Cuba Examines Food Production Problems

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 26, 2007; 3:04 PM

HAVANA -- Hundreds of trucks overflowing with plantains, sweet potatoes and onions converge on the Plaza of the Revolution each month as farmers sell produce to tens of thousands of people.

Here's where Cubans come seeking affordable food. While they may not be able to find everything they want, they are increasingly getting what they need, even as the island's communist leaders grow more worried about drops in food production and prices that remain frustratingly high for many Cubans.

One man in his 60s trundled through the plaza with a rusty wheelbarrow loaded with two huge branches of plantains he said he bought to feed his five grandchildren. A middle-aged woman pushed by with more plantains, braided strings of garlic and a huge slab of pink-and-white frosted cake balanced on top of her banged-up supermarket cart.

"Onions! Strings of onions!" a young man cried out, holding six strands of red and white bulbs on each arm as consumers carted away other fresh produce in baby strollers, luggage carts and plastic milk cartons fastened behind bicycle seats.

The quantity of goods sold at the monthly government-organized produce fairs demonstrates how Cuba's food situation has eased 15 years after widespread shortages were sparked by the Soviet Union's collapse and an end to economic subsidies from the Kremlin.

But communist leaders and producers aren't satisfied. They want changes to get more affordable goods to market, and they're disturbed by a 7 percent drop in the nation's food production last year.

Lawmakers under acting president Raul Castro's leadership are examining the issue this week before the full National Assembly debates it Friday.

Cuba's food production "is insufficient and commercialization is deficient," Vice President Carlos Lage told municipal leaders this month.

Cuba spends about $1.6 billion annually for food imports, about a third of it from the U.S. It even imports about 82 percent of the $1 billion worth of food it sells at subsidized prices to all Cubans on the ration system, including rice, potatoes, beans, meat and other goods.

Raul Castro, the 76-year-old defense minister leading the government while his 80-year-old brother Fidel recovers from intestinal surgery, has long considered food a national security issue. "Beans are more important than cannon," he told the 5th Communist Party Congress in 1997.

He argued for the farmers markets in 1994, and earlier created the Youth Work Army, a military branch that produces food for the nation. At the last parliament session in December, he demanded that agriculture officials increase production and make overdue payments to small farmers and cooperatives.

Lage later said the payment problem was resolved, but farmers complain they need more government help.

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