Friday, April 16, 2010
Leche, Jugo and Planchao: Food and Freedom
A Cuban academic who studies marginality told me the other day quite bluntly, “either Cuba solves its food problem or it disappears from the map.” I was struck by the simplicity of the statement. My students and I spend most of our time analyzing music, theater, movies, literature, drums, dancing, gestures, and clothes, looking for clues about how Cubans understand their situation, about the degrees of liberty and freedom. We put the culture under a microscope, training our eyes to see veiled discourses of resistance, hidden transcripts, along with cataloging the numerous everyday definitions of revolution and revolutionary. We stay up until the wee hours of the morning in search of urban subcultures that are so underground they may not even exist, except in the minds of the urban ethnographers who dream about them. And this cultural analysis is rewarding, providing us with the challenge of coming up with sophisticated understandings of a very complex situation.
We may be missing the forest for the trees. Perhaps there is one primary problem, and the rest follow, or at least depend on the first one being solved: food. Right now there is a severe scarcity of rice, eggs, and milk. The answer for why these basic foods are so scarce is complex and different for each item. In February, Granma, the official communist party newspaper, had a small article buried in the middle of the paper about the rice harvest. While I usually never learn much from Granma, this article actually provided an explanation for the rice shortage. The annual consumption of rice in Cuba is about 800,000 tons, Granma reported. In 2003, Cuba produced almost all of this rice, and had to import about 70,000 tons to make up the difference. By 2008, Cuba was only producing 235,000 tons of rice, meaning that it had to import around 600,000 tons to meet the demand. Given the absence of hard currency, the government just doesn’t have the money to buy the rice. And the rice that is available in convertible currency is just too expensive for most Cubans to afford. So, one question is why did rice production fall by more than 60% in Cuba between 2003 and 2008.
When we first arrived on the island, the supermarkets had shelves filled with fruit juice and milk produced in Cuba. The same company that sold the juice and milk also sold small juice-box size containers of a popular and cheap rum drink called Planchao. A few weeks ago, the juice, the milk, and the Planchao disappeared from the supermarkets. I have heard two explanations for what happened. The first explanation, and the one that seems most plausible, is that the company that made the juice, milk and rum drink was a Spanish-Cuban joint venture. The Spanish company was in charge of producing the goods, and the Cubans were responsible for distribution. So, the company delivered the goods to the Cuban government which in turn sold them in convertible currency stores at relatively expensive prices (about 3 dollars for a liter of juice and milk) , but the government never paid the Spanish company. After a few months of this, the Spanish company got fed up and closed down the operation. The second explanation, which I appreciate for its sick sense of the Kafkaesque inefficiencies here, is that the company that produced the boxes for the juice, milk and rum, went out of business, and therefore, they can no longer sell the product because they have nothing in which to put the liquid. Whichever one of these explanations is true, or even if none of them is true, the reality is that now only powdered milk is available in the stores, and that fruit juice and Planchao are gone.
Let me be clear, the milk, juice and Planchao sold at convertible peso supermarkets were not sold to the poorest Cubans who could not have afforded them. Rice, however, is a staple of the Cuban diet, and the absence of rice is like a Mexican meal without corn. Freedom of expression and access to the Internet are clearly legitimate and important demands. Freeing political prisoners is also a legitimate demand. But before you can enjoy freedom, you need to eat, and Cuba seems dangerously close to not being able to feed its people.
UPDATE: The manager of the Rio Zaza fruit juice company was found dead in his Playa apartment a few days ago, apparently something to do with drugs. There was an official declaration about it in Granma. The Juice story continues to get more interesting.