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Dream with feathers

Photography: Yoanny Aldaya

Although chicken is the most consumed meat in Cuba, it is a scarce commodity. Most of the birds arrive from the United States, so trade agreements are long and difficult. Some local economists agree that the only solution will be to bet on their own industry, something impossible as long as the conditions of state control are not modified.

Esteban Martínez is a 66-year-old retiree who lives with his family in Central Havana and needs this meat to last for another day. His hands are numb: he’s been in his kitchen breaking up a small piece of frozen chicken, under the anxious gaze of his cat, who curls around his feet begging for something. The cat will have to wait.

The imported chicken has three commercial destinations in the country: the butcher shop (subsidized and distributed at a rate of 1 pound per month per person), the stores in national currency (with a limit of 5 kilograms per month per supply book) and the stores. in freely convertible currency (MLC). There are about 23,000 million chickens in the world: a figure that represents three times more than the number of humans. In Cuba you buy chicken if there is, where you can and when you can. The question is why are they scarce?

Every month Esteban repeats the routine of buying the assigned pound of chicken at the corresponding butcher shop, between the 15th of the current month and the same day of the following month. He must do it in the established time, if not, he “loses it”. This is how the bureaucratic jargon designates the fact that he expires the possibility of buying due to the buyer’s delay: “losing the right [to buy]”. People incorporated the expression, not to refer to the right, but to the product itself.

On the damp and empty cardboard box that the state butcher throws in a corner of the establishment you can read: “Product of USA”. The chicken that Esteban, his two elderly sisters and his niece will consume at home in a few days, came from the United States, perhaps from the port of Mobile, Alabama or Jacksonville, Florida; in refrigerated cargo from Green Ocean or Lagoon companies.

Since 2000, the US Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSREEA) has authorized the direct export of some food and agricultural products to Cuba. The drawback for the island is the payment terms: in cash and in advance. It’s not the only one.

Every time a producer in the United States does business with Cuba, a market with high food demand and very close to its southern ports, they must undertake a complicated financial journey. Paul Johnson, president of the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, describes the setbacks. “First, there is the fact that, under US law, we can only export in cash; we cannot offer credit, a tool we use with other countries to increase our exports. With Cuba we do not have the same financial tools that we use in the rest of the world because of the embargo [in force since 1960]. Then, since there are no direct banking relations between the United States and Cuba, we are obliged to work with banks in third countries. Nor can you go to any American bank to ask for credit to export. All this greatly increases the price of transactions.”

Even with the extra burden of economic sanctions and in the midst of the perennial political tension between the two governments, Cuba is the third largest buyer of chicken from the United States, after China and Mexico. The United States, for its part, is the main supplier of the island.

“We are going to grow feathers”

Cuba, also the main commercial destination for Mexican poultry, annually imports more than one billion dollars in food for domestic consumption. The figure represents half of what was destined for this purpose fourteen years ago, without the reduction having been compensated with greater national productions.

More than 70% of the total calories consumed by the population come from abroad, and are paid for with foreign currency that leaves the country and never returns. In recent years, as a combined effect of a lousy state administration and US sanctions, the national offer has been less and less diverse and more inaccessible.

A monthly quota of food is delivered to each “consumer” through the supply booklet, a kind of ration card for products with prices subsidized by the State. In the case of chicken, this mechanism guarantees barely 1 pound per person per month, for a price of 35 pesos (around USD 1.46 according to the official rate; USD 0.36 according to the informal rate). It represents the coverage of only one fifth of the demand for chicken in the country, which in recent times has skyrocketed due to the scarcity of other sources of animal protein such as fish, beef and eggs, and the prohibitive price of beef. pork. Chicken is also consumed in hospitals and schools.

Every once in a while you hear someone say “We’re going to grow feathers” or “I don’t know how to make chicken anymore” (what a new way to prepare it for a change); popular complaints about the lack of alternatives, expressions of weariness.

Poultry meat is the first food imported by the island. However, it does not mean that its price is affordable, that it is always available in the market or even that it can be easily purchased. The most accessible meat is at the same time not very accessible; the easiest thing to get is hard to get.

To complete the diet beyond the state quota, it is possible to find chicken in stores in Cuban pesos or in MLC; both with irregular and insufficient supply. Most of the time, in addition, you will have to spend hours in line before entering, with no guarantee that the product will not run out before your turn.

In the stores in national currency, unlike the markets in MLC, there is a limit for the purchase of chicken: about 5 kg per month can be purchased for each book. In Esteban’s, three people are registered in addition to him, which reduces the amount that each one can buy. A package of 4.5 kilograms costs 204 pesos. When they resell it on the street, the price increases four or five times; a package of 15 kilograms can cost 2,700 pesos, barely a thousand and so much less than the average salary in Cuba (3,838). Only the price of the basic basket in Havana is 3,250 pesos.

In the MLC markets there are other disadvantages: the price of the chicken (the equivalent of almost 10 USD) and its format (whole piece or breast, when the most demanded are chicken quarters, with cheaper prices). The freely convertible currency (MLC), which began to be introduced at the end of 2019, works as a kind of digital bond that is bought with foreign currencies. The Cuban bank keeps the transferred currency, and the consumer, who receives his salary or retirement in devalued Cuban pesos, can only access a group of basic products through this operation: buy MLC with foreign currency that can only be obtained thanks to a transfer international, outside the country or in the informal market, in which the exchange rate is multiplied by five; a deregulated market, full of risks and, at the same time, the most dynamic.

A fourth consumer destination is the tourism and non-hotel gastronomy sector; as well as a residual part of imports that goes to the meat industry, for the production of ground poultry meat and mechanically deboned meat mass (MDM).

From any of these points where the State sells chicken meat, a part will go to be resold on the street by ordinary people, in any currency and at any price.

The product can cost what the second-hand seller wants to ask for. The buyer has no choice: pay it or leave it. When it comes to food, quitting is usually not an option, if you have the good fortune to reach the required sum.

The overlapping of absurdities creates a kind of sordid game. Cubans are subjected to a permanent mental dance of numbers, never fixed variables and changing conversions; a state of calculation that does not cease; accounts, strategy design, resignations.

Who sells on the street? Someone who managed to accumulate and has a little left over; someone who needs the money to buy something different; someone who has contact with a worker in a market who sells chicken above the established ration. They may also have acquired the chicken by queuing up with different identity documents, buying at a reduced price, or a combination of these operations and others less well known.

the coleros

To get chicken “on the left”, Irma, 33, went from her house in Vedado to a building in the municipality of 10 de Octubre, about 5 kilometers away. She had to go through a long corridor until she reached a half-hidden apartment, make the exchange with that stranger, and immediately leave with the “treasure”, trying not to reveal her presence in the place or the contents of the package she was carrying. hands. “Like I was buying cocaine,” she says. The same happens with powdered milk and other products. Food is trafficked as if it were a prohibited drug. There are dealers of chicken, ham, eggs, milk, flour, fish.

These suppliers use contacts and networks of small-scale corruption to offer a product that is in short supply, at the price they estimate and with added costs for “additional services” such as home delivery, for example.

For a few months, the most exposed links in the chain became the favorite villains of the same government that is not capable of creating the conditions for adequate food production. The “coleros”, “resellers” and “hoarders” became a refrain of speeches and analysis, while silence remained around concrete solutions for a take-off of production, the only one that can create supply and with it restore balance.

Finally they decided to create a figure to attack the symptoms of imbalance: “LCC” (fight against coleros). This is a person in charge of controlling the documents of those who queue and keeping a record to prevent them from buying again before it touches them again. Some have become a new intermediary in the food trade. They too try to survive. Whoever has a little money and can pay what they ask for, resigns himself to this way of getting food.

Like Esteban and his family in Centro Habana, Gloria in the Playa municipality has the subsidized monthly quota as an essential source of her diet; she then tries to procure supplements to the meager supply. Her two children emigrated years ago. This gives you some advantages; the price is her loneliness. Sometimes they send you some money or buy a package of food through online stores that charge high fees abroad for home delivery in Cuba.

She is the daughter of a former bodega owner, at 78 years old, she resists improvisation when it comes to food. The impossibility of planning what to buy, when or for how much money, she has turned her kitchen and her freezer into small and chaotic warehouses: she buys everything possible whenever she has the opportunity to do so; nobody knows when she will be her next time.

In the next few years there will be more lonely elderly people like her, whose subsistence will depend on what they can be sent from outside Cuba. Today, Cubans under the age of 65 are fleeing the crisis through legal and illegal means, and a combination of both, at the rate of tens of thousands each month. In the United States alone this year some 150,000 are expected to arrive.

No backyard chicken

More than thirty years ago, Cuba produced some 120,000 tons of chicken; under artificial and unsustainable economic conditions created by the relationship with the former Soviet Union. Even at the best moment of national production, this did not represent even half of the volume that is now imported.

The poultry industry in Cuba is under state control and is dedicated almost exclusively to the production of eggs, which neither meet demand nor are easily purchased. The management is in charge of companies of the Ministry of Agriculture (Minag) dedicated to the breeding of laying hens, through the Livestock Business Group (Gegan), an OSDE: Superior Organizations of Business Management. For decades it has not been possible to resume large-scale production, and today it only obtains 9,500 tons of waste poultry meat, from layers.

There are farmers and private cooperatives that produce chicken meat; but on such a small scale that it is not very representative. The national production, also very small, is destined for local consumption.

Ricardo Torres, professor of economics and researcher, explains that chicken production suffers from problems that affect Cuban livestock in general. An essential one has to do with food. “Cuban livestock depends on imported raw material to produce feed for livestock; which causes relatively high costs. In addition, it suffers from bad practices derived from the general economic model: inefficiency; lack of space for producers to innovate, create products and sell them at adequate prices to recover investments and re-invest; and so on. A form of private initiative that contemplates everything that is needed to complete the production-sale-investment cycle, without the control and excessive tutelage of the State, is prevented.

Torres, like other Cuban economists, believes that the problem of meat production in Cuba will not be solved with another centralized state provision, but rather that “the producers themselves should be allowed to explore which are the best routes and carry them out.” .

Regarding chicken production in particular, the damage caused by hurricanes to the breeding and fattening houses over the years has been pointed out as one more cause of the poor performance. The recovery time following one of these natural disasters is so long that a new weather event often occurs before the ships have been restored and the hatchling has recovered.

Compensating for the deficit in national production of chicken meat with imports not only represents a great economic burden, it also threatens the quality of consumption. Eating a chicken in Cuba that comes from a foreign farm implies that more time will have passed since its slaughter. The processing and distribution chain is lengthened, which involves more handling. In the later stages of distribution, there is an added risk of adulteration or poor refrigeration.

A worker at the Port of Havana says that it is difficult to know how long it takes between the slaughter of chicken in the United States, for example, and its meat reaching the consumer in Cuba. He doesn’t know how long the process takes between death and the packaging of the meat. Once in packages, it takes fifteen days to arrive in Cuba, he assures him. “The trip takes a few hours, or a day, at most. The paperwork on this side takes longer, when the ship arrives; for the paperwork.”

Most of the imported value consists of pieces of meat and edible offal of birds of the species Gallus Gallus Domesticus, the most numerous bird on the planet. It practically reflects the total global imports of chicken on the island.

When in 2014 Dilma Rousseff and Raúl Castro cut the tricolor ribbon at the inauguration of the pier in the Port of Mariel, the first ship that entered came from the United States with frozen chicken. February 2022 marked the third highest historical value in that category (31,212 tons for 253 million dollars). Cuban economist Pedro Monreal does the math: between 2001 and 2021, the US exported a total of 2.78 million tons of chicken meat to Cuba with a cumulative value of 2.368 million USD. 2.78 million tons of chicken is 250 kg per person in twenty years, 12 kg per year, 1 kg per month. 40% of that total tons Cuba has bought only in the last five years (2017-2021).

What would have happened if only a fifth of the 2,368 million USD that have ended up in the hands of US producers over twenty years, had been paid at fair prices to Cuban producers of this or another meat? How much would have been invested, recovered and reinvested?

There are no signs that chicken production in Cuba will soon overcome the deficit in which it finds itself. The solution would lie with the producers on the farms, if they had real capacity for management and innovation; but they remain tied while dependence on imports is maintained and food stability for Cubans is increasingly further away.

In the report on agricultural performance presented by the minister of the sector last March, the situation is described as follows: in 32 of 37 productions, the proposed goals were not reached. In April it was a year since the approval of a package of 63 measures to stimulate agriculture. Esteban and the vast majority of Cubans sit at the table every day without yet seeing the results.

This essay was published in journalismosituado.com


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José Martí
José Martí
Nacionalista cubano, poeta, filósofo, ensayista, periodista, traductor, profesor y editor.

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