Conditions: Food and Agriculture

Like the rest of this website, the following section reflects impressions mixed with occasional facts gained in several weeks of traveling by bike -- not systematic research. That said, what kind of conditions did we see in Cuba in 2000? We'll look at food, housing, medicine, and education.

With the end of Soviet aid and the collapse of the economy in the early 90's, food became scarce, and many Cubans went hungry. Things are somewhat better now. As far as we could see, malnutrition in 2000 was nonexistent, though Cubans without access to U.S. dollars still struggle.

For tourists, food was not a problem, though meals tended to be monotonous. We also found food to be quite safe. Some kitchens looked dingy, but that was probably the result of a years of shortages of cleansers and paint. We always ate salads, raw fruit, and snacks from roadside vendors without significant health problems over two months.

Water was a different matter. We were warned many times that water treatment in towns and cities was unreliable, and we met many Cubans who boil their drinking water or use water treatment tablets (when they can get them.) Barbara got quite sick, almost certainly from bad water, on our first trip in 1999. In 2000, therefore, we brought a water filter and used it regularly, and we bought a great deal of bottled water (and good beer!) as well.

Without doubt, one eats better in private homes, casas particulares, than in moderately-priced hotels or restaurants. Your hosts use your U.S. dollars to buy extra food for you -- and for themselves -- in the free market. Meals are generally based on chicken, pork, or fish, served with congris -- beans and rice -- and various vegetables and salads. Our Cuban hosts invariably put a great deal of effort into making meals attractive and appetizing.

Still, there's an old joke in Cuba: The three great successes of the revolution have been medicine, education, and sport; the three great failures have been breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is a huge feedlot outside Havana. It seemed to go on for miles. And it was completely abandoned. We don't know if this resulted from lack of inputs owing to the economic collapse of the 1990's -- or just bad planning.

Some people told us that large scale, collective agriculture in Cuba, as represented by the defunct feedlot, simply doesn't work well. What does seem to work, they said, is production by smallholders. Since 1994, peasant farmers have been allowed to sell part of their production in public markets for their own profit, and this has improved the availability of food considerably.

We saw intensively-cultivated gardens like this all over the country, especially outside the big, soviet-style apartment blocks that ring some of the cities.

A lot of the produce from these gardens is rolled into the city centers on wheelbarrows or hauled in carts and sold in the streets for pesos, as here in Santiago de Cuba. Traveling by bike, we very often made meals of fruit and other foods that we bought from street vendors.

We were taught the saying, "Sin sucre, no hay pais," without sugar, there is no country. We were in Cuba during the months of the sugar harvest. Much of the work was done with big machines -- but some of the cane was still harvested by hand, and the less mechanized approach was more photogenic.

Tobacco is also important to the economy. The best tobacco comes from Pinar del Rio province, and all the tobacco we saw appeared to be grown by small-scale farmers. This farm is in the Vinales Valley. Leaves were dried for a few days in the sun, then cured in the shade of the thatched building.

Cuban cigars are still rolled by hand, and it is skilled work. We were interested to see that Cuban cigar factories still employ "readers." At the front of the room, someone reads aloud from newspapers, short stories, even novels, to help workers pass the time and further their education as well.