Cutting back in Cuba

by Teresa Acklin
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Bread rations shrink, wheat and flour imports decline amid economic woes.

   The current economic crisis in Cuba, the worst since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, has resulted in a lower bread ration and a one-third reduction in wheat and wheat flour imports since 1990.

   Recent visitors to Cuba have suggested that the overall food supply and caloric intake in the island nation have fallen by one-third since 1990. “Some families now have only one meal a day,” one observer said. The daily bread ration in Cuba has dropped from around 225 grams per person in the 1980s to about 50 grams, the equivalent of one hamburger bun, according to one Cuban trade official.

   Cuba's 1993-94 total wheat and wheat flour imports are projected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 800,000 tonnes, down 50,000 from 1992-93. Just two years ago, in 1991-92, Cuba imported about 1.1 million tonnes; during the most-recent 10-year period, imports averaged nearly 1.4 million tonnes annually.

   The largest reductions are being made in wheat imported for cattle feed, according to Emerio Izquierdo, vice-president of Alimport, the Cuban trading agency responsible for importation of food products (see interview on page 20). Wheat flour imports also have declined by about one-third.

   According to the International Wheat Council, Cuban flour imports totaled 204,000 tonnes, wheat equivalent, in both 1990-91 and 1991-92, the lowest annual totals in decades. In contrast, Cuba imported 307,000 tonnes of wheat flour in 1989-90, and annual flour imports from 1982-83 to 1991-92 averaged 269,000 tonnes.

   Cuban imports of coarse grains for animal feeds have plunged even more precipitously over the past couple of years. Coarse grain imports totaled 817,000 tonnes in 1989-90, 356,000 tonnes in 1990-91 and only 62,000 tonnes in 1991-92, according to the I.W.C.

   Wheat flour production in Cuba also seems to be struggling, according to the most recent available data. Flour production in 1989 totaled 398,000 tonnes, according to the I.W.C., down from 442,000 tonnes in 1988 and the lowest aggregate since 1982. Cuba has not yet supplied the I.W.C. with milling data for 1990 and 1991.

   The European Union currently supplies almost all of Cuba's wheat flour imports, selling 180,000 tonnes of flour in 1991-92. Canada, which formerly had been Cuba's primary supplier of both flour and wheat, has been virtually eliminated from the Cuban flour market, supplying less than 1,000 tonnes in each of the past two years. Argentina supplies limited quantities of flour and wheat under a credit agreement with Cuba, selling 23,000 tonnes in 1991-92.

   Alimport negotiates directly with E.U. suppliers for its flour requirements. Cuba has a revolving line of credit with the E.U. to facilitate imports, and it benefits greatly from the subsidized prices European exporters are able to offer because of E.U. export restitutions.

   Until 1991, Exportkhleb, the former Soviet Union grain import-export agency, acted as a flour purchasing agent on behalf of Cuba. When Canada was a major supplier of flour to Cuba, flour sales were made through negotiations between Exportkhleb and the Canadian National Millers Association.

   “We negotiated as an association with Exportkhleb. Our meetings with Exportkhleb began in 1966,” said Herbert Heimbecker of Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd., Toronto, and former chairman of the C.N.M.A. Parrish and Heimbecker owns Ellison Milling Co., Lethbridge, Alberta, and New Life Mills, Hanover, Ontario, both in Canada.

   Mr. Heimbecker said Canada had been Cuba's major supplier of flour until the mid-1980s, when Exportkhleb increasingly turned to the E.U. to take advantage of subsidized prices.

   “The E.U. was offering flour at about half our price because of the subsidies,” Mr. Heimbecker said.

   Howard L. Rowley, vice-president and general manager of Dover Flour Mills, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, also participated in negotiations with Exportkhleb.

   “The Soviets had a commitment to supply a certain amount of flour to Cuba,” Mr. Rowley said. “They made the purchases from us, and Cuban vessels picked up the flour at Canadian ports.”

   Because of worsening budgetary constraints in the 1980s, Exportkhleb sought cheaper flour, which it was able to find in the E.U. As a result, Canadian flour exports have been reduced to a trickle.

   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alimport, the sole authorized importer of wheat, assumed complete responsibility for flour imports as well.

   The E.U. and Canada are the major suppliers of bulk wheat to Cuba. In 1991-92, Canada exported 219,000 tonnes of wheat to Cuba, and the E.U. supplied 638,000 tonnes, according to the I.W.C.

   Alimport purchases wheat from the Canadian Wheat Board either directly or from exporting companies accredited by the board. Most business is transacted at commercial rates, according to Brian Stacey, a spokesman for the C.W.B.

   Exportkhleb was never involved in purchasing wheat on behalf of Alimport, Mr. Stacey said.

   Accounts differ as to the current status of the country's flour milling sector. Some observers indicated that the country's four flour mills were in dire need of updating and repair. But Mr. Izquierdo said that the mills were being refurbished and that “the most recent still hasn't even been put into operation.”

   With bread as the most important staple food, especially in the urban areas, wheat imports for flour production will continue to be given priority, Mr. Izquierdo said, and much hinges on the continued operation of the country's flour milling apparatus.

   According to information supplied by Ocrim, S.p.A., Cremona, Italy, a manufacturer of flour milling equipment, Cuba has four operating flour mills. They produce about two-thirds of the country's annual wheat flour requirements and are managed by the Ministry of Food Industries (Ministerio de la Industria Alimenticias).

   Cuba's first modern flour mill was built by Burrus Milling, Inc., Dallas, Texas, U.S., in 1952. And before the 1959 revolution, Buhler Ltd., Uzwil, Switzerland, built a 100-tonne-per-day mill at Santiago de Cuba for private Cuban investors.

   In the center of the country, at Cienfuegos, the Castro government in 1978 opened a 200- to 300-tonne-per-day mill, according to Ocrim. It was constructed by Muhlenbau, a milling machinery manufacturing company from the former West Germany.

   Ocrim established a milling complex in Havana in 1976-77 comprising three mills: a 350-tonne-per-day soft wheat mill, a 200-tonne-per-day hard wheat mill and a 150-tonne-per-day durum wheat mill.

   Most flour is used by large, state-owned baking plants. French-style loaves and large kaiser rolls are the most common types of bread, but crackers and sweet goods also are manufactured.

   Bread is part of the country's ration system under which every citizen is guaranteed specified minimum amounts of food staples. In the mid-1980s, the allocation of bread per person was about 7 kilograms per month, according to Medea Benjamin in her 1984 book titled “No Free Lunch: Food & Revolution in Cuba Today.” A Cuban trade official described the current daily bread ration as about the equivalent of a large roll.

   Bread and other wheat foods can be purchased above the ration allocations. But during the past couple of years, non-rationed wheat foods have become increasingly scarce.

Republic of Cuba

   Capital: Havana

   Government: Communist state; chief executive, President Fidel Castro

   Population: 10.8 million; 70% urban, 30% rural

   Language: Spanish

   Work force: 3.6 million

   Per capita income: $1,500 per year

   Agricultural products: Sugar, citrus and tropical fruits, tobacco, coffee, rice, beans, meat, vegetables

   Industries: Sugar processing, other food processing, oil refining, cement, electric power, light consumer and industrial products

   Exports: $3.6 billion (1991); sugar and byproducts, petroleum, nickel, seafood, citrus, tobacco products, rum

   Imports: $3.7 billion (1991); capital goods, industrial raw materials, food, petroleum, consumer goods

   Source: U.S. State Department

Official describes wheat, flour situation in Cuba

   HAVANA — Although Cuban mills in recent years have been able to produce more than 400,000 tonnes of flour a year, the island nation also has imported up to 307,000 tonnes of flour, wheat equivalent, a year.

   Wheat and wheat flour are priority food imports in Cuba, and wheat is imported and milled for bread-making. Until recently, large quantities of wheat also had been imported for use in cattle feed.

   The agency responsible for importing food commodities is Alimport, headquartered in Havana. Alimport's European purchasing agency is Etco Foods Ltd., London.

   World Grain recently interviewed Emerio Izquierdo, vice-president, Alimport.

   WG: How is wheat used in Cuba?

   Mr. Izquierdo: We import wheat for the milling complexes to make flour for human consumption. We also import wheat for use in compound animal feeds. About 60% of our wheat import volume goes to animal consumption and 40% to direct human consumption.

   WG: Formerly, the Canadian National Millers Association negotiated wheat flour sales to Cuba with representatives from Exportkhleb (the former Soviet Union grain importing-exporting agency). How are flour and wheat purchases negotiated now?

   Mr. Izquierdo: They are done directly between Alimport and international exporters. We buy wheat from the Canadian Wheat Board at international prices, in accord with the possibilities for delivery, quality and price. It has to be competitive.

   Alimport buys wheat and flour directly from suppliers throughout the world, except from the United States, which won't sell to us.

   WG: The European Union subsidizes its wheat and wheat flour exports to Cuba. What concerns does Cuba have that its access to E.U. subsidized wheat and flour could be affected by the recently concluded agreement under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade?

   Mr. Izquierdo: We are watching for the consequences of GATT. As importers and consumers, we purchase quite a lot from the E.U., and we are concerned about obtaining products at the regular prices.

   WG: Under what financial terms does Cuba import wheat and wheat flour from the E.U.?

   Mr. Izquierdo: Under all kinds of terms, from payment on delivery to finance agreements. There is no single way. Practically any terms go.

   The most common is a mixture of them all: commercial financing, bank financing, assured financing. One contract could include all of those terms in separate shipments.

   WG: What are Alimport's goals for wheat and flour imports?

   Mr. Izquierdo: Mainly to maintain product supplies. The fundamental thing is to work the most appropriate angles on the market and suppliers, to get quality and flow.

   WG: Cuba's wheat and flour imports have been decreasing. Are these imports still accorded a priority?

   Mr. Izquierdo: They have always been a priority. The reduction is related to the lack of resources. In previous years, imports were higher for livestock.

   With changes to other kinds of feed, made with such materials as sugar cane byproducts and potatoes, wheat is less important. Consumption of bread has always been of vital importance to us. Both bread and grain are important.

   WG: How many flour mills operate in Cuba?

   Mr. Izquierdo: There are basically three large complexes. One in Havana; one in the center of the country, at Cienfuegos; and one in the east, at Santiago.

   Some units are more than 30 years old. And there are recent units in the three complexes. We are reconstructing mills in all the zones. The most recent still hasn't even been put into operation.