Cuba’s geographic position in the Caribbean leaves it vulnerable to annual natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and heavy rain from El Niño ocean warming in the Pacific. Natural disasters have cost Cuba over $20 billion since 2011, a cost that greatly impacts Cuba’s overall food security. Despite this, Cuba has consistently scored “low” (less than five) on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) since 2005. A GHI score of less than five indicates that less than or equal to 9.9% of the population suffers from hunger, calculated by national rates of undernourishment, child wasting and stunting and child mortality. Hunger in Cuba has stabilized at 2.50% since 2002.
While still under the 10% line and decreasing, Cuba’s child stunting indicators, suggesting chronic malnourishment, are much higher than its other indicators. In 2005, child stunting was 4.8% higher than the next-highest indicator, child wasting, and still 2.7% higher in 2019. This data is supported by Cuba’s Food Security and Nutrition Monitoring System (SISVAN), which found in 2015 that 31.6% of two-year-olds suffered from anemia, an iron deficiency, with an 8% increase among six-month-old infants.
Social programs to ensure no one goes hungry in Cuba are centrally planned and heavily rely on food importation and foreign aid from Venezuela and the U.S. Up to 80% of Cuba’s food is imported. The majority of food importation, about 67%, goes toward centrally-planned government social programs, which result in long distribution lines for basic food products like rice, vegetables, eggs and meat. These lines for individual food products can last up to five hours as people wait to purchase groceries with government-issued ration books, a significant time sacrifice for working households. Waiting for one ingredient at a time leads to some households choosing certain food products over others and reducing their nutrient diversity.
The World Food Programme
However, international organizations like the World Food Programme (WFP) are working hard to improve nutrient diversity and reduce Cuban reliance on international imports. The WFP provides nutritional and food safety education programs for pregnant and nursing women, children and seniors. WFP also helps local producers and processors of beans, an agricultural staple in Cuba, improve the competitive pricing of their products and Cuba’s agricultural self-reliance. Additionally, WFP collaborates with the Cuban government to develop a food security analysis program in conjunction with Cuba’s natural disaster response plan.
Smaller organizations strive to help Cuba improve its food security as well. CARE, for instance, helps Cuban farmers revive farmland and establish sustainable food production practices that will improve crop returns and overall food security over time. The West India Committee and The Gaia Charitable Foundation provide education and support training on organic farming methods and “limiting environmental damage.” These programs are also designed to help Cuban farmers keep their farmland productive and efficient over a longer period of time.
The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba
The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHR Cuba) has a different approach. FHR Cuba focuses on creating economic incentives to start and maintain small businesses, including livestock and agricultural farms. FHR Cuba gives out microcredit loans between $100 and $600 to applicants for business supplies and participants are required to file a monthly report. So far, the initiative has funded 70 entrepreneurs and 100% have been able to successfully repay their loans as their businesses take off.
Hunger in Cuba and Food Security Today
Recent political conflict and economic hardships have led to food shortages. Since 2000, Cuba has relied on Venezuelan oil but economic collapse in Venezuela caused the aid in oil exports from that region to be cut in half. Cuba relied on selling Venezuelan oil for hard currency, of which there is now a shortage, to trade internationally for products like food. Additionally, after Cuba affirmed diplomatic support for Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, the U.S. imposed strict sanctions while Brazil canceled a contract employing thousands of Cuban doctors. The U.S. sanctions have caused food prices to soar as Cuba seeks new, more expensive suppliers. Additionally, national production of food in Cuba fell in response to the economic crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19 and plummeting tourism. Cuba is seeking to improve its future food security by asking citizens to grow their own gardens and produce their own food.
The Road Ahead for Cuba
While Cuba has a long track record of preventing widespread hunger, the country needs to find new solutions to combat hunger in Cuba in the face of recent challenges like COVID-19 and faltering foreign aid. With the help of economic creativity like microloans and improving competitive bean prices as well as sustainable farming techniques and measures already in place to reduce Cuba’s reliance on food imports, Cuba is better positioned to address the crisis.
– Elizabeth Broderick