Cuba’s second-in-command, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, issued remarks Sunday blaming “the impact of the embargo, which has strengthened under the Trump administration,” for nationwide shortages of bread, eggs, and other basic goods as Cubans prepare to celebrate the new year and the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
The official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, Granma, quoted Miguel Díaz-Canel speaking at the debut of the nation’s 2019 economic plan, which the publication branded “objective and realist.”
“The people expect an economic response that impacts their day-to-day lives, that is why the majority of our time must be directed towards this battle,” Díaz-Canel is quoted as stating, adding that Cubans must “overcome little bits of every problem every day.”
The Cuban president, who is subordinate to Communist Party leader and Commander-in-Chief Raúl Castro, acknowledged that Cuba failed to achieve the objectives of the 2018 economic plan but blamed the “complex economic situation we face.” Among the challenges he reportedly listed were “structural problems and insufficiencies … but we cannot underestimate the impact of the embargo.”
Granma claims that, under U.S. President Donald Trump, “financial persecution” of the Cuban regime has increased. The White House has pivoted away from policies under his predecessor Barack Obama that greatly enriched military-owned Cuban corporate entities, money that Havana funneled into the persecution of pro-democracy dissidents.
Díaz-Canel’s excuses for the failed economic objectives proposed during his first year as ceremonial figurehead of the Castro regime follow a week in which Cubans have grown increasingly impatient with significant food shortages across the island. Cuba had anticipated a 30,000-ton flour deficit for the year and attempted to prepare for such a situation. Instead, Cuba’s deficit rose to 70,000 tons, leaving the country without 40,000 tons necessary to feed the country. Government officials have explained in state media outlets that the reason for the shortage is mechanical damage in much of the nation’s wheat mills in eastern and central Cuba, the nation’s agricultural centers. The Castro regime claims it cannot access the replacement pieces necessary to make the mills run.
The lack of wheat flour has triggered a nationwide bread shortage. Cubans typically have access to two types of bread: small, low-quality buns that are unrationed, and edible loaves of bread that each family’s ration book limits the purchase of depending on family size. Many refuse the smaller bread, calling it inedible, which has resulted in extensive, hours-long lines at the few bakeries in the country still able to offer bread loaves.
The Spain-based Diario de Cuba reported on Monday that bakeries are not the only food vendors affected. In addition to bread, Cubans are struggling to find crackers, pizza, and pastries, which are typically popular for the end of year holiday. Pizzerias in Havana have been forced to keep very short hours or shut down entirely. The few who remain open tell the newspaper, “we have been buying on the side [illegally] more than ever.”
Cubanet, a dissident outlet with reporters in Cuba and the United States, reported that conversations with vendors and administrators on background suggest that the shortages are not only due to the lack of production in Cuba, but months of prioritizing stocking Cuba’s lavish hotels and feeding high-ranking Communist Party officials over providing food for the general public, as well as black market trade. Bakers keep a significant number of bread loaves out of Cuba’s communist ration system and sell them on the black market at much higher rates, many ending up in the hands of well-connected officials.
The average Cuban has long endured food shortages, surviving by buying lower-quality alternatives available. Currently, however, many Cubans say they cannot count on any food alternatives arriving at all. One woman who spoke to the outlet CiberCuba, identified as Migdalia Capote, noted that she had not had access to bread, water, eggs, or milk for weeks.
“Long live the 60th anniversary!” Capote noted sarcastically.
The city of Santa Clara in central Cuba has suffered as much or more over these shortages as Havana. There, CiberCuba notes, water shortages have become so acute that many residents have taken to accumulating and drinking rainwater, a dangerous option giving the growing rates of Dengue fever. In Santa Clara, officials have offered the same excuse for the lack of water as they have for the lack of flour nationwide: the local aqueduct is broken and the government has no access to replacement parts.
Animal meat remains a scarcity nationwide. Diario de Cuba estimates that the few stores that sell pork offer it at 50-60 Cuban pesos a pound.
The shortages recall the early days of dictator Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, shortly following the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013. By then, Chávez had diverted so much of Venezuela’s oil reserves into subsidizing the Cuban regime that Venezuela had announced a toilet paper shortage and immediate plans to import food, despite possessing the world’s largest known oil reserves at the time. While Cubans did not see much of this largess – long lines for basic food items have long been a staple of the Cuban Revolution – Cubans have traditionally not faced the near-famine conditions currently occurring in Venezuela.
Venezuela implemented a ration card in 2014 following the near complete lack of access to flour, milk, pork, butter, and other basic items. The ration system did not work to improve conditions, leading to a violent political crackdown on protesters and individuals who took photos of empty shelves in supermarkets. A year later, ration lines had grown to such a length that some Venezuelans became professional line-standers, available to wait on a line for a client at a fee.
Venezuela officially announced it had run out of food in 2016. Since then, an exodus nearing the millions in number has departed the country, flooding neighboring regions, and shortages have become so acute that the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds in the past year.