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The Many Paradoxes Of Cuba's Eternal Milk Shortages

Milk shortages are not new in Cuba, where the state pays producers less for their milk than what they can make by selling it on the black market.

The Many Paradoxes Of Cuba's Eternal Milk Shortages

A young girl drinks milk inside her home in Cienfuegos, Cuba

Sadiel Mederos Bermudez

HAVANA — "There is no milk" ceased to be a repeated phrase on the island, because everyone knows it and, probably, by now they have resigned themselves.

Children under seven and the elderly with medical diets don’t receive it with the necessary frequency, even if they are the only sectors of the population with the right to acquire it through a government subsidy.

Because there simply is no milk in Cuba.

The rest of Cubans must buy it in stores in freely convertible currency (MLC). However, powdered or fluid milk hasn't been available in stores in MLC for months. Last time, at the beginning of the year, the price of a bag of 1 to 1.2 kilograms was between 6 and 8 MLC ($6-8).

That price today implies paying at least 750 Cuban pesos (CUP) — a third of the minimum wage in Cuba. But there is no powdered milk, not even on the black market.

Government investing in tourism when milk is not enough

Cuban cows are blamed. While some are killed illegally, others are in the care of farmers that keep feeding and milking them, despite their own lack of resources.

In this context of crisis, the Cuban Government has shown where its priorities lie: in 2021 it had invested in 4,000 new rooms for international tourism, equivalent to $660 million. With the $165,000 spent on each single room, the government could import at least 10 tractors.

Although the worst production of liquid milk in the last 30 years was in 2005 (353,000 tons), the downward trend began in 2012, reaching 455,000 tons in 2020, which is equivalent to consuming 39.5 liters per inhabitant during a whole year: less than half a glass daily.

In the city of Santa Clara, Leo must receive three liters of milk, every other day, because she is pregnant and has two small children. This year, milk has only arrived at government-subsidized grocery stores once or twice. Half the time her milk is spoiled and she has to turn it into a sweet paste in order to take advantage of it. The problem then is that she doesn't have enough sugar to cook with.

Her neighbor Nereida, 80 years old, has been prescribed a medical diet, due to various ailments, and is entitled to a liter of milk five times a month. "During the month of April I only received it three times," she says.

At the end of 2020, the official press recognized the inability to meet the needs of the prioritized groups in Villa Clara, which account for 77,000 liters per day. Deliveries ranged between 68,000 and 69,000 liters.

The government pays Cuban farmers around $0.71 per liter of milk, depending on its quality

Tim Johnson/TNS/ZUMA

Cow owners on the frontlines, with little support or resources

Gonzalo is a bricklayer, but every day he gets up at 4.15 a.m. to milk 20 cows at the cooperative where his friend Manuel works, on the outskirts of Remedios, Villa Clara. He is paid in fresh milk.

Cow owners can decide to kill their cows if they first meet the commitments with state contracts for the sale of milk and meat, and guarantee the growth of the herd, without shortages. Manuel, who has worked in the cooperative for 12 years, believes that the measure adopted by the government to increase production is late.

The penalty for the crime of illegal slaughter of large cattle in Cuba is three to eight years in prison, and two to five for those who sell, transport or trade their meat, according to article 317.1 of the new Penal Code.

Sometimes you wonder if it's worth all this effort...

“Yes, it is very good that now they let you kill the cow that you raise with your sacrifice and work (before you couldn't in any way), but that alone was never the real problem. The state pays producers too little for milk, they often don't comply with payments, there is a lack of specific incentives, such as access to resources and equipment… they don't talk about that”, Manuel shrugs.

“Sometimes you wonder if it's worth all this effort... But then you see the hunger and you understand that you are on the front line to achieve what everyone needs. At least here and now I get milk for my family,” says Manuel. “People are very hungry and that is why they are killing many cows illegally. I know of some guajiros (farmers) who have one or two small cows and out of fear of them being stolen, they even keep them inside their houses."

“Until now they haven't come in here because this area is a bit remote, but there is always the possibility. Hopefully, the dogs we have will warn us," says Manuel as he prepares to set off on his bicycle towards Villa Clara.

Not enough containers to sell milk

The majority of Cuban farmers transfer milk production to the collection centers with donkey-pulled carts.

The government pays around $0.71 per liter of milk, depending on its quality, according to the measure approved on November 1, 2021, which aimed at increasing production. On the black market, the liter can cost up to $1.46. For producers, it is more lucrative to produce cheese or yogurt and sell it on the black market, at $7.29 per pound.

The government blames the difficulties on the pandemic and the toughening of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. This is how they justify not having been able to import containers and packaging, which has affected the distribution of all products, like coffee and milk. People must bring their own containers to subsidized food supply stores to purchase milk.

At the end of April 2022, several independent Cuban media organizations echoed the viral video of the Spanish influencer Rosa Martorell about the distribution of milk in the town of Trinidad, in the centre of the island. Indeed, the absence of individual containers for the delivery of milk implies its irregular distribution through pipes, and the hoses and plastic tanks that contain it are not hygienic.

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