Cuba cuts bulk prices to support private workers


HAVANA (AP) — Cuba is lowering bulk prices for goods ranging from marmalade and mayonnaise to tools and CDs to support newly independent workers and small businesses that lack a wholesale market, official news media said Monday.

The measure addresses a central complaint by many operators of private restaurants, cafeterias and other operations authorized under a wide-ranging economic overhaul launched last year by President Raul Castro.

Under an order from the Ministry of Finance and Pricing, a 1.3-gallon (5-liter) container of cooking oil that used to sell for $11.50 can be had for $9.80, labor newspaper Trabajadores reported. A 7-pound (3-kilogram) container of tomato pure formerly worth $8.70 now goes for $7.00.

“The measure also includes tools and pneumatic and electrical equipment, all with the goal of enhancing sales to independent workers,” the article said.

Other products like tobacco, alcoholic beverages and bottled water are not covered by the order. Trabajadores did not say when it took effect.

Although the initiative targets private businesses, the same prices will apply for anyone making bulk purchases.

Cuba began allowing increased private enterprise at the end of 2010, issuing licenses for people to launch small businesses and hire employees independently of the state.

The government, which currently employs 80 percent of the labor force, plans massive layoffs although those plans have been put on hold.

Many entrepreneurs have complained about a lack of access to a wholesale market or to credit, as well as high tax rates. Cuba has said it plans to extend loans, but details have not been released.

The government fixes prices, and while some products are heavily subsidized and discounted, many other imported goods go for more than double their value elsewhere.

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Cuba banker says state has lent ‘millions’ to more than 13,000 farmers under ag initiative


HAVANA, AP — Cuba says it has extended more than 13,000 farm credits under an agricultural overhaul launched by President Raul Castro.

Ileana Estevez is president of the Banco de Credito y Comercio. She says state banks have lent “millions” at interest rates ranging from 3 percent in the first years to a high of 7 percent.

Cuba began restructuring the agricultural sector in 2008, letting private farmers cultivate fallow state land. The initiative aims to reduce dependence on costly food imports and is part of a wider economic overhaul.

Farmers can work plots as big as 100 acres (40 hectares) in renewable agreements of 10 years for individuals and up to 25 years for cooperatives.

State newspaper Juventud Rebelde published Estevez’s comments Sunday.

 

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Chinese Vicepresident in Cuba to meet on economic ties


HAVANA (Reuters) – Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived in Cuba on Saturday for a three-day visit expected to accelerate fast-growing economic relations between the two communist-run countries.

One of Cuba’s six vice presidents, Esteban Lazo, was at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport to greet Xi, who is tipped to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2013.

Xi came to Cuba from Italy, where $3.2 billion in business deals were unveiled during his visit, and he was to go on to Uruguay and Chile.

China is in the midst of a massive expansion of economic activity in Latin America, where its trade last year totaled $180 billion, up 50 percent from 2009, official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.

In a written statement to the press, Xi said he was in Cuba to “increase friendship (and) deepen cooperation” in pursuit of development.

Xi and President Raul Castro were scheduled to hold talks and preside over the signing of so far undisclosed accords on Sunday.

A Chinese official told Xinhua this week the two countries would begin negotiations on a five-year plan for bilateral economic cooperation.

China is Cuba’s second largest trading partner, trailing only Venezuela, with trade between the two increasing to $1.83 billion last year from $440 million in 2001, according to Xinhua. The 2010 figure fell from $2.2 billion in 2008.

China has become the lender of last resort for debt-ridden Cuba, which is carrying out reforms to modernize and strengthen its Soviet-style economy.

Last year, China restructured debt believed to be as high as $4 billion and agreed to extend new credit in what Havana-based diplomats said was a show of support for Cuba’s reforms.

In his statement, Xi praised a recent Cuban Communist Party congress affirming the economic changes, which are timid compared with the market economy China has embraced.

Castro, who succeeded ailing older brother Fidel Castro in 2008 and turned 80 on Friday, is slashing government payrolls, expanding the private sector, putting more agriculture in private hands and giving state companies greater autonomy.

He has said the goal is to make sure Cuban socialism survives once the current generation of aging leaders is gone.

China’s involvement in Cuba’s economy is increasingly evident, with Chinese-made goods filling the stores and Chinese buses and cars a common sight on Cuban roads.

A unit of China National Petroleum Corp is expected to begin work later this year on a $6 billion project to expand and upgrade an oil refinery in Cienfuegos on Cuba’s southern coast, with plans including construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal.

China buys nickel, sugar and other products from Cuba and jointly produces pharmaceuticals in China.

After Sunday’s meeting with Castro, Xi will visit a Havana medical clinic on Monday, then leave for Uruguay from the beach resort of Varadero on Tuesday.

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Tax system to get complete overhaul


The Cuban government will completely overhaul the country’s tax system, Vladimir Requeiro, deputy chief of the Oficina Nacional de Administración Tributaria (ONAT), announced on state TV.

The overhaul of the tax law of 1994 is occurring as the number of self-employed Cubans is skyrocketing. As of early May, more than 300,000 Cubans were licensed to operate small businesses, up from 130,000 in October last year, when the government began issuing self-employment licenses. Officials announced in May that all private businesses will be allowed to hire; however, a 313-point document outlining economic changes outlines progressive employment taxes that increase with the number of employees of a company.

According to the “Guidelines” document, the new businesses must pay 25 to 50 percent taxes on profits, 10 percent sales or service tax, 25 percent employment tax, and 25 percent social security contribution.

Requeiro said that tax rates will be according to income bracket, and that agricultural producers benefit from a special tax system to stimulate food production.

Most Cubans have never had to pay taxes. Even so, Cuban economists expect the government to collect hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues this year from private businesses.

Soruce: Cubastandard.com

Cuban Sugar Ministry says 2011 production to be similar or just higher than last year


CALIMETE, Cuba (AP) – Cuban officials say 2011 sugar production will be similar to or slightly higher than last year’s total — described at the time as the island’s worst in more than a century.

Sugar Ministry expert Osiris Quintero says the harvest is nearly complete and production is expected to be slightly above forecasts. He says it will about the same as the 1.1 million tons produced in 2010.

Cuba’s former sugar minister was ousted last May after the government reported its worst sugar harvest since 1905.

Sugar once dominated Cuba’s economy but has now fallen behind tourism and nickel mining.

Still, President Raul Castro and other officials are pushing for improved productivity. They say that is the key to boosting Cuba’s sluggish economy.

www.particularcuba.com

Cuba OKs credits for entrepreneurs, farmers


HAVANA – Cuba has authorized government banks to offer credit to farmers and small business owners, a key step in a series of sweeping economic changes ushered in over the last six months, state-run media announced Wednesday.

The government has granted tens of thousands of business licenses to new entrepreneurs, and has also loosened restrictions in order to allow farmers to sell their products directly to consumers from roadside kiosks. One of the main challenges facing the new businesses is a lack of financing, making bank credits an important ingredient for success.

The program authorizes credits for purchasing farming equipment in authorized stores — rather than on the black market. It also allows for “loans to persons authorized to operate private businesses to finance working capital and investment,” according to an article in the Communist Party daily Granma.

The article said the measure was approved Friday at a meeting of the Council of Ministers, presided over by President Raul Castro. It gave no details on how credits can be obtained, or what interest rate or other rules the payouts will be subject to, or what the total amount of such loans will be.

Some economists have expressed doubts that cash-strapped Cuban banks will be able to handle the loans and have urged the state to reach out to foreign investors for capital.

While the article made no mention of such a move, many entrepreneurs are receiving foreign capital infusions of a kind: seed money sent in the form of remittances from relatives overseas, most of them in the United States and Spain.

A recent decision by the Obama Administration that allows any American to send up to $2,000 a year to Cuba could make such loans even easier.

Castro has said the economic overhaul is intended to update Cuba’s socialist economic model and is not a wholesale switch to capitalism.

The newly approved credit measure “supports the updating of the Cuban economic model,” Granma said Wednesday.

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Vegetarians push soy, but Cubans prefer pork


The Washington Post:

HAVANA — Juicy hamburgers and sandwiches stuffed thick with sausage aren’t your typical vegetarian fare – but that’s what is on the menu at El Carmelo, a state-run restaurant originally founded to promote healthy, meat-free eating.

“Meat-free” is not a phrase that goes over well in Cuba, an island where long-standing privations have forged a strong, emotional bond with food – especially cuisine that once oinked, mooed or clucked.

Facing the harsh reality of its tough customers, El Carmelo eventually replaced such vegetarian items as soy picadillo with greasy pork chops.

That has been the fate of the island’s half-dozen or so other vegetarian restaurants as well. Opened in the 2000s under the Communist government’s go-vegetarian initiative, they have all either closed down completely or replaced soy and vegetables with meat.

It’s Cuba’s dilemma: How can the government promote healthy eating when the country is full of die-hard carnivores, and when vegetarian meals remind people of an acute food shortage in the early 1990s that made meat an almost unattainable luxury?

Elsewhere in the world, vegetarianism is gaining proponents who cite evidence that eating less meat is good for your heart and reduces the risk of certain types of cancer.

But in Cuba, the island’s handful of vegetarians face an uphill battle. Meat is such a central pillar of the Cuban diet, or at least the idea of the Cuban diet, that the rare decision to embrace vegetarianism is widely seen as bordering on insanity.

“When I tell people I’m a vegetarian, everyone says ‘Girl, you’re crazy. You can’t survive just on grass,'” said Yusmini Rodriguez, a 34-year-old translator who stopped eating meat 13 years ago out of ethical concerns.

“It’s been a constant battle,” she said, detailing obstacles that ran the gamut from her family’s incomprehension and dead-set opposition, to the scarcity and sometimes prohibitively high prices of fresh produce, to the near-total absence of meatless options from restaurant and cafeteria menus.

“My family still doesn’t get it, but after all these years, at least they finally respect my decision, so eating vegetarian at home is doable now, even if it’s a headache,” said Rodriguez, a slip of a woman whose tiny frame belies her iron will. “But the moment I step outside, it’s practically impossible. Here, if it doesn’t have meat in it, it’s not considered food.”

Rodriguez and some of the other dozen members of the island’s vegetarian community say the Cubans’ love affair with meat is linked to the country’s “Special Period”: an era of extreme hardship and acute food shortages in the early 1990s that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main benefactor at the time.

The country’s rations system ensured no one starved to death by providing every citizen with a small monthly supply of basic goods. But Cubans experienced true hunger during those dark years, missing many meals, making do with very small and unappetizing ones, and going months without meat. The average food intake dropped from 2,865 calories per day before the Special Period to 1,863 in 1993, according to French journalist Olivier Languepin’s book “Cuba, the Failure of a Utopia.”

“It was a time of forced vegetarianism that left a really bad taste in people’s mouths,” said Nora Garcia Perez, a militant vegetarian who heads a Havana-based animal protection group. “The ‘Special Period’ really hurt the cause of vegetarianism in this country. … Meat became an obsession for people who lived through that time.”

The country’s food supplies have since recovered, and most people are now able to eat some kind of meat several times a month. Many eat it daily, sprinkling bits of pork, chicken or fat onto workaday dishes like rice and beans or eating ham and cheese sandwiches at lunch stands.

Ironically for a fertile, tropical country, it’s fresh produce that remains hardest to get. Even during the height of the winter growing season, the selection at state-run vegetable markets is largely limited to lettuce and cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers and a variety of tubers.

Restaurateur Tito Nunez has made it his mission to put produce back into the Cuban diet.

Nunez converted to vegetarianism in the early 1990s because it eased his chronic intestinal problems. In 2003, he founded El Romero, billed as an eco-restaurant and one of the island’s two surviving vegetarian eateries.

Located in the Las Terrazas natural reserve of rolling, palm-covered hills about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Havana, El Romero goes beyond garden-variety vegetables, spinning forgotten and little-known plants into delectable dishes.

On its extensive menu: ceviche made from the stems of lily pads that grow wild on a nearby pond, yucca and sweet potato “meatballs,” pumpkin flower-paste crepes, sauteed prickly pear cactus with aromatic herbs, and for dessert, mousse made from chocolate, lemon and pumpkin, wrapped in a palm leaf.

“Cubans tend to think, ‘If it’s not rice and beans or pork, I’m not eating it,’ so when people see all these plants they’ve never even heard of on the menu, they tend to be really reluctant at first,” said Nunez, a 58-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and an easy smile. “Then they try the food and see that it’s not just ‘grass’ we’re serving, and that in addition to being healthy and animal-friendly, it’s also really delicious.”

Nunez has worked to make El Romero accessible to locals by offering neighborhood youths apprenticeships with the cooks and at the restaurant’s organic farm, where most of the ingredients are sourced. And to make the restaurant affordable for islanders, who earn an average of $20 a month, El Romero charges its Cuban clients just a fraction of the menu’s list price.

Still, despite its success, 90 percent of El Romero’s clients remain foreigners, mostly tourists from Britain, Germany and Holland.

“When you’re dealing with something as ingrained as eating habits, it’s just about the hardest thing to change,” Nunez said.

“I know that I’m not going to turn people into vegetarians by just talking about it. The only way to convince people is by sitting them down at the table and showing them there’s so much out there besides pork.”

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