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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cuban Families Face Economic Crisis

Cuban Families Face Economic Crisis

HAVANA (AP) - Behind the walls of a dilapidated mansion, a family illegally raises

a pig in the bathtub for a new year's day feast. To prevent betrayal, its vocal cords

have been cut.

"It's big, but skinny," said a neighbor, Lucia, grinning as she passed

the house in what used to be one of Havana's elegant neighborhoods. "They don't

think it will last until December."

As the nation's economic crisis deepens and the shelves of government stores become

barer, Cubans grows more adept at devising ways to feed themselves.

Lucia, a 54-year-lod schoolteacher, makes her own wine in a big glass jar with fruit

juice, water and yeast.

"It's not very good, but it's better than nothing," she said. Like others,

Lucia asked that her last name not be used for fear of government retribution.

A common meat substitute is grapefruit steak, a citrus slice seasoned with salt and

pepper and fried.

That is among the preparations Nitza Villapol demonstrates on her television cooking

show, "Cocina Al Minuto" (cooking in a minute). When potatoes were plentiful,

all her main dishes used them.

Nearly everyone breaks the law by purchasing stolen or illegally imported food on

the thriving black market.

"See those bananas?" Lucia said, pointing to a large, green bunch in her

kitchen. "I got those on the black market, and those potatoes and oranges, too."

Putting food on the table has never been easy in communist Cuba, where rationing

and long lines became a way of life.

But Cuban say it has never been as hard as now, under wartime-like measures known

as "The special period on time of peace." about the only food they can

depend on is the ice cream at the popular copperas parlors, Cuba's culinary pride.

After communism collapsed in the Soviet bloc, Cuba lost up to 85 percent of its former

trade, including most imports of processed food and petroleum. Trade is limited further

by a 30-year-old U.S. embargo, recently tightened to put political pressure on President

Fidel Castro.

Bread, once plentiful, is now rationed - one roll a day per person.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are so scarce that anyone who finds a few bananas or

papayas is the object of envy. canned meat from Russia and fresh chickens and canned

vegetables from Bulgaria, once common, have disappeared.

Lighting is dim inside one government food store, built by an American grocery chain

before Castro's revolution in 1959.

"They are saving on petroleum" explained Maria, a woman in her 60s who

guided a reporter through several markets.

Instead of aisles, there are six islands where families buy rationed goods: rice,

sugar, beans, plastic bags of coffee, eggs, evaporated milk, canned tomatoes, jars

of baby food, tubes of toothpaste, bars of gray-green soap.

For each item, the shopper pays a relatively small amount: about U.S. $1.50 for five

pounds (2.3 kilograms) of rice and 65 cents for toothpaste. The woman behind the

counter marks off each item in the shopper's ration book, or "libreta."

Before the crisis, Cubans could usually get the items listed in their ration books,

plus numerous others that were not rationed, Maria said. Now, many rationed items

are seldom or never available.

"It is a daily fight to feed your family," she said.

This day, there is no fresh milk or cheese, no fresh meat except for the hated "picadillo"

of 30 percent ground beef and 70 percent soybean meal. There is fresh fish, though,

and about a dozen people line up for it.

In one corner, 20 people with empty glass bottles wait for cooking oil.

Outside, other with cardboard boxes are buying government-distributed chicks to be

raised for food or eggs.

Although keeping livestock in cities is prohibited, the government encourages chicken

raising.

Well-stocked "diplotiendas," the dollar stores for foreigners and high

communist party officials, are a sharp contrast to government markets. The largest

one rivals any American supermarket, with items ranging from electronics equipment

and clothing to fresh, canned and packaged food.

Many Cubans yearn for the return of farmers' markets, which thrived until the government

closed them in 1986 amid complaints that middlemen were making huge profits. Delegates

to the fourth communist party congress last year rejected a proposal to reopen them.

In his opening address to the congress, President Castro complained that 90,000 tons

of rice and 60,000 of split peas ordered from the Soviet Union had not arrived, nor

had the edible fats, canned meats, or condensed and powdered milk.

"We had solid bulwarks on which to depend and on which we have depended for

the past 30 years," he said. "Now, those solid bulwarks no longer exist.

We are our own bulwark."

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