It was the morning on July 26, 2007. General Raul Castro – who was acting as interim president in Cuba at the time, handpicked a year earlier by his sick brother -, was leading the ceremony for National Rebellion Day in Camaguey.
In his closing speech, right about the time he was going to point out the need to produce more milk in the country, he diverged from the script and said in a confused tone: “We have to get rid of the 7-year-old limit, we’ve been saying up until 7 years old for 50 years now. We have to produce milk so that anyone who wants to have a glass of milk can. And we have the land to produce it…”
That same afternoon, in the TV retransmission of the speech and, the following day, in shorthand versions appearing in state-owned media, this improvised segment about a glass of milk had disappeared. Given the vertical hierarchy of Cuban party-line media, such an edition could have only been made under the General himself’s or his brother’s command.
More than 13 years after this incident, the same restriction on State-subsidized milk for only children aged 0-7 years, pregnant women and the sick on a medical diet, continue to exist. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly hard to get a hold of this product for regular consumption. This holds true in its powdered, liquid, or condensed form – and its derivates.
According to experts, milk is understood in Cuba to “be the most sensitive product for nourishing vulnerable groups.” It’s been a pending issue for the island’s government for many decades. Thus “the urgent need” to increase “good quality industrialized milk production”, to substitute imports and increase the availability of this vital food item.”
However, over the past three decades, while “global milk production has increased by over 59 percent,” it has fallen quite significantly in Cuba. According to official statistics, 1.131 billion liters were produced in 1989, and this number had halved by 2018, passing through critical years such as 2005, when only 353.2 million liters were recorded.
This steep decline reveals serious flaws with this product. So much so that shortages and high prices of this product and its range of derivatives expose the inefficiency of government plans and the absurd hurdles that exist for private production to compensate for deficits.
From “Ubre Blanca” to poor udders
On January 25th 1981, a Cuban cow entered the Guinness Book of World Records. Ubre Blanca produced 110.9 liters of milk in just one day, making her name travel the world. Fidel Castro himself had followed the animal’s development very closely, and the cow appeared in his speeches more than once, especially since she took the global throne away from a US cow. This feat made everybody think that the future of milk production was a sure thing in the country.
In the documentary La vaca de mármol (The Marble Cow) by director Enrique Colina, painter Rafael Zarza reminds us that the idea was planted that the Cuban people would have more milk, cheese, and butter than Holland. It made sense as a logical result of the many plans for improving bovine genetics unfolding since the 1960s.
However, reality put all these illusions in their place, like it always does. “Not even after the so-called Soviet period, with cheap animal feed and after investing so much in improving bovine genetics […] were we able to produce the milk the country needed,” says economist Juan Triana.
He goes on to list the factors for this shortage, including “restrictions and prices that, far from an incentive to producers, they were just the opposite. They discouraged widespread local practices with proven results, such as silvopastoral systems.”
Jacinto, a cattle breeder from Bahia Honda, Artemisa, knows the situation all too well. He has been leaving his skin (literally) in pastures for over a decade. This farmer begins milking his cows at 4 AM. He must deliver an average of 20 liters of fresh milk daily to a bodega rations store in his area. This means he contributes over 600 liters to his community every month. The State pays him 4.50 pesos* per liter, less than 0.20 USD. If he were to sell that same liter on the illicit market instead, on his own, he would get over 5 pesos and sometimes even double that.
However, there is another problem: slow payment. “I only got paid for August’s milk in early October,” the farmer laments. “I still haven’t been paid for September’s milk, I’m still waiting today (October 24th). This is one of the problems we face, unjustified delays in payment. Another thing is that in recent years, the cost of the few supplies we can get, have increased, yet the price of a liter of milk remains the same.”
He admits that he isn’t one of the farmers in a really tight spot. He has an irrigation system for his pastureland and a machine to process fodder. But he understands that other farmers have to “invent”, to survive. So, some farmers sell milk “on the side” and don’t deliver it to the State.
So I ask, What needs to be changed immediately to improve milk production?
“For farmers to directly be able to purchase the technology and resources they need, without third parties. To give you a very simple example: planting sugar cane and King Grass in large quantities requires heavy equipment. Most of us don’t have tractors. Another thing the Government could do to help us, is to sell us some good studs. The cattle we farmers have don’t have lots of milk,” Jacinto weighs in.
Distant are the years when part of the country’s economic and political priorities also involved breeding Holstein bulls with creole Cebu cows. The idea to produce Cuban breeds that resisted the heat and also had generous udders.
If in 1989, State milk production was 4.5 times private farm production. This ratio was inverted after 1994 (the year the post-Soviet national economy reached drop bottom). In 2018, private farmers’ production was already over 5 times what the Government was producing. The great irony in all of this is that they are doing this despite not having the production channels they need.
Yellow Powder in a Black Bag
If natural liquid milk – the base of the dairy pyramid – becomes impossible to get, its “first cousin” in powdered form is just as aloof. There is only one factory in the country that produces it, opened in 2015, in Camaguey province. According to reports, it was forecast that a plan to produce 500 tons in 2020 would be “hard to meet”.
Granma reported that 48,000 tons of this high-in-demand product should enter the country this year. According to the national import plan, every ton will cost between 3400-3600 USD. Cuba’s Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), states that powdered milk imports increased between 2010 and 2018, from 37,924 tons in the first year to 49,192 in the last year.
The most frequent suppliers of powdered milk to the island are New Zealand, Argentina, Holland and Poland. Dailys Alvarez Delgado, director of Quality Control and Technology at Havana’s Dairy Complex went on to explain.
This coveted powder has been going up in price to the point it is now pretty much inaccessible for most citizens on the illicit market. In Cabaiguan, Sancti Spiritus, for example, you could buy the small bag before the COVID-19 pandemic for 45-50 pesos (2 USD), but it now costs more than 80 pesos. Yohandra, a local mother who works in the public sector, says it is difficult to obtain dairy products for her home.
“When some boxes of evaporated milk come into the TRD [foreign-currency store], in the town, it’s very expensive, you can’t buy it,” the woman adds. She explains that the most worthwhile thing to do for her family has been to establish direct contact with farmers in the area so she can buy fresh milk, illegally, for 5-7 pesos per liter.
Marino Murillo Jorge is the leading economic authority of the ruling Cuban Communist Party (PCC). He explained on the Mesa Redonda TV show that as a result of economic distortions in the country, national industry prefers to buy and process powdered milk for high international prices than to pay farmers 4.50 pesos. This, he said, needs to be reversed when the “Economic Reforms” process advances. The reforms include eliminating the dual currency and multiple exchange systems, to name a few.
Let’s hope this series of economic reforms stimulate national production and replace unnecessary milk imports. Reversing decades of unproductiveness would be a major accomplishment.