An Information Service of the Cuba Transition Project
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
University of Miami

Issue 47
September 11, 2003



Eric Driggs*


     The provision of food in Cuba has undergone a significant transformation due to the necessities of the “Special Period,” (1) moving from centralized production and distribution to a mixed system where options are available outside the ration card, both in production and distribution. The repercussions of the shortcomings of the Cuban system are becoming more and more apparent as nutritional deficiencies register throughout the country. The following is a synthesis of the food picture in Cuba: how it is produced and distributed, and some of the nutritional realities facing the Cuban people. 

Ration Card
     The libreta de racionamiento, or ration book, has been an integral part of daily Cuban life since its inception in 1962. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the heavy subsidies received by the Cuban government, the basic food basket offered by the ration system shrunk considerably, and has not rebounded to pre-Special Period levels. Presently, the monthly allotted food per citizen under the ration system is enough to last 7-10 days, provided that all the items included are available, a prospect which is far from certain given the irregular resupply of the bodegas, or small neighborhood markets which distribute rationed items. For example, in the first trimester of 2003 the ration of basic hygiene products, a bar of soap per person and a tube of toothpaste between three individuals, were not available for several months in the capital. (2)

     Listed below are some basic products listed on the ration card and the quantity for each person (3):

Rice 6 lbs. (2.7 kg) per month
Beans or peas 20 oz. (0.57 kg) per month
Cooking oil 0.4 pints (200 ml) per month
Plaintains 3 lbs. (1.36 kg) per month
Brown sugar 2 lbs. (0.91 kg) per month
Milk 1.76 pints (1 L) per day [children under 7 only]
Soy yogurt 1.76 pints (1 L) per day [children aged 7-14 only]

     The protein sources are dealt with a bit differently. Only one of the following products is distributed each month, or a combination of these, depending on availability:

Carne texturizada (soy/meat blend) 0.75 lb. (0.34 kg) per month
Sausage frincadel (frankfurter) 0.50 lb. (0.23 kg) per month

1 lb. (0.45 kg) per month if no beef is available

5 lb. per month if beef is available (very uncommon)

Beef 0.50 lb. (0.23 kg) per month

The Urban Agriculture (UA) Movement
     Clearly the portions allotted under the libreta are insufficient (keep in mind that the monthly ration for meat is often roughly similar in weight to the patties included in a pair of Big Macs.) Due to the inability of the central government to provide for the nutritional needs of the populace, the average Cuban has been forced to develop creative coping strategies to survive.

     On the production side, Cubans began to produce food in small-scale urban gardens as a survival response to the crisis in the early 1990s, when food rations plummeted to levels significantly below international standards both in caloric intake and protein consumption. This practice became more commonplace, since it was an effective way to both improve one’s diet and possibly create an alternate source of income.

     Today, this small-scale production can be seen in a number of different formats: organopónicos, which are organic gardens with raised container beds; huertos intensivos, similar to organopónicos but planted in pre-existing soil. There are community gardens organized by a workplace, school, community group or other body that give a portion of the produce to this entity and divide the rest among those that worked the gardens. Thousands of others have their own individual gardens, planted wherever they can find space, from rooftops of buildings to private yards to small parcels of larger community gardens. Urban agriculture has become a powerful force in the Cuban landscape. It provides 320,000 individuals with part-time employment (4) and is a significant source of vegetables for the Cuban populace. Production from urban agriculture has increased from a mere trickle in 1994 to over 600,000 tons in 2000.(5) With a total national production of fresh produce at 1,680, 845 tons the same year (6), it is evident that this is a vital resource to Cuban food security.

     The Urban Agriculture (UA) movement in Cuba has gained a significant amount of international attention and has been touted as a model for the rest of the developing world, and as another masterful show of ingenuity and flexibility by the Cuban government. While the productive success of the movement is surely praiseworthy, what unfortunately has been lost on many is the fact that this movement was not formed by a progressive, reform-minded state, but created out of sheer desperation by creative and proactive citizens who were simply not receiving enough to eat under the ration system. Presently, the role of the Cuban government in UA, as it has with all innovations that can be perceived as a threat to the established order, is largely one of regulation and monitoring, to the point where paintings with revolutionary content are seen as a legitimate criterion for efficiency evaluation of organopónicos. (7)

     In addition to the bodegas and the above-mentioned agricultural sources, some of which are authorized to sell directly to consumers, there are other sources of food for the average Cuban citizen:

· Agromercados: Legalized in 1994 as a response to the needs of the Special Period, these are open air markets with products mostly from the few private farmers allowed by the state and surpluses of cooperative farms that have fulfilled their quotas and have surpluses.

· State Markets: State markets are usually located next to the agromercados to try to keep their prices down. They are authorized to sell more processed goods, such as tomato sauce, peanut bars, guava paste and others.

· Topados: These capped markets sell products of larger agricultural cooperatives, and regularly fix prices approximately 25-30% lower than the rates at the agromercados.

· EJT Markets: The Worker’s Youth Army (EJT) produces food for the military, and sells its surplus to citizens in these markets. These are the cheapest option and are often the first stop for many families.

· TRDs, Dollar Markets or “la chopin:” Dollar markets, often referred to as “la chopin” from the English “shopping,” were formerly completely off limits to Cubans. Once they were opened to Cubans with access to dollars, they were grandiosely renamed Stores for Recovering Foreign Currency (TRD). These stores stock mostly foreign products, are very expensive and out of reach of the average Cuban family without significant access to dollars, although many essential items are difficult to find outside of the TRDs.

· Black Market: Many Cubans buy extra portions of items on the ration card “under the table” at bodegas at higher prices. Others illegally fish, make illicit purchases from farmers, or steal from hotels, cafeterias, and other outlets.

Regional Differences in Distribution
     While the ration system is seen by some as an example of distributional justice and a model of social equality, it seems as if the Cuban government recognizes that some areas are more equal than others. One joint study conducted by Cuban academics on both sides of the Florida Straits revealed that there are regional differences in the allocation of rationed items, with a clear preference for the capital of La Habana. In comparing the food distribution in the capital to that of Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city, it was revealed that while some items were distributed evenly between both cities, with other basic food items, La Habana enjoyed a considerable advantage. In distributing some staples of the Cuban diet, cooking oil, beans and chicken, La Habana (8) residents received portions that were 3, 16, and 35 times greater than in Santiago, respectively. (9)

Nutritional Repercussions
     The effects of this regional disparity and general shortcomings of the system are attracting international attention. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 13% of the Cuban population were chronically undernourished from 1998-2000. (10) The United Nations’ World Food Program, in conjunction with the Physical Planning Institute (IPF) and other Cuban government bodies, found serious deficiencies in dietary intake in the eastern five provinces of Cuba (Las Tunas, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo). According to their findings, the average diet in this region provided less than 80 percent of the minimum levels of proteins, less than 50 percent of necessary fats, and insufficient vitamin and mineral intake necessary for sustained health. (11) At the level of fat intake reported, the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E and K becomes difficult. These vitamins contribute to growth, strong bones and teeth, healthy skin and defensive blood clotting.

     Perhaps the most common food-related public health problem in Cuba is iron-deficiency anemia, primarily seen among pregnant women and small children. Approximately fifty percent of breastfeeding children from 6-11 months and thirty percent of children from one to three years of age are anemic in Cuba (12), as well as forty percent of women in the third trimester of pregnancy and between twenty-five and thirty percent of women of child-bearing age. (13)

Conclusion: The Three Failures of the Cuban Revolution
     Ironically, with several options available outside of the libreta, under the present Cuban system of distribution, access to basic goods is strongly delineated along income lines and/or access to dollars. With the rationing system only providing food for approximately one week per month and many basic items only available at high prices at dollar stores or agricultural markets, dollars become indispensable to avoid serious and significant monthly struggles to meet basic needs, efforts which can often fall short. As an example of the limitations faced by the typical Cuban citizen, the entire average monthly salary in 2001 of 241 pesos could have been spent on a bar of soap, half a liter of cooking oil and a pound of taro or malanga (14). Estimates of average monthly expenditures for food range from 66 to over 100% of the average Cuban salary (15), meaning that for those without access to foreign currency, any other necessary purchases often affect food consumption. Those with dollars enjoy inflated purchasing power, as they receive many times the national average for income, often estimated at approximately 260 Cuban pesos or $10 US, and have much more food options available.

     One of the most revealing criticisms of the Cuban system comes from an unlikely source, a common Cuban joke that has been making the rounds on the island for some time:

What are the three successes of the Cuban revolution?
Health, education and sports.
What are the three failures of the Cuban revolution?
Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

     While the Cuban people survive with enviable resilience and humor, food security in Cuba remains a gravely serious matter, particularly for those with no access to foreign currency which goes a long way in alleviating the pressure of providing adequate food with severely limited resources. With the awareness that their necessary efforts to secure their basic needs have been reduced to a punchline, few on the island are laughing.



1. Since the early 1990s, the Cuban government has implemented austerity measures in response to the severe shortages caused by the termination of Soviet subsidies after 1989. It imposed drastic cutbacks on consumption of food, petroleum products and other commodities. The government euphemistically refers to this era as a “Special Period in Time of Peace.”

2. “Incumplen distribución de cuotas de jabón de baño y pasta dental,” Aug. 19, 2003,

3. Figures taken from USDA Foreign Agricultural Service GAIN Report, “How Cubans Survive,” Susan Archer, May 2003 and BBC News, “Cuba’s hardships fuel discontent,” Becky Branford, 6/8/03.

4. Carmelo Mesa-lago, “The Slowdown of the Cuban Economy in 2001-2003: External Causes or Domestic Malaise?,” ICCAS Occasional Paper Series (University of Miami: Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, March 2003).

5. Cuba: Going Against the Grain: Agricultural Crisis and Transformation, Minor Sinclair and Martha Thompson, Oxfam America, June 2001.

6. “La agricultura urbana y la producción de alimentos: la experiencia de Cuba,” Dr. Santiago Rodríguez Castellón, Cuba Siglo XXI, Número XXX, Junio 2003.

7. “Organic status and dietary role or organopónicos in Cienfuegos, Cuba,” Kristina H. Taboulchanas, thesis, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

8. “Rationed Products and Something Else,” José Alvarez, Cuba in Transition, Vol. 11, 2001, pp. 305-322.

9. Ibid.

10. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

11. “Food Aid to Women and Children in Eastern Cuba,” World Food Program, 2001. See also “Análisis y Cartografía de la Vulnerabilidad a la Inseguridad Alimentaria en Cuba,” World Food Program and Instituto de Planificación Física, 2001.

12. “Anemia Nutricional en un Grupo de Niños Aparentemente Sanos de 2 a 4 Años de Edad,” Instituto de Nutrición e Higiene de los Alimentos, Revista Cubana de Alimentación y Nutrición, 2002; 16 (1) pp. 31-34.

13. “Improving the Health of the Peoples of the Americas,” Country Health Profile Cuba, data updated for 2001, Pan American Health Organization.

14. Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Growing Economic and Social Disparities in Cuba: Impact and Recommendations for Change, (University of Miami: Cuba Transition Project, 2002).

15. GAIN Report, Archer, and Cuba: Going Against the Grain, Sinclair and Thompson.


*Eric Driggs is Humanitarian Aid Coordinator at the Cuba Transition Project.