Less electricity, less milk and less meat: Cuba’s energy and food crisis worsens

The island will suffer blackouts in October and transportation may collapse due to lack of fuel. The government recognizes the seriousness of the situation, but blames it on the economic blockade

Crisis Económica Cuba
A group of Cubans play dominoes in the middle of a blackout in Havana.Ramon Espinosa (AP)

The crisis that has been hitting Cubans for years has entered a new stage, with the government officially recognizing the seriousness of the situation. This week, two state officials — Economy Minister Alejandro Gil Fernández and Mining and Energy Minister Vicente de la O Levy — appeared on the state TV show Round Table, which has been used to announce each of the calamities that Cuba has faced in the past 20 years. With a martial tone, the leaders explained that the country does not have enough money to buy food abroad and that the crisis, including the energy shortages, may worsen in the coming weeks. In other words, they confirmed that there will be less of the little that the island’s inhabitants had left: less milk, less coffee, less pork, less public transportation and fewer hours of electricity.

The “economy is in a complex situation,” said Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Alejandro Gil Fernández, who during the program broadcast on Wednesday did not offer figures but recognized the shortages of milk and bread, and the delays with the monthly food rations given to Cuban households.

Energy and Mining Minister O Levy announced for his part that there will be blackouts during October due to a shortage of up to 700 megawatts, which is equivalent to 20% of national consumption. He also said that public transportation will also be hit hard due to the fuel shortages. Of the 120,000 to 130,000 tons of diesel that the country needs each month, 1,000 tons will be used for electricity production, he said. “We have suppliers and countries that have not been able to comply and that have breached contracts. We have had to go out to buy fuel nearly on a day-by-day basis,” he said. “We are in a tight situation, but it is going to get better.”

After recognizing the deep stagnation of the Cuban economy and blaming it on the U.S. embargo and the rising cost of food in the international market, the ministers admitted that the country needs to focus on national production: “To depend more and more on what we are capable of producing,” stated Gil Fernández, who also asked the Cuban people to keep their confidence in the revolution. “We know that life is hard,” he insisted. “But trust, that the only way out is revolution and socialism.”

But many Cubans were not swayed by the ministers’ speech, and expressed their reservations on social media. “It’s more of the same,” Dani González told EL PAÍS from Havana. “What I do know is that no leader is going through what we, the people, are going through. I feel disappointed in everything they have promised us and have not fulfilled.”

Contingency measures adopted in some provinces of the country had already been made public before Wednesday’s television broadcast, including the reduction of electricity hours in Cuban homes, the adjustment of working hours, the shift to remote work, reduction in lighting and the restructuring of school schedules.

“I don’t think this is an exceptional situation,” Cuban economist Mauricio de Miranda told EL PAÍS. “We have been at almost zero options for a long time. The Cuban economy has a structural crisis that has been going on for more than three decades, the Cuban economy has not emerged from the crisis.”

In recent years, the Cuban government tried unsuccessfully to rescue the Cuban economy with a series of measures, including the so-called Ordering Task. This policy involved eliminating the dual currency; opening stores in foreign currency, opening some mixed capital companies to foreign investors, establishing small and medium-sized businesses and the banking of financial operations. However, the people have been suffering wide-ranging shortages that some have compared to the hardships of the so-called Special Period, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the last two years of crisis, more than 300,000 Cubans have left the country, the largest exodus since the Cuban Revolution.

The shortages affecting Cuba worsened with the Covid-19 crisis and the drastic fall of the country’s most important economic sector: tourism. At the end of July, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said that Cuba will not reach its goal of registering 3.5 million international tourists this year. However, the country remains committed to allocating its few resources to this sector, something that specialists consider a mistake.

“Allocating the majority of resources to tourism has been a serious mistake, because due to the scarcity of the Cuban economy’s financial resources [and] its very limited investment capacity, essential sectors have been neglected, such as agriculture and the industrial sector,” said De Miranda.

Cubans have been facing a very critical situation, and in recent years, this has led to growing social discontent. Foods that were once common on the table, such as pork, are now scarce. Complaints are pouring in about the lack of fuel, even for hearses. High product prices are incompatible with low wages. The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OACDH) showed last September in its VI Report on the State of Social Rights in Cuba that extreme poverty in the country increased drastically in one year. According to them, 88% of Cubans live on less than $1.9 a day and 48% have cut back on meals because they don’t have enough money to buy food.

“We need a national debate on the future of the country,” said De Miranda. According to the economist, a short-term solution could be promoting private sector production.

“We must allow everyone who has the resources to start a business to do so. And that way production grows,” he said. “But the fundamental problem is that the government does not want to abandon the model in which it is the government that takes care of the entire economy, that authorizes, that allows, that makes decisions. That is absurd, and it has been proven that this kind of centralized model has failed.”

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