Millions of Cubans facing starvation: Hunger is fuelling an exodus of desperate refugees, writes Phil Davison from Havana

YOU WON'T see many cats prowling the twisting, unlit streets of old Havana these days. Strays or pets, most have fallen victim to a people living on the edge of starvation.

Under ever-tighter rationing since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the poorest of Cubans began devouring the cat population last year. Even the tiny allowance of meat in their ration books is rarely available after they queue for hours at state warehouses.

'Cats were among the first to go since they're said to taste okay. I had my three robbed from my house in January,' said Sylvia, a 32-year- old unmarried mother who lives in the Playa district and works as an administrator in a state hospital.

'I've heard of people eating dogs, those little ones that have no fur, but I think that's the exception. They say dog meat tastes bad and you still see plenty of stray dogs. Most people have drawn the line there. So far.'

The hunger of Cuba's 11 million people has reached a critical level. Package tourists from Canada, South America or Europe are kept well away from it as they are whisked from airports to hotels in beach resorts such as Varadero. But Cubans without access to US dollars are starving as badly as their Caribbean neighbours in Haiti, the western hemisphere's poorest nation.

Just as the number of Haitians taking to leaky boats or rafts in a desperate attempt to reach the US has spiralled in recent days, more and more Cubans, are risking the treacherous crossing of the Florida straits. To facilitate asylum, they, like the Haitians, will say they are fleeing political persecution. But most are fleeing hunger.

The US Coast Guard has rescued around 3,500 Cubans from makeshift craft this year, almost as many as those picked up during all of last year. Many are washing up on small islands in the Bahamas, where the Coast Guard cannot pick them up without permission from the Bahamian government, a bureaucratic process lasting weeks.

Brothers to the Rescue, a group of Cuban-American pilots, has been dropping food, water and medicine to a boatload of 137 Cubans, including 30 children, anchored off the island of Bimini for several days. But debris suggests many balseros (raft people) are lost at sea daily.

Fidel Castro blames the three-decades US embargo, coupled with the collapse of his Soviet trading partners, for the lack of food. But Cubans believe Castro is effectively blockading his own people by catering to tourists and a lucky few Cubans with access to dollars.

Such basics as meat, fruit, soap, toothpaste and medicine are not available in the rationing warehouses. Since Cubans were allowed last year to hold dollars and to enter state-run 'dollar shops,' they can buy some such goods but at vastly-inflated prices.

Desperation for dollars - simply to buy food - has led to a spate of street robberies and burglaries. They are never reported in the state- controlled press but news of them travel like wildfire. 'A friend of mine had her gold chain ripped from her neck near here recently,' said Sylvia. 'Cars get robbed but bicycles are the most stolen items now.'

Tourists here have long felt secure. Crime was negligible due to close neighbourhood vigilance. 'But that could change,' said Sylvia, whose four-year-old daughter Hilda has suffered several ailments related to vitamin deficiency.

'We would both have starved to death by now had it not been for the dollars we get sent (from relatives in Miami). You already see people staring at tourists with a look that says: 'how come they can have such nice clothes? How come they are given meat in state hotels?' People are dying of hunger but the government won't admit it.'

Referring to her hospital, she said: 'What happens is that they die of pneumonia, or dysentery. But everyone knows it was basically a lack of food. More and more people are coming in sick. But many medicines, even asprin, are unavailable unless you have dollars.'

Sylvia earns 150 pesos a month, an average salary here. Since it takes at least 100 pesos to buy a dollar on the black market, that makes her salary 1.50 dollars, or pounds 1, a month. She showed me her ration book which illustrated the gravity of the situation.

Sylvia and Hilda get one bread roll each per day. Milk or chicken are not available to adults. Hilda is allowed a litre of milk every two days and a quarter piece of chicken a month. (In fact, chicken has not appeared for more than two months).

They are allowed half a dozen eggs each a month. The only meat is part of a soya and mincemeat mixture but each is allowed only half a pound a month. Their other monthly rations are: rice - five pounds per person; black beans (a Cuban staple) - one pound per person; sugar - five pounds; salt - one ounce; rum - half a bottle. No soap or toothpaste has been available this year, and asprin is rationed to 10 tablets every three months.

Sylvia showed me a container of detergent from a state dollar shop. It was called Final Touch, made by Lever Brothers Company, New York, and stated in large letters on its original label a suggested retail price of dollars 2.39. A tiny sticker added by the dollar shop said dollars 7.20. How such American goods defy the blockade is anybody's guess. Dollars sent by Sylvia's family had bought it. Otherwise, it would have cost her five months' salary.

'People see these prices and say 'the state must be getting awfully rich,' ' she said. 'Then they wonder 'how come we're still so hungry?'

(Photograph omitted)

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