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Cuba struggles for economic reform

By Claire Bolderson
BBC News, Havana

Stalls at farmers' market
For most Cubans the prices in non-state shops are too high

In a small flat in a leafy neighbourhood of Havana, Juan Jacomino points to the mismatched tiles on his living room floor.

He bought the first lot of tiles, then found he needed a few more but when he went back to the shop, they had disappeared.

That is common he says, particularly with imported goods.

"My advice is, if you find something you need, or you think you might need one day, buy it!" says the translator and freelance journalist.

"Don't wait till tomorrow because when you come back it won't be there and you may never see it again."

Juan attributes the erratic supplies to the US sanctions in place for well over 40 years.

They certainly do affect imports but when it comes to other goods, particularly food, Cuba has also made life hard for itself.

Subsidised food

Juan took me to his state-run corner shop where there was very little on the shelves and no fresh food to be seen at all.

Shop with blackboard listing prices of goods brought with ration book
Cuban shops have blackboards listing the prices of basic foods

In the store room at the back were sacks of rice and other staple foods and on the counter at the front, a big blackboard listing the prices of all the basics that Cubans get each month with their ration book.

The food is not free but it is incredibly heavily subsidised.

Juan for example, got 18lbs (8kg) of rice, 15lbs of sugar and 1lb of salt and some spaghetti for just over five Cuban pesos - about 25 US cents (12p).

In a country where the average monthly wage is less than $20, the ration book is a lifeline for many Cubans.

But they have to be patient, and they have to be alert.

When fresh meat arrives, shoppers come flocking. How do they know it is there?

"They just know," says shopkeeper Gerardo with a laugh. "Word goes around instantly."

Garlic rations

So why not just go to the farmers' market? Because for most Cubans the prices in non-state shops are just too high.

One head of garlic cost 25 cents, the same as Juan's basic rations for a month.

Almost 50 years after the revolution, you get the feeling the government knows it has got to deliver that little bit more

The problem is that agriculture in Cuba is very inefficient.

Only half the land that could be used to grow food in this lush tropical island is put to use.

For years farmers have depended on the state providing everything from fertilisers to new spades.

But the system is slow and bureaucratic; vital tools can take months to arrive.

That is why Cuba has recently introduced agricultural reforms that allow more privately run farming.

The plan is to increase domestic output and reduce an import bill that is going up steeply as global food prices rise.

Productivity bonuses

President Raul Castro's recent speeches suggest there is more economic reform to come.

He is promising productivity bonuses to boost wages.

Lorry at farmers' market
Life is a struggle for most Cubans; political reform is not always a priority

There is the real prospect that Cubans might end up getting very different rates of pay for different work, something unheard of until now.

But do not expect the state to give up its overwhelming control over the lives of its citizens any time soon.

There is no real concept of private ownership in Cuba.

You cannot buy and sell your home, you can only buy a car through the government and you cannot sell it on.

It is a one-party state with no independent media. What little private enterprise exists is strictly limited.

Cubans can rent out rooms to tourists - but they pay a hefty tax and cannot let more than two rooms.

There are even rules about what kind of food they are allowed to serve if they also offer evening meals.

Life is a struggle

Everyone I met in Cuba told me they wanted more economic freedom.

They want money in their pockets and a choice over how they spend it.

"People want to be able to start their own businesses, to work with their hands, with their talents," says young artist Humberto.

With daily life a struggle for the majority, political reform is not always at the top of the list.

Almost 50 years after the revolution, you get the feeling the government knows it has got to deliver that little bit more.

Now its leaders, keen to ensure the survival of the revolution after they are gone, are trying to work out how.

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