“I buy rice,” “Where is there rice?”, “Who is selling rice?”, are some of the phrases you’ll find repeated in Facebook, Telegram and Whatsapp groups; in the line to buy any other product, or in the minds of families who see this grain running out in their cupboard.
In late March, you could find a pound of rice for 10 CUP – the State’s market price for imported rice is 4 CUP/pound -, but over time and with greater shortages, this price has doubled in some places in Havana and Holguin. It has even been sold for up to 50 pesos. Even 2 kg packs of rice for 2.30 CUC (approximately 26 CUP/pound) at hard-currency stores (TRDs) have run out in Santa Clara, for a while now.
What has been going on with the #1 staple of Cubans’ diet in recent months? Why has it disappeared from store shelves?
Cuban rice production data
According to estimates from the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG), Cuban should be producing some 600,000 tons of rice for national consumption by 2030, which would represent 86% of the annual demand for rice.
While the historic record in 2018 (304,000 tons) seemed like the sector was picking up again, production in 2019 dropped – 246,700 tons – as a result of US sanctions, according to official sources, which led to scarcer availability of fuel for land machinery and agricultural aviation.
Figures for 2020 aren’t looking very promising either. The US blockade, the crisis sparked by COVID-19 and pending bureaucratic matters and even a lack of motivation in the agricultural sector, have all led to a shortage of this grain and the government has admitted that we might have little rice this year.
The 2020 plan, set at only 190,000 tons, was recently tweaked to 80,000; barely 11% of the 700,000 tons of rice that Cuba needs to cover the rationed food allotment and for social institutional consumption.
On the other hand, the Cuban government has already announced a budget cut for food imports, where rice accounted for approximately 127 million USD (520 USD/ton of rice) in 2019.
The tense economic situation that Cuba faces as a result of a sharp decline in tourism and services exports, an increase in international rice prices and the suspension of exports from supply countries such as Vietnam, inevitably forces the country to substitute imports with domestic production.
Within this context, the minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero announced, in May, that because of problems with supplies (fuel, fertilizers and pesticides) the winter season planting fell short by 22,000 hectares.
“We had a meeting with the country’s [state] rice companies and we advised them to meet with the over 10,000 farmers across the country. People want to produce rice, we have a rice program, we have land, water in some places. Cuba needs to produce rice,” he said.
A month later, the minister highlighted the dialogue with 20,000 rice farmers (10,000 more than in May) “who conditions are being created for, by handing over land, tools and seeds,” he said.
This time, he announced that the farmers were committed to producing and supplying the state with 104,000 tons, when the 2020 plan only stated 80,000 tons after it was tweaked.
“Seeds, fuel, planes, land and water are available, but there are limited supplies of fertilizer and pesticides, Rodriguez Rollero explained.
Cubans changing diets
Faced with rice shortages, Cubans have had to modify their diets a little.
Some restaurants, such as the Pernilucho restaurant in Santa Clara, excluded rice from their dishes available for take-away during the lockdown.
Many families have changed their diets and are now increasing the amount of spaghetti and other pastas they consume, or dried cornmeal, whenever these products appear in stores.
Several workplaces have also announced reduced portions of rice and bean soup in workers’ canteens, according to an announcement in the weekly paper Trabajadores.
However, a Cuban table can’t go without rice for more than three days.
“It’s the staple of the Cuban diet,” Margarta Torres says in Santo Domingo, Villa Clara. “Portions of meat, beans, vegetables, eggs or root vegetables vary and can even be missing… but not rice. Rice is always the thing that saves us.”
According to Margarita, the seven pounds of rice that is sold as part of the Basic Food rations, only covers a little more than half of what you need for the month. “I always used to buy imported rice, whether it was Brazilian, Vietnamese or Uruguayan, the one for 4 pesos. But you can’t buy rice outside of the ration booklet in Villa Clara since before COVID-19 came along. Sometimes, we eat bread for lunch and leave rice for dinner.”
The government response
In statements to the press, Lazaro Diaz Rodriguez, director of the Rice Technological Division at the government’s Agricultural Business Group, explained that the most immediate and medium-term estimates for increased rice production could benefit from a donation of a set of equipment (valued at 10 million USD), via the Japanese Government’s Large-Scale Financial Cooperation assistance.
“Plus, our country will benefit from means and equipment this year, as part of the Vietnam-Cuba project which is already in its fifth phase, and Vietnam will contribute with 20 million USD in equipment. This agreement also includes the completion of rural transformation brigades, irrigation and road systems for rice,” he added.
According to some Internet users on Cubadebate, good intentions aren’t enough to produce rice. “They [also need to] harvest farmers’ crops on time and not let them go to waste. Like what happened in Granma,” Armando commented.
Eddy Hernandez Moreno also mentioned the case of his neighbor Javiel, who has 24 hectares of land leased for a minimum profit because he doesn’t have an irrigation system. “Could he not grow in the winter farming season and receive government support? He isn’t allowed to grow other grains in the winter because they say that this land is meant for livestock. Does this make sense to anyone?”
Problems in the comments by Internet users are not unknown or made-up. Authorities in the sector and farmers themselves have exposed red tape, mainly bureaucratic, in rice production and the production of other foods, many a time before.
“We have to establish the incentives for people working, so they can make a living off what they produce, so they want to produce, so they want to develop new products,” Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel announced during a work meeting.
“With investments made up until now in farming equipment, tools, the drying industry, windmills and transport, plus the ones being made now, planned harvest and production rates of up to 550,000 tons of rice from 2025 onwards is a possibility, and we would only need the annual budget to sustain this, which is estimated at some 22 million USD,” Lazaro Diaz Rodriguez, director of the Rice Technological Division, at the Agricultural Business Group, explained.
However, 2025 is too far ahead in time and the 5,000 tons that the Vietnamese Government recently donated, is just enough to cover the Basic Food rations for a month.
“The current deficit can only be compensated for in the second half of 2020 by increasing imports, which seems to be difficult and will greatly depend on imports of Vietnamese rice,” economist Pedro Monreal explained on his blog.
“In the medium-term, beginning in 2021, a possible increase in production would depend on access to supplies (limited by a lack of foreign currency) and substantial reform that will strengthen market relations in the country’s farming system.”
“These numbers make you want to cry. We have to start doing something,” user Marcos Godoy Villasmil says. “If we give in to these estimates, our food sovereignty will continue to be a pipe-dream and in 2022, we will still have a rations booklet and our belts will be so tight we won’t be able to breathe anymore.”