September 21, 2008
HAVANA - Cuban agriculture officials said Thursday they expect a six-month food crisis after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav ravaged 30 percent of the island's crops, and they are moving to increase domestic production and control prices to ensure that no one goes hungry.
Cuba, which spends up to $2 billion annually on food imports, was already was struggling to increase its historically paltry domestic production when the twin storms destroyed large amounts of staples such as rice and beans, plantains and Cuban sweet potatoes. "We need to see what food is available and where it needs to go," Agriculture Vice Minister Alcides Lopez told international journalists. "We have six hard months to go," he said. But he added that "no Cuban will die of hunger." Thousands of acres of crops were destroyed this month when the twin storms struck the island with heavy rains and high winds.
Crops a priorityAgriculture officials said the egg and dairy industries were also hit hard, with a production loss of 70 million eggs and 790,000 gallons of milk in recent weeks. Lopez said authorities are rushing to recover as much of the damaged crops as possible, and to repair salvageable farm equipment. Priority is being placed on short-term crops such as salad greens and on restoring electrical power to food processing plants, Lopez said. The vice minister said he could not rule out the possibility of price limits at the country's supply-and-demand farmers' markets, where small producers have long sold their products at market prices.
He praised a new program to grant additional unused state lands to small farmers in an effort to boost domestic food production. More than 5,000 people across the island applied to the program when it was launched last week. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque declared that U.S. trade sanctions are the biggest obstacle for Cuba's recovery after hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Talking to reporters about Cuba's annual resolution to condemn the American embargo at the coming U.N. General Assembly, Perez Roque said the recovery will be helped if sanctions are eased - even for just six months. The trade embargo prevents Cuba from buying most construction and other supplies directly from the United States, and prevents the island from purchasing any U.S. goods on credit.
"The economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed during 50 years by the United States is the main obstacle to Cuba's development," Perez Roque said, complaining of an "irrational persecution against North American companies, banks and citizens and those of third countries" who do business with Cuba.
$5 billion in damageIke and Gustav caused $5 billion in damage to Cuba this month. The Communist government blames American sanctions for more than $93 billion in damage over five decades. Every year for the past 16 years, the General Assembly has approved Cuba's resolution calling for the embargo to be lifted. The next vote is Oct. 29.
Since 1960, U.S. sanctions have sought to force a change in the Communist government. The full embargo took effect on Feb. 7, 1962, under the administration of President John F. Kennedy, and it has been tightened since, although a U.S. law passed in 2000 allows American farm producers to sell directly to Cuba for cash.