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Cuba's Tourism Boom Is Causing Food Shortages

Privately-owned restaurants are gobbling up the country’s vegetables

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Cuba Poised For New Realities As Diplomatic Ties With U.S. Are Restored Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

The warming of relations between the United States government and Cuba this year created a boom in tourism for the island country. Cruise liners traveling from Miami began docking in Havana in May and the first commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba in more than 50 years landed in the island nation on November 28. But not everyone is seeing the benefits from a growing number of foreign visitors.

The New York Times reports that food in Cuba is becoming scarce and expensive — in part due to the massive growth in tourism. In a country where supplies were already scarce, Cubans are now seeing their onions, green peppers, and avocados get gobbled up by privately-owned restaurants catering to travelers.

State-run markets in recent weeks have reportedly been sold out of items like tomatoes, lettuce, and pineapples while the more loosely regulated co-op markets that sell to restaurants are well-stocked with vegetables, herbs, and spices. “Almost all of our buyers are paladares [private restaurants],” says co-op vendor Ruben Martínez. “They are the ones who can afford to pay more for the quality.”

The number of privately owned restaurants has grown sharply over the last five years thanks to free market reforms ushered in during 2011. Prior to that, restaurants were strictly state-owned and operated. Where once there were only 100 restaurants there are now more than 1,600 on the island.

Privately-owned operations are also experiencing barriers to purchasing ingredients for menus. With no wholesale purveyors or bulk-buying options in Cuba, everything must be purchased at market rate. It’s further complicated by the fact that the government doesn’t recognize private restaurants in a way that allows owners to import ingredients or equipment from abroad.

According to the Times, the Cuban government has made moves to curb the growth of Havana’s restaurant industry by pausing the issuing of licenses in the city, though some argue that doesn’t resolve the real problem. “It’s true, the prices keep going up and up,” says Laura Fernandez, manager of the high-end restaurant El Cocinero. “But that’s not just the fault of the private sector. There is generally a lot of chaos and disorder in the market.”

Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Keeps Food Off Residents’ Plates [NYT]
What It's Like to Run a Restaurant in Cuba [E]
All Cuba Coverage [E]