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Cuba's food import bill reaches record $794 billion
CubaNews / March 2003

By Larry Luxner

Food now comprises 20% of Cuba’s total imports, up from 17% in 1999, with half the protein and 30% of all nutrients in the typical Cuban diet now coming from abroad. In 2002, Cuba’s food import bill came to $794.4 million, of which the United States supplied $138 million, or 17.3% of the total.

U.S. companies provided Cuba with 20% of its chicken, 37% of its soybeans, 59% of its corn and nearly all its eggs and apples, according to statistics presented at a recent seminar by the University of Havana’s Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy.

In 2002, Cuba’s leading imported food item was meat and meat by-products (40% of the total), followed by dairy products (33%). The importation of chicken meat has tripled, while imports of rice and legumes have doubled, over the last decade.

Cuba’s dairy dependency on imports grew from 35% in the 1980s to 40% in 2001 — despite the fact that international prices for powdered milk have tripled since 1983. That means Cuba is spending more and importing fewer dairy products than 20 years ago.

The lack of inputs for agriculture — fertilizer, seeds, herbicides and fuel — has hurt domestic production, while imports of basic foodstuffs, like powdered milk, vegetable oil, rice and grains, has become much more competitive in both quality and price, especially now that U.S. law allows Cuba to buy U.S. food commodities on a cash-only basis.

An unfavorable peso-dollar exchange rate and high domestic interest rates have also made imports more attractive.

Annual domestic milk production, meanwhile, reached 900 million liters in the 1980s, dropping to 600 million liters in 2001.

State-run farms accounted for 69% of all milk production in the 1980s, falling to 25% in 2001, while private farmers increased their output to 44% of the total during that same period, and cooperatives now supply one out of every four liters of milk.

Likewise, private cattle farmers have in-creased their herds to 1.7 million head, while state-run farms have remained stagnant and coops haven’t yet recovered from their losses.

Production of beans — an important source of vegetable protein in the Cuban diet — fell from 105,000 metric tons in 2000 to 100,000 tons in 2001. That’s because farmers trade beans for other things they need, like clothes, laundry detergent and soap. As a result, only 30% of the crops harvested each year ever makes it to state-run and farmers markets.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s Ministry of Food Industries reports that total output reached 1.339 billion pesos in 2002, an 8% increase over 2001 figures. Production costs came to 61.4˘ per peso, about 3˘ less than 2001 — translating into savings of 54 million pesos.

Food and beverage exports totaled $47.7 million, a 36% jump over 2001, thanks mainly to growing exports of Cuban rum. Investments totaled 71.8 million pesos, mostly in wheat and rice mills, bakeries, breweries, packaging technology and refrigeration systems. At least 60% of this figure is believed to represent hard-currency investments.

According to Cuba’s Ministry of Fisheries, seafood exports came to 99.8 million pesos last year, 25% over 2001 figures and the best performance in six years. Lobster, the main export item, grew by 1,237 tons, up 18% over 2001, while shrimp grew by 641 tons, up 50%.

A total of 14 state-run food entities now practice perfeccionamiento empresarial, with five of them implementing wage scales tied to productivity. These 14 were responsible for 22% of Cuba’s total food output last year.

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