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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links