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The Cuban diet...continued

On the October 14th Dispatches program, Patrick Symmes told us about his hardships trying to live for 30 days on the rations Cubans receive, and scenes he saw of Cubans trying to survive.

Some of our listeners saw it differently when they were in Cuba.

Rose Ann Reid of Chelsea, Quebec shares her experience from 2006:

We were a group of four Canadians on a 2-3 week trip, travelling completely on our own in the Eastern part of the country. We had quite a bit of daily contact with locals. We biked about 600 plus kilometres, totally unhindered, mostly staying in government-licensed casas particulares, something like our B&Bs.

However, a couple of nights things just didn't work out. In both cases we were rescued by locals who guided us to someone's home who was willing to offer us unlicensed, and therefore illegal shelter. We found ourselves in very poor homes, with the children being sent off to neighbours for the night so that we could have their beds.

 We were warmly welcomed and introduced to family and neighbours who popped over to witness the excitement. Despite initial trepidation, we enjoyed the experience as much as our hosts presumably enjoyed the unexpected income. I tried, unsuccessfully, to include a couple of photos of our very healthy-looking new-found friends so that you could judge for yourself whether or not these people look malnourished.

We often remarked on what good physical shape even poor Cubans appeared to be in: they certainly didn't over-eat and nearly everyone had to walk, bus, or bicycle to their destinations. We didn't see evidence of a mal-nourished population, and most certainly didn't witness the obesity that is becoming more and more common in North America. I have seen greater deprivation in other countries in the Caribbean region and worse nutrition in North America.

It also occurs to me, in the areas we visited, that there was absolutely no way our presence or that of several hundred pounds of concrete being unloaded from a truck could have been hidden from neighbours. People usually live in small quarters, close to one another, and know what is going on next door. Mr. Symmes must have been in a more remote area.

I have no doubt that Cubans suffer economically and can only guess how much is due to government policies and how much to the embargo. However, there is something very special about these people which I hope is not lost when the change arrives.

Michael Hunter of Edmonton looked at Cuba's agriculture close up, and also saw a different picture than the one Patrick Symmes described. 

I know from personal experience that I could tell similarly shocking stories of deprivation and hunger in the lives of some Canadians, but I would never presume to present that limited experience as representative of the lifestyle of all Canadians.

We spent two weeks in Cuba last spring touring co-operative farms, state farms, agricultural research stations, city market gardens, and family farms with a group of Canadian farmers and academics, lead by Canadian expert on Cuban agriculture Ron Berezan, (www.theurbanfarmer.ca/), and hosted by a number of Cuban experts on sustainable agriculture. Your guest gave you such a biased portrayal of life in Cuba - I don't even know where to begin....

It was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was Cuba's major trading partner, combined with the American embargo that resulted in the collapse of the Cuban economy in the early nineties...

The sustainable agriculture movement in Cuba has grown rapidly ever since, and is providing more and more Cubans with a real, sustainable livelihood.

The ration system your guest spoke of provides a guaranteed minimum ration - it does not represent the amount of food the average Cuban has access to today. It is the amount of food one is guaranteed to receive if unable to work, or to grow one's own food. The ration system is skewed to benefit children, the elderly and the infirm, who receive additional rations of milk and fresh produce. Only in recent years has beef become available, and yes, the average Cuban cannot afford it, and only receives it in their rations a few times a year. Pork and chicken, however, are widely available.

 A Cuban with any kind of income is able to buy additional food at state-controlled prices, or fresh fruit and vegetables from an organiponico.(co-cooperatively run urban market gardens) Many workplaces have their own kitchen gardens that supply their cafeterias with fresh produce. We saw many examples of home gardens, and stretches of unused land between apartment buildings where residents, with the support of government agencies, transformed empty space into home gardens, which in many cases provide additional legal family income...

Most of the state-run farms have been broken up and made available groups interested in forming co-operative farms. Land is granted to a family or group "in usufruct," meaning it is still technically owned by the state, and a proportion of their yield is sold to the state at controlled prices. However, the land is theirs to use as long as they choose to continue farming, and any surplus yield is distributed among the workers and sold at the farm gate for profit, which is then paid to the workers as a dividend, or reinvested in the farm.

As a result, many of the farm workers we met earn more than other professionals such as doctors in the city. Your guest is incorrect: not only is it not "illegal now to grow a carrot in your backyard", the Cuban government has undertaken a massive agricultural education campaign for years to encourage its citizens to grow their own food.

There is no doubt that Cuba is still a poor country. There is also a great divide between the experience of poor, unemployed urban Cubans and that of those able to work at one of the beautiful farms we visited. I know Mr. Symmes is not telling lies when he speaks of the black market system that many Cubans rely on to improve their situation, but to present this scenario as the norm for the average Cuban is at best irresponsible journalism.

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