In Cuba, a frantic search for milk

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HAVANA — Her 4-year-old was still asleep when Yohana Perdomo stubbed out her cigarette, grabbed her blue ration book and set out to find Cuba’s most prized product. “As good as gold,” she called it. She padded out the door in flip-flops, past the metal-roofed shacks warming in the morning sun, past the wall spray-painted: Viva Fidel + Raul.

And then she saw it: the local “bodega” that sold government rations. With no line in front. That could only mean one thing, Perdomo thought.

“There’s no milk.”

It was one of the great promises of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. In a nation plagued by malnutrition, Fidel Castro pledged a liter of milk every day for every child. He enshrined a super-producing cow, Ubre Blanca, as a national hero. He was such a dairy nut that the CIA once tried to poison his daily milkshake.

Today, as Cuba careens through its worst economic crisis in 30 years, milk is one of the most potent symbols of the country’s precarious state. Cubans have been hit by mass shortages of dairy and other basic goods, reflecting a confluence of setbacks: The coronavirus pandemic crippled the vital tourism industry. Then-President Donald Trump squeezed the island with extra sanctions, and President Biden held off on reversing them. Socialist ally Venezuela reduced aid and investment.

The result: A nation that imports 70 percent of its food has run desperately short of the cash to buy it.

Cubans wait in lines for hours to get a bottle of subsidized cooking oil or some chicken. “Since you wake up, you are always thinking, what can you eat, where can you find food?” said Perdomo, 28, a manicurist. Milk is among the hardest-to-find products. The government has continued to provide subsidized rations for young children and the sick. Beyond that, though, it has disappeared from most stores.

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Spiking food prices and shortages are threatening to unleash turmoil in many countries, of course, but in Cuba the upheaval is well underway. Young people are fueling the biggest exodus to the United States since the 1980 Mariel boatlift. U.S. border agents have logged more than 114,000 apprehensions of Cubans since October. Perdomo’s 25-year-old brother-in-law, an air-conditioning technician named Esteban, is talking about joining them. “I don’t think we can live this way,” he said.

The Communist government, nervous that the shortages could pose risks to the one-party system, is trying to stimulate agricultural production. “We have to improve things quickly,” Johana Odriozola, the vice minister of economy, acknowledged in an interview. Protests over the lack of food and electricity swept the Caribbean island last July, and another hot summer is coming.

The frustration simmers in Perdomo’s neighborhood, a warren of tiny concrete block and wood homes in a riverside area of Havana called El Fanguito. Perdomo long ago gave up her morning cafe con leche. But her daughter is another story. Milk is Laurent’s entire breakfast, and as Perdomo returned home on that recent Wednesday, the girl was hungry. In her kitchen nook, the mother filled a baby bottle with boiling water, sugar and three scoops from her dwindling supply of milk powder.

“There’s enough milk for tonight,” Perdomo said, shaking the powder jar. “For tomorrow, we don’t know what we’ll do.”

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The chain of calamities leading to Cuba’s milk shortage begins at farms like Victor Rojas’s bucolic spread, a 45-minute drive from Perdomo’s home. The 66-year-old farmer knows exactly what cows need to produce plentiful milk: fortified feed. But in state-run stores, there isn’t any.

FROM TOP: Raul Rodriguez, left, pours milk from his farm into a large community vessel, which Yosbel Bello Hernandez will deliver to the local cooperative. Victor Rojas deposits milk from his farm at the cooperative. Alberto Gonzalez has trouble finding fortified feed, which his cows need to produce milk.

“We give them whatever we find — grass, leaves from the banana trees,” Rojas said.

He remembers the glory days, when Castro created massive state-run dairy farms, and a glass of milk was cheap. “Anywhere you went, you could find it,” said the farmer, in a dirty blue shirt and rubber boots. “Because many things came from the Soviet Union.”

They included fertilizer, animal feed and genetic breeding supplies. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did its subsidies. Cuba went from producing a million metric tons of milk in 1990 to 638,000 tons five years later.

Gradually, private farmers took over, but under the thumb of the Communist government. The state rented land to farmers and bought their produce, meat and milk at low, fixed prices — often falling behind in payments. “Since August, we haven’t been paid for our avocados,” Rojas said. And lately, the weather hasn’t cooperated. “There’s no rain,” he said.

He looked up at a nearby hill. A neighbor clip-clopped by on a horse-drawn cart. “There goes Osvaldo,” Rojas said. “He sold his cows. He couldn’t deal with the situation.”

Cuban authorities, anxious to jump-start the economy, have announced a series of changes. For the first time since 1968, thousands of Cubans have been allowed to register small- and medium-size businesses — a big expansion from an earlier “self-employment” program that led to a flowering of private restaurants. Dairy and beef farmers may now sell any output above their official quotas, at market rates. Officials have appealed on TV for Cubans to take advantage of a program to cultivate government-owned farmland for free.

That’s what turned Carlos Chamizo, a sushi-loving Airbnb manager, into a man of the soil.

“My life went from being the perfect guy on Instagram,” he said, pulling his phone from his spotless American Eagle jeans and swiping. He beamed. “100,000 followers.”

FROM TOP: Arlin Gutierres milks a cow on Carlos Chamizo’s farm. Chamizo is enthusiastic about farming despite the challenges: “We privates are having new ideas, new ways of doing things.” Janet Heredia pours milk from Chamizo’s cows into a large vessel for transporting.

Around him, the sun was rising on 54 acres of beautiful but neglected farmland at the edge of the Cuban capital. Chamizo, 33, had studied accounting in Havana before moving to Dubai; the pandemic and a desire for a quieter life brought him back here.

Now he was walking by an old, dilapidated cow shed. “We have to clean this up,” he said, touching the tattered thatched roof. He currently had five milk cows. “With proper food and machines, it will be 20.”

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Yet he lacked even basic infrastructure. Only 7 percent of arable land in Cuba is irrigated. Chamizo’s farmhands sloshed buckets of trucked-in water onto the vegetable crops. He had started purchasing sprinklers during his trips abroad. “I buy them on Amazon,” he explained. “I bring them in my luggage.”

Despite the challenges, he was enthusiastic. “We privates are having new ideas, new ways of doing things,” he said in English. “It will get better.”

But when? Alain Rodríguez León, director of cattle farming at the Agriculture Ministry, acknowledges the new reforms will have little effect in the short term. “With the cycles of production, it will take us three or four years to see the results,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cuba will remain dependent on imports. It buys about half its milk abroad, in powdered form, with distant New Zealand its biggest supplier. Shipments have been slowed by disruptions in the global supply chain, as well as the Communist government’s “lack of currency,” according to Fonterra, the biggest dairy exporter in New Zealand.

On Thursday morning, Perdomo returned to the government bodega. She’s entitled to a kilo of powdered milk, three times a month, for the equivalent of 12 cents per ration.

“The milk still hasn’t arrived?” she asked.

“They just called me,” the employee said. “It’s coming.”

Yohana Perdomo holds her 1-year-old nephew, Omer, as her sister, Yanira Perdomo, left, and sister-in-law, Neyvi Suarez, sit nearby. Laurent looks for food in the fridge.

Back at the house, Perdomo’s younger sister, Yanira, was curled up in a threadbare armchair, scrolling through social media and keeping an eye on her 4-year-old niece. “Milk,” the girl whimpered, as her mother walked through the door, empty-handed, and settled onto the couch. Laurent nestled alongside her and began to cry. “Mommy, the milk!”

Yanira got up and pulled a bottle from the refrigerator. She had brought milk powder from her home next door to make up for her niece’s shortfall. But here’s the rub: Yanira had originally borrowed it from her sister. Even with some delays, the government is still providing milk rations for the sick and for kids through age 6. There’s little for anyone else, though — including Yanira’s 7-year-old son.

Sometimes Yanira’s mother-in-law helps out, buying milk powder on the black market. But a two-pound sack had soared to 1,200 pesos, a week’s salary for a typical Cuban worker. So her older sister chipped in, watering down Laurent’s milk so there was enough to share.

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Before the problems of the past two years — the pandemic, the food shortages, the spiraling inflation exacerbated by a government monetary reform — the sisters could enjoy an occasional dairy treat. Maybe a caramel flan, or ice cream. Those delicacies had disappeared from their homes, appearing only on Facebook, where millions of Cubans had started selling things and engaging in once-unthinkable gripe-fests, and Yanira was now staring at a post.

“Look,” she said.

“Delicious ice cream, various flavors,” she read from her phone. “Fifty U.S. dollars, payment in foreign currency.”

She smirked. “You like ice cream,” she said to her sister.

FROM TOP: People wait to enter a state-run bodega in Havana last month. Others wait to buy bread in Old Havana. Isabel Ibanez, right, gets a subsidized ration of milk from Marta Jorlen, who has been selling milk at state bodegas for 32 years. On the wall are photos of Cuban revolutionaries Camilo Cienfuegos, left, and Che Guevara.

Yanira continued scrolling. The ice cream situation was all over social media. It was one more sign of the glaring inequalities in a supposedly socialist society. Some people had foreign currency and access to tubs of the creamy delight. Others could manage only a few subsidized scoops at Coppelia, the massive ice cream parlor in Havana created by Fidel Castro.

Even there, the strains were showing. Yanira read the complaints: rising prices, diminishing quality. Sometimes it seemed the government didn’t know how to do anything anymore. The Communist “cathedral of ice cream” once boasted a list of 26 flavors, intended to compete with the Colossus of the North — Howard Johnson’s. Now, on any given day, there might be three or four.

Yanira showed her husband the phone. “Look at the photo of the ice cream they have at Coppelia,” she said. “What a lack of respect.”

Despite their privations, the family didn’t join last July’s demonstrations. “Why protest, if it doesn’t resolve your problems?” Yohana said with a shrug. But she couldn’t help wondering what had happened in a nation so rich in coffee, tobacco, sugar: “Where did this all go?”

Government billboards around Havana left no doubt about what was to blame: the decades-old American trade embargo.

“It’s United States, United States, United States,” Yohana said. But couldn’t the government do something?

“It’s easier to say, it’s all the fault of the blockade.”

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Of course, it isn’t all the fault of the blockade. The coronavirus pandemic pummeled Cuba’s already-fragile economy, contributing to an 11 percent plunge in gross domestic product in 2020. The tourism industry, powered by planeloads of sun-seeking Canadians and Europeans, is Cuba’s top source of hard currency. But the island didn’t fully reopen to vacationers until last November, well after other Caribbean destinations.

“We decided that, whatever it cost, you had to preserve the health of the Cuban people,” said María del Carmen Orellana, vice minister of tourism.

Beyond the pandemic, though, a raft of U.S. sanctions does explain some of the economic pain. One of the most affected sectors is travel: while Americans have not been allowed to visit Cuba as tourists for years, there was a surge of educational and “people-to-people” cultural visits thanks to the rapprochement initiated by President Barack Obama. Trump, his successor, sharply curtailed Americans’ trips to the island — banning U.S. cruise ships from docking, stopping flights to cities outside Havana and barring stays in most hotels, saying they were controlled by the government or its allies.

Trump also blacklisted Western Union’s Cuban financial partner Fincimex, which is linked to a military-run company. That led to the shutdown of more than 400 money-transfer offices on the island. This month, the Biden administration lifted some of Trump’s prohibitions on travel and remittances, including a cap on how much money may be sent to relatives in Cuba. The step could eventually help ease some of the shortages. A senior U.S. official told journalists, however, that it’s “going to take time” to find a mechanism that doesn’t involve Fincimex.

And the Biden administration left in place many of Trump’s penalties — including the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that has discouraged banks from financing the nation’s purchases abroad.

Trump administration officials said their measures were intended to isolate the Communist government over its “oppression of the Cuban people.” Obama’s opening, they noted, hadn’t translated into any major improvement in Cuba’s dismal human rights record. The government’s crackdown on the July protests underscored its intolerance of organized dissent, and led Biden to postpone his plans to loosen sanctions. Analysts say both U.S. presidents’ actions have been shaped by a desire to appeal to politically powerful Cuban Americans.

The Trump measures added up to a gut punch for the island. Lacking hard currency, Cuba suffered a 40 percent decline in imports in the past two years, officials say. While there are exemptions to the embargo for food — much of Cuba’s chicken comes from the United States — it’s not permitted to purchase on credit, as is common in global trade.

Juan Triana, an economist at the University of Havana, said that the Cuban government’s economic policies were responsible in part for the long lines of people waiting for food and medicine. Washington’s sanctions, though, contributed. “I’m not one of those who says that Trump’s policies to intensify the blockade are the cause of all of this,” he said. “But without a doubt, these measures have cost us a lot.”

The sanctions have added even more unpredictability to a helter-skelter food distribution system. Yohana Perdomo has become used to its vagaries. On the recent Wednesday, when she first went to the bodega for milk, she was told it was unavailable — but the store finally had the salt she had been entitled to receive a month earlier. Adding to the confusion, the bodega manager told a reporter later that day that he indeed had milk — it just wasn’t Perdomo’s day to buy it.

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Every now and then, some long-vanished food item suddenly reappears in Cuba. It happened that Friday, after Perdomo had, at last, picked up her child’s powdered milk. An employee of another store had knocked on doors in her neighborhood, bearing some remarkable news.

A shipment of liquid milk — flavored with vanilla — had arrived from Spain.

It was, Perdomo learned, some sort of Cuban government program. The gold-and-white carton would cost her 50 pesos, the equivalent of about $2, or half a day’s wages. When she brought it home and set it on her manicure table, her daughter approached reverently, studying the carton, kissing it and then disappearing into the bedroom with it. Perdomo found her in bed, snuggling with it.

“We’d never seen anything like it,” Perdomo later recalled.

The delivery didn’t signify any big change in Cuba’s enduring crisis. Perdomo would continue to struggle with her business, sidelined by the cost of replacing a worn-out manicure brush. She and her sister would continue to obsess over where to find chicken. The coronavirus — which everyone thought was tamed — would infect the women’s grandfather.

But for two glorious days, life was different. A little girl had milk.

Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

About this story

Story editing by Mathew Brown. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli. Photo editing by Kenneth Dickerman. Design and development by Andrew Braford.



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