75, Fraile no sooner speaks of her own experience with hunger than a man beside her calls her a "liar."

"What she says is a false attack on the achievements of the revolution," says Porfirio Rodriguez, also waiting for lunch at Comedor 75. "There may be needs, but in Cuba, there is no hunger."

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